Prevention Strategies That Work

Achieving Behaving Caring (ABC) Project


Contact: Pam Kay
School Research Office
Department of Education
88 University Heights
University of Vermont
Burlington, VT 05405-0160


Martha Fitzgerald and Pam Kay direct the Achieving Behaving Caring Project (grant number: H237F50036). The Achieving Behaving Caring project has studied parent-teacher action research (PTAR) facilitated by Parent Liaisons. PTAR teams meet for the purpose of supporting children in the first and second grades who had shown soft signs of emotional and/or behavioral problems in Kindergarten. Parent-teacher action research is a collaborative model for developing consonance between home and school. Parent Liaisons from the local community coordinate and facilitate regular communication between parents and teachers.

About the Intervention

With the action research approach, parents and teachers set mutual goals for the child's progress during the school year. Then they use the systematic structure of an action research cycle to observe the child, reflect on their observations, develop their practical theories about what the child needs, and plan actions that they will take at home and at school. They observe the outcomes of their actions and continue the action research cycle as their meeting agenda throughout the year, meeting as often as necessary.

Parent-teacher action research helps to establish a new working relationship between parents and teachers that ultimately benefits the child. Setting mutual goals and carrying out joint action plans provides greater consistency between home and school. Observation and reflection yield new knowledge about the child that helps both teachers and parents improve their practices.

Parents who have difficulty communicating with teachers can learn to do so more easily when supported by peers. Parent Liaisons are used in the ABC project to assist communications between participating parents and teachers in a nonjudgmental way.

Parent Liaisons are paraprofessionals, preferably from the community, who play a medial role between parents and teachers. Often Parent Liaisons are themselves parents who have worked through similar issues with their own children.

Parent Liaisons are chosen for their ability to listen and talk easily with both parents and teachers. They bridge the cultures of home and school, explaining each to the parent and teacher in clear, comprehensible terms. They may facilitate face-to-face meetings, support either parents or teachers in taking action, and refer families to appropriate community services. Parent Liaisons will eventually remove themselves from the picture once parents feel empowered to maintain communication with teachers on their own.

Parent Liaisons help ensure feelings of equality between parents and teachers through such means as holding meetings on neutral ground (neither home or school), having parents speak first in meetings, and helping parents and teachers address each other in a similar fashion (e.g., both using either formal or first names alike). They also model the behaviors of an empowered member of the community.

Implementation of the Intervention

Administrators should invite teachers to participate who are willing to work with parents as equals and fellow practitioners. Teachers who are familiar with PTAR and who already have established positive relationships with parents can implement PTAR with parents. However, the ABC project has found that  Parent Liaisons can enhance the process by serving as facilitators. Additionally, Parent Liaisons help teachers and parents who may not have experience and/or a comfort level working as equals.

Administrators should decide whether to employ and supervise Parent Liaisons through the school district or whether to approach another community entity, such as a Parent-Child Center, to fund and supervise the positions. Generally, Parent Liaisons are more successful when they are employed by an agency other than the school. This is because some parents may fear or distrust school personnel and also because Parent Liaisons may need to follow families as they move from school to school.

Supervision is essential. Parent Liaisons require firm, yet flexible, supervision to help them maintain appropriate boundaries and confidentiality, remain positive in their dealings with parents and teachers, and make timely decisions about referrals to other agencies. They also need recognition which does not diminish the accomplishments of the families themselves.

The categories of cost associated with introducing and sustaining this practice are:

* Recruitment, training, and supervision of Parent Liaisons.

* Hourly wages, telephone, travel and supplies, and appropriate fringes for Parent Liaisons. [If Parent Liaisons are based in an outside agency, then include costs connected with communication between that agency and school administrators.]

* Teacher time for meetings and other communication.

* Time and resources to train teachers and parents in the action-research approach.

Introducing the Intervention

Teachers and parents are taught the action research technique. They learn a process for describing the child in positive terms and identifying what is puzzling to them about the child's behavior. They also learn the following ground rules that enhance collaboration at meetings. 1) Parents always speak first. 2) Everyone is free to pass or stop their turn to speak at any time. 3) All ideas are written down in the words of the speaker. 4) The child's attributes are to be described in words which are as positive as possible.

Concurrently, the teaching staff should be briefed about the purpose of Parent Liaisons.

Next, administrators need to recruit potential Parent Liaisons. Teachers and other school professionals suggest soliciting parents or other family members who represent the culture of the local community and who are known for their ability to communicate well with the school. Other sources can be tapped for names, such as Parent-to-Parent and Head Start. The local parent-teacher group also may be contacted if its membership represents the frequently underserved groups within the community.

Parent Liaisons will need training. Once trained, Parent Liaisons approach families to invite them to participate. In the ABC project, between 90-94% of the families approached agreed willingly. Although there was a stipend involved in the research project, Parent Liaisons estimate that money was a decisive factor for only a few families. In fact, several families commented that they would willingly  pay for the services offered by the project.

From this point, action-research meetings are scheduled between families and teachers.

Supporting Implementation

Teachers need time on an ongoing basis to meet with parents and communicate with the Parent Liaison. Time for these meetings represents the major cost of this component.

In addition, both parents and teachers need recognition for their efforts and their results, without singling out the child as a problem they have solved.

Finally, costs associated with the Parent Liaisons must also be included. Due to the nature of the work and significant time commitment, Parent Liaisons should be paid.

The ABC project found several barriers that impede the success of parent-teacher action research. The major barriers were:

* Inconvenient meeting times.

* Difficulty treating some parents as equals and seeing them as capable of carrying out the practices at home.

* Difficulty of some parents in acting as equals with teachers.

*Data collection that CAN BE time-consuming for both parents and teachers.

These barriers were offset when parents and teachers learned to listen to one another and to see the value of their collaboration. Overall, the ABC project found that once logistical matters were addressed (e.g., time to meet), few barriers remained. Most barriers were offset by the degree of the child's growth and the increase in positive attitudes on the part of parents.


Because many students who need social skills instruction learn best in the general education classroom where teachers and peers can reinforce their learning regularly, the ABC project works with general education classroom teachers to deliver social skills instruction.

Students and their parents respond best if the curriculum, instructional approaches, and expectations are similar over time. For maximum benefit, the same curriculum needs to be used in at least the two grades; schoolwide implementation is preferable. In the ABC project, participating general educators select a social skills curriculum that they will implement in their classes. Generally, lessons are presented twice a week for at least 15-20 minutes, from October through May. Teachers also send materials home to all parents on a regular basis.

Teachers are more likely to adopt a new practice if they are given a choice about curriculum. Classroom teachers in the first and second grades choose the social skills program that they will use. The entire staff needs the opportunity to discuss and identify:

* Their students' needs to learn specific social skills.

* Their own needs to improve student behaviors.

* A variety of curricula that meet both of these needs, stated in the simplest possible terms.

Once a curriculum has been chosen, the school needs to offer the appropriate in-service training opportunities to all staff, including the custodial and other support staff.


Effectiveness was demonstrated by decreases in problem behavior and increases in adaptive behavior during the period of intervention.  Specifically, we compared behavioral ratings from the fall of grade 1 at the start of intervention, and the spring of grade 2 at the end of intervention.  Behavioral ratings were obtained from three perspectives:  teachers, parents and independent observers.


On the Teacher Rating Form, teachers reported significant reductions in both internalizing behavior and delinquent behavior over time for those students who received social skills instruction and whose parent participated in the PTAR process (hereafter indicated as ‘PTAR + social skills group'). Their improvements were greater than those students who received social skills instruction without the PTAR intervention.   Teachers also reported a significant overall reduction in withdrawn behavior over the two year period across both groups.

Additionally, teachers reported significant gains over the two year period in competent behaviors.  Across both groups, increases were reported for SSRS-T total social skills, cooperation, assertiveness, and self-control.


Parents of PTAR+social skills children  reported significant reductions in total problems (CBCL), delinquent behavior (CBCL) and externalizing behavior (SSRS-P) over time compared with parents of social skills only children.  Across both groups, parents also reported significant overall reductions in CBCL internalizing, externalizing, withdrawn, thought problems and aggressive behavior, and SSRS-P total problems and hyperactive behavior over the two year period.

Additionally, parents of PTAR+social skills children observed significant increases in competent behavior over time compared with parents of social skills only children.   Greater gains for PTAR children were observed for SSRS-P cooperation and self-control, and CBCL total competence.

Finally, the PTAR families reported a greater sense of empowerment in obtaining school-based services for their children over the two year period compared to control families.


Independent observers who did not know the children and were kept blind to their group assignment provide further evidence of effectiveness.  Observers rated PTAR+social skills children significantly lower on internalizing, nervous/obsessive and depressed behavior over time, and rated the social skills only children higher on all of these scales over time.

The ABC project has documented the close connection between the Parent Liaison's role and changes in parent attitudes and behaviors. To date, 95% of the parents with whom the Parent Liaisons worked stayed with the project, often despite changes of school.

About Project Field Sites

The ABC project field tested the intervention in New England rural elementary schools.   Approximately 10% of the total school populations were eligible for special education. The mean percentage of children in all the schools who were eligible for free or reduced school lunch was 37%. The schools were located it towns in which 14% of adults had less than a 9th grade education, and approximately 25% of adults had less than a GED level education.

Project Offerings

Staff members provide training and technical assistance. Several reports are available from the project:

  * Kay, P.J. (1997). Parents + teachers + action research = real involvement. TEACHING Exceptional Children, 30, 8-11.

* Kay, P.J., Fitzgerald, M.F. & McConaughy, S.H. (2001). Building effective parent-teacher partnerships. In R. Algozzine & P.J. Kay (Eds.) Preventing Problem Behaviors: A Handbook of Successful Prevention Strategies. (pp.104-125). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

  * McConaughy, S.H., Kay, P.J., & Fitzgerald, M. (1998). Preventing SED through parent-teacher action research and social skills instruction: First-year outcomes. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, 6, 81-93.

  * McConaughy, S.H., Kay, P.J., & Fitzgerald, M. (1999). The achieving behaving caring project for preventing ED: Two-year outcomes. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders.

* McConaughy, S.H., Kay, P.J., & Fitzgerald, M. (2000). How long is enough? Outcomes for a school-based prevention project. Exceptional Children, 67, 1-14.

* Ryan, A.K., Kay, P.J., Fitzgerald, M., Paquette, S., & Sonya Smith. (2001). Kyle: A case study in parent-teacher action research. Teaching Exceptional Children, 33(3), 56-61.


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