Incredible Years Series theoretical based intervention programme

A promising intervention programme should be theoretical and evidence-based. The Incredible Years programme, a well-designed and comprehensive intervention package, has strong theoretical grounds (Webster-Stratton et al., 2001). It was originally invented to treat early onset conduct problems among young children (Webster-Stratton, 2000), then was revised to prevent conduct problems by promoting social competence universally (Webster-Stratton, Reid & Stoolmiller, 2008). Children who display high rates of anti-social behavior or aggression are at risk of developing conduct problems (Webster-Stratton & Reid, 2009b). It is found that these children experience more peer rejection and non-supportive comments from teachers (Carr, Taylor & Robinson, 1991; Webster-Stratton & Reid, 2002), and as a result, they dislike going to school and may display more negative emotions and behaviors (Birch & Ladd, 1997). This is a vicious cycle which The Incredible Years Series are aiming to bring it to an end.

The Incredible Years programme is not only targeting on children, but also the factors that contribute to the cause of such conduct problems. Webster-Stratton (2005) suggested that a disorganized home environment, ineffective parenting and teachers’ lack of instrumental classroom management skills were all provocative. Although it is believed that parental influence on children’s social development is the most prominent (Webster-Stratton et al., 2001), past research showed that parent training might not be effective enough, as the children only made short-term improvement at home, but not at school (Gresham, 1998; Taylor & Biglan, 1998). Therefore, a multi-faceted intervention project that includes trainings for parents, teachers and children is designed (Webster-Stratton, Reid & Hammond, 2004). The Incredible Years Series was compared and evaluated against single or paired training programmes; longitudinal results indicated that the children’s improvement in the integrated training series were longer-lasting and could sustain beyond the training setting (Webster-Stratton & Hammond, 1997; Webster-Stratton, Reid & Hammond, 2001; Webster-Stratton, Reid & Stoolmiller, 2008).

The Incredible Years Series that address multi-levelled risk factors are strongly supported by a number of theories. In the following, I shall briefly introduce the underlying theories, following by an extensive discussion on how these theoretical underpinnings are applied to the training programmes and the method of delivery.

Theoretical underpinnings


According to the theory of operant conditioning, human being’s behavior is contingent upon the consequences (Butterworth & Harris, 1994). Behavior is likely to be reproduced if reinforcement follows (Baer, Wolf & Risely, 1968). The presentation of reinforcement not only serves the informative function to indicate the appropriateness of certain actions (Bandura, 1977), but also serves the motivational functioning that increases the probability of future production (Bolles, 1979).

Children’s development is closely linked to their experiences of reinforcement. It was found that children whose parents who did not reinforce their social skills were weaker in establishing friendly relationships (Patterson & Dishion, 1985). In classroom setting, appropriate use of praise and reward improves children’s classroom behavior (Pfiffner, Rosen, & O’Leary, 1985) and a consistent punishment system is also effective in reducing undesirable behaviors (Pfiffner & O’Leary, 1987).

The behavioral approach explains aggression as a result of external reinforcement. Bandura (1973) proposes that by acting aggressively, some children may gain approval, power, or enhancement in self-image that reinforces them to continue.

Social learning theory

In agreement with the behaviorists, social learning theorists also believe in the importance of environmental stimuli (e.g. reinforcement), but it is proposed that personal determinants cannot be ignored (Bandura, 1977). Human behaviors are seen as an outcome of the reciprocal interactions between the persons and their surroundings (Webster-Stratton & Reid, 2009b).

Bandura (1977) believes that learning can occur without personally experiencing the action and its consequences. He suggests that most children learn to use aggression through modeling. The sources can be very diverse, ranging from the mass media, peers in schools, to parents’ aggressive punishment.

It was discovered that children with parents who had bad marital relationship had higher probability of developing conduct disorders (Webster-Stratton, 1996). The social learning theory provides a justified reason: when parents are openly criticizing each other, displaying hostility, or producing aggressive behaviors, children observe and learn to use these coercive tactics to solve conflicts (Patterson, Reid, Jones & Conger, 1975).

Bandura (1989) also proposed the idea of self-efficacy. It is defined as the personal evaluation of one’s ability to accomplish a certain task (Harter, 1993, Kanfer & Zeiss, 1983). It is believed that human beings have an innate tendency to strive for social self-efficacy with the parents, and would be discouraged if not successful (Heydenberk & Heydenberk, 2007).

Perceived self-efficacy influences people’s actions and beliefs, and also one’s persistence in difficult times (Bandura & Adams, 1977). For people who have high self-efficacy in social aspects, they expect success in forming and maintaining positive relationship with the others. For people who have low social self-efficacy, they might have experienced failures in interpersonal aspects before (Webster-Stratton & Lindsay, 1999). They judge themselves as socially incompetent and put less effort in forming social relationships.

Self-efficacy stems from successful experiences, vicarious learning and verbal persuasion (Bandura & Adams, 1977). One’s own expectation of the probability to get contingent reinforcement (Kanfer & Zeiss, 1983) and also the significant others’ expectations is crucial for the development of self-efficacy (Cooley, 1902). Children understand what their parents or teachers are expecting from them through verbal or non-verbal means (Webster-Stratton, 2006). If they then act according to what others expect from them, they will be contingent to the others’ expectations, it is called the self-filling prophecy (e.g. (Lee & Bishop, 2008; Strassberg, 1995). The lower the teacher’s expectations on their students, the less motivation the students have (e.g. Chung & Westwood, 2001; Jussim, 1989; Wigfield & Harold, 1992). But it is hopeful that children can benefit a lot too when the teachers increase their support and expectations on them (Webster-Stratton, Reid & Hammond, 2004).

Theory of the “coercive process”

The coercive hypothesis generated by Patterson (1982) can be regarded as an extension and integration of behaviorism and social learning theory. It starts with a social interactional perspective and considers children’s aggressive behavior as a product of repeated coercive interactions between a dyad that are created and maintained by the positive and negative reinforcement (Mesman, et al., 2008). Both members of the dyad should be responsible for the undesirable outcome (Webster-Stratton, 2000).

The coercive model sees the importance of parents’ and teachers’ interactions with the children. Continuous negative reinforcement and modeling escalates both the children’s and the parents’/ teachers’ coercive attitudes and behaviors (Patterson, Reid, Jones & Conger, 1975). A reinforcement trap occurs when one member of the conflicting pair gives up during the coercive interaction (Webster-Stratton, 2005). From the viewpoint of the member who insists, this can be seen as a negative reinforcement and would encourage him/her to use such coercive tactics again (Webster-Stratton & Hancock, 1998). The other member also learns by observation and modelling to escalate their aversive behaviors to avoid further ‘failures’. So, the intensity of aggression increases and accumulates after every conflict (Patterson & Dishion, 1985). And children may generalize such pattern of conflict managements to other contexts.

Parents fall into the reinforcement trap because of their non-contingent parenting skills and ineffective disciplinary strategies to deal with coercive behaviors (Patterson & Dishion, 1985). To decrease aggression, one must change the coercive process by stopping the negative reinforcement. Parents and teachers can be taught using more effective and positive discipline methods and no longer triggers children’s aggressive behaviors, and change theirs by modeling.

Attachment theory

Bowlby’s (1997) attachment theory emphasizes the importance of a positive parent-child relationship. It is found that children who have a loving and trusting relationship with a major caregiver are more socially competent (Lee, 1990), while children who experience hostile contacts from parents lack emotional regulatory and conflict-management strategies (Webster-Stratton, 2005).

By using the strange situation, four types of attachment styles can be identified, namely secure, insecure-avoidant, insecure-ambivalent and insecure-disorganized (Van Ijzendoorn, Bakermans-Kranenburg & Sagi-Schwartz, 2006). The attachment pattern highly affects how one thinks and feels (Cummings-Robeau, Lopez & Rice, 2009) and has enormous influence on interpersonal functioning (Collins, 1996). Insecure attachment may develop when the parents are being inconsistent, rejecting and insensitive to children’s needs (Webster-Stratton & Reid, 2009b). Children with this type of attachment may have higher level of aggression and greater difficulty expressing their feelings and trusting the others (Fagot, 1997). In contrast, securely attached children possess greater social skills (e.g. Schneider, Atkinson & Tardif, 2001; Weinfield, Scoufe, Egeland & Carlson, 1999) and feel safe to explore the world as they trust their parents (Juffer, Bakermans-Kranenburg & van IJzendoorn, 2008b). better social competence (e.g. Schneider, Atkinson & Tardif, 2001; Weinfield, Scoufe, Egeland & Carlson, 1999).

As the kind of attachment formed is closely linked to the parenting skills and parental sensitivity (Bakermans-Kranenburg et al., 2008), Incredible Years aims to improve those elements so as to alter the attachment pattern. Moreover, the attachment theory can also be applied to the teacher-child relationship, as children also have a lot of contact with teachers (Birch & Ladd, 1997).

The Incredible Years Programme

Based on the above theories, Webster-Stratton (1981) developed three interlocking programmes, targeting at the parents, teachers and children to promote social competence.

Parent training

The parent series is the most important one (Webster-Stratton et al., 2001), with four sub-sections designed for promoting different skills and accommodating children of different age groups.

One of the heaviest elements in this series is the training of parenting skills. In line with the underlying behavioral theory, parents are taught the effective use of reinforcement and punishment. In order to encourage children’s exhibition of prosocial behaviors, parents make good use of reinforcers. They are guided to create a hierarchy of reinforcement that is tailor-made for their own children. Examples of powerful reinforcers are social rewards like attention, smiles and hug and social activities like going to beach together (Neville, Beak & King, 1995). The way parents administer the reinforcements is very crucial – they have to make sure that the reward is immediate and contingent to specific favorable behaviors; and also, children should receive the rewards together with labeled praise. Moreover, parents are reminded that materialistic rewards like money and toys may apparently seem to be incredible reinforcers, but their effectiveness may not be very long-lasting. This kind of tangible rewards is better used at times when children achieve a particular goal that is clearly defined beforehand (Webster-Stratton & Herbert, 1994).

Conversely, to reduce children’s aversive behaviors, parents are trained to use a wide range of methods depending on the intensity and type of misbehaviors. Examples are removing existing reinforcements like “ignoring” and “timeout”, and rewarding alternative positive behaviors (Neville, Beak & King, 1995). Parents are taught not to argue and shout with the children during conflicts, as those naggings are also reinforcing, as they are parental attention. Yet, using “ignoring” is not easy, as parents have to be consistent and determined to neglect the child until the unwanted behavior vanishes (Webster-Stratton, 2006). Or else, parents would have been fallen into the reinforcement trap, as suggested by Patterson’s (1982) coercive model. “Timeout” is another good strategy if used probably as it gives both the parents and the children a cooling period. Children are kept isolated for a while, and are deprived of any possible reinforcement, including parents’ attention (Webster-Stratton & Herbert, 1994). Using these methods can reduce children’s coerciveness, model children the peaceful way of managing conflicts and still to remain a trusting parent-child relationship. No matter it is the administration of rewards or punishments, one rule that parents must follow is to be consistent. Previous research studies show that unpredictable parenting style seriously affects the parent-child bonding and makes children feel insecure and frustrated (Lee, 1990).

To manage discipline, both reinforcements and punishments may be needed (Pfiffner & O’Leary, 1987). The latter one should be used as last resort (Neville, Beak & King, 1995), as punishments may trigger children’s anger, create tension and model unwanted, aggressive behaviors to them. Moreover, punishing for a bad behavior does not give children ideas what an appropriate behavior is. To prevent using punishments, one of the best ways is to set limits. Parents can set clear, realistic and positive goals with the children (Webster-Stratton, 2005). With limit setting, coercive process of aggression can be prevented, and children’s experience of reaching goals or keeping within the limits reinforces them, and enhances their social self-efficacy (Webser-Stratton & Reid, 2007). According to the expectancy theory, when children recognize that parents have high but reasonable expectations on them, their self-confidence is enhanced and self-fulfilling prophecy predicts that they will try hard to act accordingly.

To enhance children’s self-esteem, the support from parents is essential (Harter, 1993). According to Bandura (1977), one’s self-efficacy can be improved by verbal persuasion. Parents should view their children in a positive way, accept their weakness and encourage them to think positively about themselves (Webster-Stratton, 2006). For elder kids, parents can try to involve them more in family meetings, limit settings, or any other activities can require collaborative decisions (Coopersmith, 1967), so that children have more opportunities to express themselves and they might feel confident as becoming a contributor in the family (Webster-Stratton, 2000).

The ADVANCE parent training programme focuses on the parents’ interpersonal skills. It is found that parents who have poor communicate skills and anger management strategies are more likely to have children who suffer from conduct problem (Webster-Stratton & Reid, 2009b). This is due to the fact children can observe and may have modeled their parents’ behaviors (Webster-Stratton, 1996). In this training series, parents are empowered to act as a good role-model of their children. And by modeling, parents can foster social skills and desirable learning habits to them (Webster-Stratton, 2005).

Teacher training

The teacher training series focuses on skills and tactics to manage a large of children (Webster-Stratton et al., 2001), mainly by using reinforcement, managing misbehavior, fostering a warm and safe environment, building positive relationships, teaching social and problem-solving skills (Webster-Stratton, 2004). Although the target is different, the major concepts used in the teacher training are similar to that of the parent one (Webser-Stratton & Reid, 2007).

To promote positive behaviors, reward again is very important. Besides praising children specifically and enthusiastically, teachers, persons that are familiar with children’s learning progress, should praise children for their improvement instead of the scores they achieve. A consistent rewarding system can enhance children’s self-efficacy and social competence (Webser-Stratton & Reid, 2007).

Another special component of the teacher training series is the effort of teachers to collaborate with the children’s family (Webster-Stratton, 1999). It is desirable for teachers to visit their students’ family, so that they can better understand the students’ home environment and background, and thus to be more sensitive in catering the students’ special needs. It is equally valuable for parents to visit their children’s schools. Teachers in the Incredible Years programme are equipped with techniques to communicate and cooperate effectively with the parents (Webser-Stratton & Reid, 2007).

Children Training

The children training series emphasizes enhancing children’s emotional literacy, social skills, conflict management and problem-solving skills (Webster-Stratton, 2004). Emotional literacy is “the ability to recognize, understand, handle and appropriately express emotions” (Sharp, 2001: 1). This is one of the most fundamental communication skills that children acquire in the Incredible Years student series. Children with conduct problems usually have worse emotional literacy and ability to identity and understand facial cues (Webster-Stratton & Reid, 2003).

The ability to convey emotional messages are closely linked to one’s emotional and social health (Morrison and Matthews, 2006; Nyland, 1999). It was found that enriching emotional literacy can lead to a reduction and delinquency and aggression (Carnwell & Baker, 2007); and children with higher emotional literacy have comparatively better social outcomes like having more friends (Hubbard & Coie, 1994; Miller et al., 2005).

Olson (1992) explained that for children who were not equipped with enough vocabularies to communicate their emotions, it was likely for them to use their bodies to express themselves. This is often quite undesirable, as for example, if the child was angry at the moment, and because he did not know how to verbalize it, he transformed his anger to physical responses and hit his classmates. Research evidence did show that the lack of emotional vocabulary and emotion understanding were correlated with aggressive behaviors (Bohnert, Crnic & Lim, 2003) and ineffective conflict management (Heydenberk & Heydenberk, 2005). After building up a list of emotional vocabularies and learning the usage of strategic communications skills like I – messages (e.g. I want to…, I feel…, I hope…, etc.), children displays significantly less anti-social behaviors (Heydenberk & Heydenberk, 2007). It is easier for them to regulate their emotions (Webster-Stratton & Reid, 2009)

Methods of Delivery

In the Incredible Years Programme, most of the sessions involve group discussion and practice, while one-fourth of them are administered through videotape modelling (Webster-Stratton and Herbert, 1994).

Group Discussion

One of the goals of the Incredible Years is to provide a cost-effective intervention program. This is achieved through the use of group-based delivery (Webster-Stratton, 2000). There are around 12 to 14 participants per group, with one group leader to assist in administrative issues and encourage discussions. Besides the economical value, the group setting allows parents or teachers to share and normalizes their experiences (Webster-Stratton, 1981), to provide support for each other, and to facilitate modeling (Webster-Stratton, 2004). When parents or teachers know that there are so many other people that are encountering the same difficulties as they do, they feel more relieved and confident with their parenting or teaching skills.

Video Modelling and live modeling

Video Modelling is a cost-effective training method that has been extensively used in the programme (Brestan & Eyberg, 1998). This method is based on Bandura’s (1989) theory of observational learning. It was proposed that participants would model the positive behaviors by observing the interactions shown in the videotapes (Webster-Stratton, 2005). The study done by Singer and Singer (1983) showed that children who watched a television programs that promote prosocial behaviors really exhibited significantly greater desirable behaviors upon watching.

Parents are mainly shown about parent-child interactions at home during dinner, play, etc.; teachers are shown the teacher-child interactions in classroom during circle, work time and play, etc. (Webser-Stratton & Reid, 2007). Some of scenes are positive, while some are negative, so the adults understand there is no perfect teaching or parenting (Juffer, Bakermans-Kranenburg & van IJzendoorn, 2008a), and this may raise their self-efficacy. Seeing the adult-child relationships give them an idea how to increases children’s prosocial behaviors and reduces aggressive or aversive behaviors (Webster-Stratton, 2004).

Previous research, in line with the hypothesis, indicated that children video which showed some positive peer interactions were effective in enhancing children’s politeness and friendliness and in decreasing children’s noncompliant and negative behaviors (Webster-Stratton, 1982).

Unlike, one-to-one interventions, video modeling makes it possible to show different kinds of people interacting in different contexts, which creates greater generalization and participants may find it easier to apply the skills learnt in daily lives (Webster-Stratton, 2000).

There are some important points to note when using modeling. First, video-makers have to ensure that the participants have affirmative feelings about the model, and they can identify with the model to some extent. One way to achieve this is to explicitly tell the participants that those models are not actors, but real parents like them. Secondly, the video must have scenes showing the model getting reward upon doing some favorable (Webster-Stratton, 1981). For example, the children’s cooperation is a kind of intangible reinforcement for the adults. Thirdly, group leaders should ensure that participants are paying attention, and not being disturbed by some external distracters. Lastly, there should be chance for the participants to practice the new skills and gain the reward as shown.

In the Children Training Series, the leader and a puppet named Wally act as a live model (Webster-Stratton, 2000). The group leader uses the puppet to role-play and model a positive interpersonal interaction, so that children can learn the appropriate behaviors through vicarious experience (Webster-Stratton & Reid, 2009).

Behavioral research (Homework and practice)

Homework and exercises are given to participants to try out the newly learnt skills and to apply the knowledge to real life context (Webster-Stratton & Reid, 2007; Webster-Stratton & Reid, 2009). The role-playing exercises allow participants to understand the concepts and skill more thoroughly and clearly (Webster-Stratton, 2000). And through this, they know how it feels to use appropriate strategies in interactions. Experiences of success is very important for participants to be motivated in using such skills and real achievements can boost their self-esteem (Emler, 2001).

Child-directed play

Child-directed play is a useful tool in enhancing attachment and positive relationship between adults and children (Axline, 1969; Webster-Stratton & Reid, 2009). This kind of play can also enhance children’s social competence and self-efficacy (Lee, 1990).

There are a number of techniques that aid child-directed play. First, the adults should give minimal comments, not to judge or question during the play. Adults reinforce and encourage the children’s effort, concentration, creativity and all the other positive behaviors. This can help promoting the children’s perceived competence and self-worth (Webster-Stratton & Reid, 2009). Second, adults try to follow the children’s thoughts and allow children to have independent thinking (Webster-Stratton, 2006).

There are six different child-directed play skills that can help teaching children academic and social skills, and building a positive adult-child relationship (Webster-Stratton & Reid, 2009). First, the adults use descriptive commenting to show that they are paying attention to the children, and at the same time, to teach children important vocabularies. The joint attention reinforces children to continue playing. Second, adults can use academic coaching to teach children academic skills like counting and names of objects. Third, when children are encountered with challenges in the play, adults try to promote persistence in playing (Schunk, 1981). As suggested by Bandura (1989), the longer one stays in the difficult problems, the stronger confidence one has about his abilities. Adults use persistence coaching to encourage children by commenting on their cognitive condition. Being praised and knowing oneself as persisting, children feel reinforced and contented. Fourth, emotion coaching can be used to teach children feeling words. The last two are one-on-one and peer social coaching that allow children to practice playing with children, so that they can model the interaction techniques and experience real success (Webster-Stratton & Reid, 2009).


The Incredible Years Series is a theoretical-based intervention programme that is found to be effective in treating or preventing children’s conduct problems in many previous research studies (e.g. Webster-Stratton, 1994; Webster-Stratton et al., 2001; Webster-Stratton & Reid, 2009; Webster-Stratton, Reid & Stoolmiller, 2008). A lot of developmental or educational psychologists from different countries have been trying to revise and adopt the programme to their culture, reflecting the effectiveness and popularity of the programme. All the three training modules (parents, teachers and children) place great emphasis in promoting children’s positive behaviors by reinforcement, reducing misbehaviors using sensible skills and learning effective social skills through observational learning. Overall, this is a well-planned intervention programme and it is hopeful that Incredible Years can really helping creating incredible lives for the next generation.

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