Promoting the well-being of immigrant children

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Psycho-education professor Sarah Dufour and her team get a $1.2-million federal grant to evaluate the Espace Parents program, which promotes parenting skills among newcomers to Quebec.

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For many parents of young children who are new to Canada, the challenges can seem endless: renting a flat, getting a job, learning an official language, finding a good school.

But what about their experiences as parents: do they need support there too? Yes, they certainly do, says Sarah Dufour , a professor of psycho-education at Université de Montréal.

In 2016, she co-founded the Espace Parents Initiative , a program that aims to promote parenting skills and prevent family difficulties among newcomers to Quebec.

Today, the Canadian government announced a $1.2-million grant over four years to evaluate the implementation and effects of Espace Parents, whose group sessions attract more than 700 parents from eight community organisations in the greater Montreal area.

"Stakeholders from a variety of backgrounds, including families themselves, saw the need to better support parents who had recently arrived in Quebec, and the Espace Parents Initiative is a joint response to this," Dufour explained.

"Our research will make it possible to learn what works well in this approach, to improve it, and then to extend it so that parents can flourish in their role despite the challenges associated with being an immigrant," she said.

21 projects, including five in Quebec

The evaluation of the Espace Parents Initiative is one of 21 projects in Canada, including five in Quebec, funded since last April by the Public Health Agency of Canada through its program Preventing and Responding to Family Violence: A Health Perspective.

"Family and gender-based violence have both immediate and long-term impacts on the physical and mental health of survivors," the agency said in its background paper on the grant announcement.

And there are "lasting consequences for families, individuals, communities and society as a whole," added the agency, which is committed to supporting programmes that help "those who have experienced, are experiencing or are at-risk of experiencing family violence."

For her part, Dufour does not want to stigmatize newcomers, whom she considers as capable of supporting their children as the general public. Instead, she wants to support them in their efforts to better understand and guide their children

"The reality is that as soon as you arrive, you realize quite quickly that you will no longer be a father or mother in the same way," she said. "The very nature of parenting is changing, as well as what society expects of you - for example, from your school."

More than learning

For example, she noted, "some parents perceive school as a place that is strictly about learning, and they can be destabilized when the confront the reality of the situation, which has many more elements to consider."

In the Espace Parents program, mothers and fathers are asked to discuss a variety of subjects, including their children’s quest for autonomy, their desire to speak up in and outside the home, and the challenge of biculturalism.

Strategies for disciplining children in a positive way will also be raised.

"We will help parents to adopt effective disciplinary strategies," said Dufour. "It’s not a question of telling them they are good or bad parents, but of ensuring that they are well accompanied."

In her work as principal researcher, Dufour is collaborating with two UdeM associate professors who work at the Centre intégré universitaire de santé et de services sociaux du Centre-Sud-de-l’Île-de-Montréal: Chantal Lavergne of UdeM’s School of Social Work and the Institut universitaire Jeunes en difficulté; and Isabelle Laurin of UdeM’s Department of Social and Preventive Medicine and the Direction régionale de santé publique’s Perinatal and Early Childhood Service.

The three academics are supported by half a dozen students in psychology and psycho-education at UdeM and by their partners, the community organization Acceuil aux immigrants de l’est de Montréal and the City of Montreal’s Bureau d’intégration des nouveaux arrivants à Montréal.

A two-part program

The team’s research project aims to evaluate the implementation and impact of Espace Parents, which has two components: 1) a nine-session program that allows a small group of parents to learn, share and reflect together; and 2) two short sessions that allow parents to share and learn briefly about specific topics related to their role as parents in Quebec.

This evaluation work will be carried out with a sample of 310 parents, who will be compared with a control group, immediately at the end of the intervention and then six months later. It will provide clearer data on the ability of Espace Parents to promote immigrant parenting and prevent child abuse.

A second version of the programme will then ve produced and also translated into English.

Ultimately, another goal of the evaluation is to used what’s learned in the research to implement the Espace Parents Initiative in other Quebec communities and to support the sustainability of the program.

"I want parents and children in Quebec to be well," said Dufour, who lives in the multi-ethnic Montreal neighbourhood of Rosemont and began her research career studying the over-representation of black children served by Quebec’s youth-protection agency.

"Being a parent is already difficult, so I have a lot of empathy for those who come here and don’t know where to look for support," she said. "I deeply believe that they need to be supported sooner rather than later. It’s essential."