Features: February 24th, 2012

The life chances of children are directly related to the quality of parenting. This article explains how parenting skills can be improved to increase the attainment level of pre-school children.

In Gosport, children’s attainment is below the national average. Little Waves Children’s Centre and Woodward Lewis used “Positive Deviance” facilitation to address the problem from within the community. By mobilising a group of mums, who got together to learn from each other on how to overcome barriers to their child’s learning and development, a new support group has been established and practical methods to addressing the problem are being disseminated throughout the community.
The impetus for the programme came from the 2009 Children’s attainment results, which showed attainment in Hampshire as low when compared to the rest of the UK. Children in the pre-school age group scored just 51.8%. The Gosport district of Hampshire scored the lowest at only 41.8%, 10% lower than the rest of the country.

Positive Deviants hold the key to addressing deep-rooted problems successfully and sustainably. The Positive Deviance approach was introduced to the UK by Woodward Lewis, a social enterprise. Its origins lie in a Save the Children programme that sought to eradicate childhood malnutrition in villages in Vietnam, with limited budget. Jane Lewis was trained in the approach by the founder, Jerry Sternin.

Positive deviance facilitation creates behaviour change in communities. “Unusual suspect” volunteers define and measure a problem to work on and a measurable desired outcome, find people already in the community who have solved the problem and then enable others in the community to try out and reinforce the new coping behaviours. It is not just a process– its underlying mind-set respects all participants and assumes the best of them. Leaders emerge from the group and the group itself bonds and grows in confidence. Solutions tend to be unexpected and highly practical.

Jez Edwards, one of the mums on an initial PD programme in Gosport was trained as a facilitator. She, was offered the chance of four two-hour sessions over four weeks. Little Waves provided a crèche for three of the sessions, and Woodward Lewis mentored and sponsored Jez through the programme.

She devised a four-stage programme to match the four active stages of positive deviance and, again with the help of Little Waves, set out to recruit her own group to go through it.

Jez found the traditional ways of recruiting volunteers, such as leaflets and advertisements, left her with no volunteers the week before the programme was due to start. She therefore used her social networking expertise to put the word out on Facebook. How she did it was important – she used her status and her own network, and they passed the word on to their contacts. By the first session, she had eight participants, who between them had fourteen young children under five, including three sets of twins.

Having a framework that allowed the group flexibility

Jez planned the PD stages in outline. As she had a very short time-frame to work with she developed the “Speed PD” approach. As the group defined the problem to work on, and then discovered the coping strategies, she had no idea exactly what the content for each session would be, but the framework could contain and focus it, and give a sense of direction and pace for participants.

The first session was to discuss children’s attainment, the fact that Gosport’s outcomes were not as good as the rest of Hampshire and low in comparison to the UK average, and to see what the parents wanted to do better to support their children to achieve. They brainstormed all the possible areas, which included sleep patterns, nutrition, reading, and were asked to select the area to focus on, which turned out to be “how to be an engaged parent”. When the mums interviewed each other, they settled on play as a priority, and discovered that all of them had anxieties about messy play. “I felt really guilty that I found playing with the twins boring” said one mum.

What is different about “speed PD” from other programmes?

Delivery – content and style

Positive Deviance enabled the mums to feel in control. It is a group-led activity; so ”professionals” are not stipulating the focus and activities. They were able to choose the focus and practise what they had learned together. The feedback shows that they liked learning from others just like them. Jez only facilitated and guided, and made the sessions fun by adding games and exercises. She never actually told the mums how to do messy play – this came out of the questioning exercises. Each group member contributed some ideas and experience.

The other important aspect was actually putting learning into practice – doing play together encouraged all the mothers to participate actively and also helped to share the load of clearing up.

Measurable outputs and outcomes to date

One key output is that all eight mums attended all the way through to the end – no one dropped out. At least five of the eight mums are going on to do other courses at Children’s Centres. It is probably no surprise that the issues the mums wanted to focus on were very similar to the Government guidelines – so this programme helped them implement several of them including praise and play. It also helped with the Early Years Foundation Stage themes, such as Parents as Partners, the Learning Environment, Active Learning, Creativity and Critical Thinking. The event was inclusive and safe.

The children demonstrated better behaviour and self-control and played well with others. Jez measured a number of factors during the course of the programme, including confidence and changes in attitude towards the child. She also planned a follow-up session to check progress in the October half-term week and conducted an interim, on-line survey to check the impact during early October. Feedback has been incredibly positive. The group have bonded and have met together since. They continue to keep Woodward Lewis updated with photos of them doing messy play after the event. One of the mums has joined the parents’ board of the centre.

The benefits of Positive Deviance to the mums

All enjoyed the process of discovery and would like to move forward to use the approach for other issues they face. It built personal confidence and they felt the programme was fun, empowering, engaging and challenging, but most importantly relaxed within their peer group. It has built a closer community group and the children have all progressed with a different and more positive behaviour.

The benefits of Positive Deviance to Little Waves

The Positive Deviance programme has narrowed a gap that has a strong influence on attainment and life chances for the children. This is one of Little Waves’ aims. It has encouraged those who don’t like “official” courses to get involved in the centre, bringing them in from the periphery. The PD programme supports the Centre’s priorities of assisting parents to learn to be first educators and helped the parents learn how to do several of the Government “5 a day” parenting practices.


John Robinson, the Centre manager said: “At Little Waves, we consistently strive to raise awareness of the importance of positive parenting and parent child interaction from the very earliest moments of a child’s life. Jez has found an effective way of spreading good parenting practice that will influence not only the parents’ confidence and self-esteem but ultimately the attainment and life chances of their children”.

This course benefits all the key stakeholders: it helps us adapt the community coaching approach to the UK culture, it helps Children’s Centres to offer another kind of peer support in a structured but flexible way, and it helps parents who don’t like formal courses and who might feel insecure in a class environment. Its format can be replicated for other issues and priorities.

Jane Lewis, Woodward Lewis, says: “ By the end of the programme, we found ourselves with very capable individuals; capable of creating change for not only their own children’s benefit, but at presenting ideas to the wider community. It shows that, with the correct encouragement and armed with the correct tools, community members have the wisdom and ability to create change.

Jane continues: “Most people tend to resist imposed standards. It is far easier to learn and accept change from your peers, than from academics or experts who seem “not like us”. The feedback from the group – and the fact that no one dropped out – shows how important it was to them that Jez was a mum like them. This method puts emphasis on people, and learning from each other, giving them a voice. It uses existing wisdom, within limited resources. This Positive Deviance programme has proved how capable the community is at dealing with its own problems.”

For more information, go to Woodward Lewis