Active Parenting: An Evaluation of Two Adlerian Parent Education Programs

Fran Mullis
Georgia State University

Published in Journal of Individual Psychology
Vol 55 #2
Summer 1999


This study assessed the effects of two Adlerian parent education programs, Active Parenting Today and Active Parenting of Teens, on children’s and teen’s behavior as perceived by their parents. A test for correlated samples indicated that both programs resulted in a significant change in parental perceptions of behavior, according to the questionnaire administered. The results suggested that parents viewed their children or teens’ behavior as being more responsible or helpful after the program. There were no interaction effects for parent’s education level or for type of family structure.

Active Parenting: An Evaluation of Two Adlerian Parent Education Programs

The parenting task, while always challenging, has become more difficult because “parents are raising children under social conditions decidedly different from those that the parents experienced as children” (White & Mullis, 1996, p. 47). Increased drug use and adolescent suicide rates, teen pregnancy, and family stress are only a few of the current societal conditions which affect parents in the process of rearing their children (Medway, 1989). Many parents lack the education and training needed for this important role, even though parent education groups have been addressing this need since at least 1815 (Croake & Glover, 1997).

Parent education programs are typically structured around a particular theoretical model. One such model is based on the psychological theory of Alfred Adler as it has been applied to child rearing by Dinkmeyer and McKay (1976), Dreikurs and Soltz (1964), Popkin (1983), and others. The Adlerian model emphasizes the child’s psychological and behavioral goals, logical and natural consequences, mutual respect, and encouragement techniques.

As is true with most helping interventions, more research is needed regarding the effectiveness of parent education programs (Harmon & Brim, as cited in Fine & Henry, 1989; White & Mullis, 1996), including research on interactions among programs and participant characteristics. Medway (1989), while criticizing the evaluation strategies (or lack thereof) of parent educators, found that a meta-analysis of Adlerian and other parent education models suggested that these programs are influencing the attitudes and behaviors of parents and their children. Although no specific approach to parent education has been routinely singled out as more effective than another, Adlerian programs demonstrated consistently positive outcomes that Krebs (1986) regarded as reliable and valid. Typical outcomes from Adlerian programs are that parents become more democratic with regard to child rearing and view their children’s behaviors more favorably (Fine & Henry, 1989; Krebs, 1986).

Active Parenting (Popkin & Woodward, 1983) is a video-based Adlerian parent education program that was field-tested in 1984 with favorable results (Popkin, 1989a). Of the 274 self-selected subjects who made up the field-test, 97% reported positive changes, 84% reported an improvement in their children’s behavior, and 97% indicated that they would recommend the program to friends. Urban (1991) found the Active Parenting program effective in changing attitudes and child rearing techniques, and Wiese (1989) concluded that parents who participated in the program developed more tolerant attitudes toward their children and saw themselves as better parents than those who did not participate. No significant changes were reported in children’s behavior or in parents’ knowledge of child-rearing principles. Wiese also determined that taking a pre-test did not influence subjects.

The purpose of this study was to assess the effects of two Adlerian parent education programs, Active Parenting Today (Popkin, 1993), a revision of the 1983 program, and Active Parenting of Teens (Popkin, 1989b), on children’s and teens’ behavior as perceived by their parents. It was hypothesized that parents would perceive their children and teens’ behavior more favorably after completing the parenting program.



The participants were parents who registered for parent education classes focusing on either young children (Active Parenting Today) or on teens (Active Parenting of Teens). There were 42 groups for Active Parenting Today (n=287) and 15 groups for Active Parenting of Teens (n=98), with groups ranging in size from 5 to 20 parents. Parents were recruited through letters, flyers, and newspaper announcements, and the groups were conducted in setting such as public schools, churches, and mental health agencies throughout the United States. As is common for this type of program, informal screening of parents through group interaction took place during the first meeting.

Approximately 71% of the participants were female and 29% were male in the groups for children and the groups for teens. The majority of the participants in the groups for children were Caucasian (85%), with African-Americans making up 9% of participants and Hispanic, Asian, Native American and Other each accounting for approximately 1.5% of group members. In the groups for teens 77% of the members were Caucasian, 20% were African-American, 1.5% were Hispanic, and 1.5% were Native American.

In the groups focusing on children, 6% of the parents had less than a high school education, 31% had graduated from high school, 45% had at least some college or a four-year degree, and 18% had done graduate work. In the groups for parents of teens, 8% of the parents reported less than a high school education, 38% had graduated from high school, 44% had at least some college or a four-year degree, and 10% had done work at the graduate level.

Approximately 63% of parents in the groups for children were from families with both biological parents in the home, 18% were single parents, 15% were in blended families, and 4% were “other.” In the groups for parents of teens, approximately 53% of parents were from families with both biological parents in the home, 24% were from single parent families, 19% were in blended families, and 4% were “other.”

The attrition rate for these groups varied from 10-15%. This is the typical drop out rate for Active Parenting groups according to Terrence Gibney, Executive Assistant at Active Parenting, Inc. (personal communication, January 12, 1998).


The Active Parenting Today group completed the 22-item “About My Child” (AMC; Poplin & Mullis, 1995a) questionnaire, while the Active Parenting of Teens group used the 29-item “About My Teen” (AMT; Poplin & Mullis, 1995b) questionnaire. Reliability (alpha) was estimated at .78 for the AMC questionnaire and .87 for the AMT questionnaire; both estimates exceed Nunnaly’s (1978) recommended standard for reliability estimates. To establish content validity, persons familiar with the Active Parenting programs and with Adlerian concepts related to child and adolescent behavior verified that the questionnaire items were adequate for measuring what they were supposed to measure and were also adequate representations of the content of the Active Parenting materials. Ary, Jacobs, and Razavieh (1990) state that content validity is essential for questionnaires. These instruments were selected because the questions are specifically targeted at behaviors discussed in the Active Parenting programs and would, there fore, provide a better indication for whether or not parent were applying the principles taught than would other, more generic questionnaires.

The questionnaires asked parents to select the child or teen about whom they were most concerned and rate the child or teen on each item according to a Likert-type scale from (1) almost never to (5) almost always. Examples of questions were “My child cooperates with others,” and “My teen quits or gives up on tasks before completion.” Higher scores indicate that the child or teen is engaging in behaviors that are useful rather than useless, as defined in Individual Psychology.

Both sets of materials are built around ideas developed by Alfred Adler (Ansbacher & Ansbacher, 1956) and refined by Rudolf Dreikurs (Dreikurs & Soltz, 1964) with further modifications by Michael Poplin (1989b, 1993). Concepts taught include social interest, encouragement, mistaken goals of behavior, communication skills, and logical and natural consequences.


The parent education class leaders used the materials from either the Active Parenting Today or the Active Parenting of Teens kit. The self-selected leaders had varying degrees of training in the use of the materials. Some leaders attended the Leader Training Workshop presented by Active Parenting and others were self-trained. Although some leaders may have deviated from the outline provided in the materials to meet the needs and interest of the participants and to fit their personal teaching styles, they followed the general outline of the materials and presented the key concepts. All of the groups met for two-hour sessions once a week for six weeks, for a total of twelve hours of training.


A test for correlated sample was used to test the hypothesis that parents would perceive their children’s behavior more favorably after completing an Active Parenting group. The probability level was set at .05.

Analysis of results indicated a statistically significant difference in pre- and post-test means of parent’s perceptions of behavior between the correlated samples for both the AMC group (77.07; 81.61; t=-7.96) and AMT group (88.18; 91.63; t=-2.68). In both groups, the results indicated that parental perceptions of behavior were more favorable after completing the parent education program. A conservative assessment of effect size was computed by dividing the difference mean by the standard deviation of the pre-test scores for the AMC and AMT groups. The AMC group showed an effect size of .42 (-4.5436/10.879), which indicates a medium deviation from the null case. The AMT group had an effect size of .20 (-3.4490/16.914) indicating a small deviation from the null case.

Analyses of covariance (ANCOVA) were used to assess if there were differences in the post-test means, adjusted for the pre-test scores for the different educational levels or family structures of the participants. The assumption of equal regression slopes was tested and found tenable for both educational level [F (3,272) = 0.63 ns] and family structure [F (3,272) = 1.34 ns] in the Active Parenting Today group. The assumption of homogeneity of regression slopes was also found tenable for educational level [F (3,86) = 0.49 ns] and family structure [F (3,88) = 1.06 ns] in the Active Parenting of Teens group.

The ANCOVAs indicated that neither educational level [F (3,275) = 0.96 ns] nor family structure [F (3,275) = 2.16 ns] had significant influence on post-test scores in the Active Parenting Today group. Neither educational level [F (3,89) = 1.47 ns] nor family structure [F (3,91) = 0.28 ns] had a significant influence on post-test scores in the Active Parenting of Teens group.


There was a significant change in perception indicating that parents viewed their child’s or teen’s behavior more favorably after completing the parent education class. Parents who attend Active Parenting groups are taught to use effective communication skills, such as listening and responding to feelings, and to lecture and criticize less. Using effective skills results in more effective parent-child interaction, and the changes in the questionnaire scores quite likely reflect this. Parents are also taught to use intervention strategies that are motivating and supportive, such as encouragement techniques and logical consequences, rather than punishment. Improved interactions, including using different intervention strategies to deal with misbehavior, often lead to positive changes in the child’s or teen’s behavior.

However, because no behavioral observations were used, it cannot be said unequivocally that the behavior improved. The reported changes could result from the parent’s having more realistic expectations for behavior based on learning about developmental stages and general expectations for behavior during each developmental stage or parent’s becoming more accepting of less than perfect behavior. Parents have reported that their expectations for themselves and their children changed after completing a parent education course (Cooke, 1992). However, even if the difference was simply the result of changing parental perceptions or expectations with no actual behavior change, the parent education course was helpful. Campbell and Sutton (1983) posit that viewing behavior in more positive or realistic ways leads to more harmonious and cohesive family relationships. As Medway (1989) states, “Parent education is a process of attitude change” (p. 238), and changing attitudes is often the first step in modifying behavior.

Another limitation of the study was that a control group was not used. Evaluations of parent education programs frequently lack rigor (Medway, 1989). In the real world, leaders of parent education groups are often volunteers who contribute their time for little or no compensation and are interested in providing education to parents, not in organizing control groups. The positive outcomes found in this study could result from social desirability or other invalidating issues. It has been my experience that parents often want to present a “good front” when they begin a study group; therefore, if social desirability is a concern, it could have affected the pre-test as much as the post-test.

That there was no interaction effect found for the parent’s educational level suggests that the materials are effective regardless of the participant’s years of formal education. The absence of evidence of an interaction effect for type of family structure suggest that parents from intact, blended, and single parent families can use the program information to change their perceptions of their child’s or teen’s behavior. This latter finding is particularly heartening because many stressors are associated with single-parent and blended families (Hetherington, Law, & O’Connor, 1993). Parenting programs that effectively address child-rearing problems for these types of families can help reduce some of the stressors.

Suggestions for Future Research

Although it is not difficult to determine which general parent education model is used by leaders (Dembo, Sweitzer, & Lauritzen, 1985), sessions tend to deviate from the structured format based on participants’ needs and the leader’s teaching style (Medway, 1989). Information regarding deviations from the structured materials and the reasons for the deviations would be useful. Gathering more data on the leaders themselves would also provide helpful information. Davidson and Schrag (as cited in Medway, 1989) found that parents are more likely to carry out recommendations from more experienced consultants that from less experienced ones. The background and training of parent education leaders vary considerable regardless of the model used. Recording leader data would allow the assessment of this variable and would be useful in deciding whether or not to encourage or require potential leaders to attend leader training workshops.

Adlerian parent education groups frequently report changes in parental attitudes or feelings, but rarely report the assessment of behavior change in children (Fine & Henry, 1989). Identifying behavior that the parents would like to change, stating the behavior in observable terms, and charting the behavior to assess its change would be one way to address this need. Using outside observers to evaluate behavioral change would lend more credibility by providing criterion-related evidence of validity, but such observations would be difficult to implement as part of a typical parent education class.

Parents continue to be interested in learning more about rearing children, and express the belief that parent education programs are beneficial for them and for their children, regardless of the rigorousness of research on parenting programs. As this study suggest, both of the Adlerian programs, Active Parenting Today and Active Parenting of Teens, are effective in assisting parents in the daunting task of child rearing.