Relationships: the key to positive support for parents with learning difficulties

Beth Tarleton, Research Fellow from the Norah Fry Research Centre in Bristol, conducted an evaluation of the Valuing Parents Support Service, a specialist support service for parents with learning difficulties in Medway, Kent. Here she describes some of the key findings from her evaluation.


The number of parents with learning difficulties is increasing and although estimates vary, the numbers of parents with learning difficulties involved with the child protection system is disproportionately high.[1] Professionals may be concerned about the welfare of children due possible neglect by omission in families where the parents do not know how to care for their children appropriately and do not have the right support in place to help them. Parents may not have had positive parenting role models or experience of looking after children through babysitting etc. They may also struggle to access parenting support due to a lack of information in an easy to read format, and for fear of their children being removed from their care if they reveal that they are facing difficulties with their parenting. Parents with learning difficulties also often struggle with a wide range of social difficulties, such as living in poor housing, having poor social networks and being subject to harassment. They may have had difficult childhoods themselves and may also struggle with additional difficulties, such as mental health support needs.[2],[3]

Research has shown that there are a number of ways in which parents with learning difficulties can be supported to be better parents. Parents need early and pro-active positive support, and also advocacy when involved with child protection proceedings.[4][5][6]

A specialist service

The Valuing Parents Support Service (VPSS) is a specialist service, funded and supported by both adults and children's services. [7] It aims to provide holistic assessment, intervention and support to parents with learning disabilities with children below eight years of age. The team provides individualised support, including assisting with everyday needs, such as budgeting and the development of parenting skills. The team help parents to understand and engage with parenting issues and provide advocacy to help them engage with children's services. The staff also support parents to access mainstream family support services, such as children's centres, as well as other more specific support services, such as domestic violence and substance abuse services or the housing department.

The evaluation

The evaluation of the service, carried out in 2011, used a variety of methods. These included discussions with twelve parents with learning difficulties who had been supported by the service. There was one meeting for parents who still cared for their children and another meeting for parents whose children were no longer in their care. These meetings discussed how the VPSS had actually supported parents.

Two group interviews were held with a total of seven professionals who were in contact with the service. These interviews focused on: the support offered by the service; any improvements that could be made; the impact of the service on other professionals and the services they provided, as well as any impact the service had on the costs to other services. A telephone interview, based on the expert panel questions, was undertaken with one foster carer who was unable to attend the expert panel. Two additional professionals provided written responses to the issues discussed in the expert panels. A group interview discussing the same areas was also undertaken with five staff from the VPSS service.

A Matching Needs and Services (MNS) audit was also undertaken with staff from the VPSS team and the co-located assessment centre. This audit analysed the needs of all the parents with learning difficulties currently supported by the VPSS team and a representative sample of parents who had been assessed by the assessment team. In addition, financial information was collected from the professionals during the interviews and used in an economic evaluation.

VPSS was found to provide excellent support both to parents and to the professionals involved with them. Everyone we spoke to praised the relationships and support offered to parents with learning difficulties.

Professionals described the service in a variety of ways, such as 'excellent', 'very valuable', 'invaluable', and 'brilliant'. They felt it was 'filling the gap' through providing 'quality input' to meet the parents' needs in order that that they could do the best for their children. The Matching Needs and Services audit also found that children whose parents were supported by VPSS had better outcomes.[8]

All of the participants in the evaluation discussed the commitment of the team and the relationships they developed both with parents and the other professionals involved with them. The team developed relationships with the parents themselves, supported the parents to engage with other professionals and worked in a supported and respected way with the wide range of professionals often involved with families. The rest of this paper discusses these three levels of relationship which underpinned support provided by the VPSS team.

Relationships with parents

At the time of evaluation, the VPSS team was led by a social worker who also had nursing and health visitor experience, and included family support workers with a range of working experience. Parents report developing really positive relationships with the committed team members. They said the team members were approachable and honest, and helped them to develop the parenting and household skills that they lacked. The parents described the staff as kind, committed, supportive and there when they need them.

Someone to tell your worries to. 

When necessary, the workers challenged the parents regarding the way they cared for their children, as well as about personal issues, such as anger, poor self esteem, the need to develop the confidence and strength to leave abusive relationships. The workers helped them to get support to overcome these issues.

The positive relationships between the parents and workers were recognised by the wide range of professionals involved including child protection social workers. Professionals from other services also recognised that whilst supporting the parents VPSS workers ensured that the welfare of the children was paramount. The professionals felt that the parents' view of VPSS staff meant that:

They can talk to them about anything and feel they're not going to be judged, that they're not going to be dismissed, that they're there to help them.

The professionals felt that the VPSS team “can make a connection in a different way” (from services concerned directly with the welfare of their children) and that this positive relationship impacted on the parents' ability to succeed. The team's relationship with parents was regarded as “another arm to work with from a different angle”. As one child protection professional noted:

This allows you to get on with doing your job without just getting stuck in a cycle with a parent who is persistent about feeling hostile, feeling angry, being stuck on what went on previously”.

The support provided by the VPSS team had also enabled child protection workers to withdraw from cases, as they trusted the workers to support the parent appropriately and report any concerns regarding the welfare of the children to them.

Relationships with other professionals

The professionals praised the VPSS team's professionalism and positive interdisciplinary working, noting that the team kept in regular contact with other services and that there was a 'good rapport' between professionals from different backgrounds. The team were said to be: “really helpful from the word go”.

The VPSS team had 'built such huge links for adults and children's services working together' and worked closely with midwives, health visitors and schools. The support provided by the VPSS team was viewed by child protection workers as central to their ability to work positively with parents with learning difficulties and the involvement of VPSS had become “really vital to some of the [child protection] plans that have been in place”.

Supporting parents to relate to other professionals

Parents valued the support provided by the VPSS team, which enabled them attend local mainstream services and develop wider social networks. Professionals also appreciated the skilled way in which VPSS workers supported parents to engage with mainstream services, acting like friends or members of the family when accompanying them to groups in venues such as children's centres. They also supported parents when they were involved with child protection proceedings. One parent said: “Knowing you have someone in court or at the solicitor's helps, an extra support, more power. I couldn't go in there on my own.


As observed in the VPSS team, a key lesson for practice appears to be about working at three levels of relationship. Individual staff had positive relationships with the parents; they supported the parent to engage with other services rather than 'resist'. The VPSS is a service which models the good practice discussed in the Good practice guidance on working with parents with learning disabilities.[9] It works in line with the 'Think Family' ethos[10] that parents' and children's needs should be considered together, and appropriate support should be provided to the whole family. Staff running the service are part of the Working Together with Parents Network, which promotes the type of positive practice which, unfortunately, is not currently shared by the majority of children's and adults' services around the UK. There are, however a range of examples of positive practice in Finding the right support? [11] and in a book of success stories produced by the network.[12]


[1] ASSID Special Interest Research Group on Parents and Parenting with Intellectual Disabilities. 2008. Parents labelled with Intellectual Disability: Position of the IASSID SIRG on Parents and Parenting with Intellectual Disabilities. Journal of Applied Research in Intellectual Disabilities, 21, 296-307.

[2] Cleaver H, and Nicholson, D. 2008. Parental learning disability and children' needs: family experiences and effective practice. Jessica Kingsley

[3] Tarleton B, Ward L. and Howarth J. 2006. Finding the right support. A review of issues and positive practice in supporting parents with learning difficulties and their children. Baring Foundation, London.

[4] Tarleton B, Ward L. and Howarth J. 2006. Finding the right support. A review of issues and positive practice in supporting parents with learning difficulties and their children. Baring Foundation, London.

[5] SCIE. 2005. Helping parents with learning disabilities in their role as parents.

[6] McGaw S and Newman T. 2005. What works for parents with learning disabilities? Barnardos, Ilford.

[7] Tarleton B, Porter S, Brown L and Davis L. 2011. Evaluation of the Valuing Parents Support Service. Norah Fry Research Centre, Bristol.

[8] Tarleton B and Porter S. 2012. Crossing no man's land: a specialist support service for parents with learning disabilities. Child and Family Social Work Vol 17, page 233-243.

[9] Department of Health and Department for Education and Skills. 2007. Good practice guidance in working with parents with learning disabilities. Her Majesty's Stationery Office Limited (HMSO), London.

[10] Social Exclusion Taskforce. 2007. Reaching out: Think Family. Cabinet Office, London.

[11] Tarleton B, Ward L. and Howarth J. 2006. Finding the right support. A review of issues and positive practice in supporting parents with learning difficulties and their children. Baring Foundation, London.

[12] Working Together with Parents Network. 2009. Supporting parents with learning disabilities and difficulties – stories of positive practice. Norah Fry Research Centre, Bristol.

Published: 30 June 2013


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