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with Heather Gilmore, MSW, LLMSW, BCBA

History of behavioral parent training

Behaviorally based parent training has a long history. Parenting interventions have formally been used since the 1970s. However, the principles that have shaped behavioral parent training have been developed since the early 20th century.

Identification of behavior management strategies and parent involvement

In the early 1920s, behavior modification techniques became more well-known. At the same time, researchers who explored child development, learning, and behaviors began to recognize the importance of a person’s environment in the way the person behaves and functions.

In 1926, Healy and Bronner emphasized the importance of teaching parents about effective behavior management strategies to reduce child behavioral issues.

Although behavior management techniques and parent influence on their children’s behaviors were identified in research in the early to mid-20th century, these ideas were not often used in practice during that time. Instead, treatment of children in the first half of the 20th century was provided with more attention on the therapist-child relationship with a focus on internal psychological phenomenon rather than on specific behavioral problems.

Changes in the approach to treatment of children

In the 1960s, treatment of child behavioral problems began to change. It was being recognized that the current way of treating children’s behavioral issues was not resulting in much success for the child or family. Even in cases when children began to improve in therapy, their improvements weren’t generalizing to other settings like at home or at school. Parents were also not very involved in the treatment process which led to parents being unable to effectively help their kids in the home or outside of therapy.

Using behavior modification strategies became more common and resulted in positive improvements in children’s behavioral problems in a variety of settings including classrooms, hospitals, and other settings. This increased success of behavior modification was matched with recommendations for parents to use these strategies, as well.

During these changes, the therapist-parent relationship was becoming more highly recognized as an important way to help children.

With the changes in formal treatment of children also came an increase in publication of self-help type books including parenting books. Taking clinical ideas and translating them into a book that the everyday person could read and learn from also helped promote parents’ involvement in their child’s well-being and behavior management process.

Some kids need more intensive behavior-based parenting intervention

Parents were learning that they could make slight modifications in how they presented consequences to their child’s behaviors in order to change those behaviors. However, more severe behavioral issues were not as easily changed. This led to the finding that more intensive and complex parent-child interactions may need to be implemented.

This idea that some children who displayed behavioral concerns needed more than a few minor changes in the parenting strategies used to care for them led to behavioral parent training as it is commonly known today.

Describing behavioral parent training

To clarify what behavioral parent training means, Tharp and Wetzel (1969) provided a description which explained behavioral parent training as being a three-part process. This includes the therapist as a consultant to the parent, the parent being the mediator who takes the therapist’s teachings to influence their child, and the child who is the target of the intervention.

Traditional behavioral parent training includes instruction provided by the therapist to a parent about parenting techniques. The instruction incorporates structured behavioral modeling, role playing, and practice opportunities. Homework activities are also assigned to parents to help them practice the skills taught with their child.

Parent training is based on the assumption that parents can influence their child’s behaviors either by promoting adaptive or maladaptive functioning. It is assumed that parents can learn skills that will help to manage or improve their child’s behaviors as well as promote healthier parent-child interactions.

Stages of empirically validated parent training

Stage 1

From 1960 to 1975, parent training became more defined and became more common of a formal treatment model. As mentioned earlier, parent training became thought of as a structured intervention between a therapist and parent in which the child is the targeted person identified for behavioral modification.

In this stage, research was being developed that proved the effectiveness of parent training in improving child behavioral concerns. Behaviors like noncompliance and aggression as well as other issues were found to be improved with parent training. Short-term effects were the primary outcomes identified with research in this time period.

Stage 2

From 1975 to 1985, more research was being conducted about parent training. Research in this stage focused mostly on identifying generalization of parent training effects.

Generalization was considered in four areas.

  • First, research looked at whether parent training effects generalized to multiple settings like home and school.
  • Second, research looked at whether parent training effects generalized across time – that progress was maintained over time.
  • Third, research looked at whether parent training effects generalized with siblings of the identified child.
  • Fourth, research looked at whether parent training effects generalized to other behaviors that were not necessarily identified in treatment.

The findings that parent training was generalizable supported the social significance of parent training as an intervention. Generalization of treatment effects supported the social validity of parent training as well as parents’ satisfaction with the intervention.

In this stage of the history of parent training, more emphasis was also placed on addressing developmental variables in the process of creating behavior-based interventions. Additionally, factors related to the context in which behaviors exist became more likely to be considered including things like socioeconomic status and parental relationship status.

Stage 3

After 1985, parent training expanded upon the growth made in stages 1 and 2 while also incorporating more opportunities for collaborating with people involved in the child’s life. This stage included providing attention to the child’s environment from a multi-level perspective.

Parent training addressed the child’s environment including settings such as the school, community, clinic, and social services.

An Overview

This article provided you with an overview of the history behind behavior-based parent training. This is only a small sample of the development of formal parent training services. Parent training services based upon applied behavior analysis is based upon these historical events and activities.


Shaffer, Anne & Kotchick, Beth & Dorsey, Shannon & Rex, Forehand. (2001). The past, present, and future of behavioral parent training: Interventions for child and adolescent problem behavior. The Behavior Analyst Today. 2. 10.1037/h0099922.

History of behavioral parent training

Heather Gilmore, MSW, BCBA

Heather is a freelance writer, Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA), and social worker. Heather takes interest in topics related to parenting, children, families, personal development, health and wellness, applied behavior analysis, as well as Autism, ADHD, Depression and Anxiety. Contact Heather if you would like to inquire about obtaining her freelance writing services. You can view more articles and resources from Heather at and email her at [email protected] You can also advertise your autism services at one of Heather's websites: Heather is the developer of the "One-Year ABA Parent Training Curriculum."


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APA Reference
Gilmore, H. (2019). History of behavioral parent training. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 18, 2020, from