25/10/2011 23:58 BST | Updated 25/12/2011 10:12 GMT

Where Now for Parenting - the Discipline Challenge of Our Age

Few would dispute that discipline is an important element in raising children to become well-adjusted adults. However, after the riots of this summer, the debate rages about what sort of discipline children need, and whose responsibility it is to administer it.

The common view is that poor parenting at home and a lack of discipline at school is the culprit, and that cracking down on bad behaviour is the best way to nip things in the bud. But if the solution were so simple, then surely all children would already be perfectly mannered, and the multi-million pound industry peddling books and TV programmes with advice on child rearing to worried parents would go out of business overnight?

As the UK's largest provider of parenting, family and support services in the UK, Barnardo's knows a thing or two about what works with children. What we have learnt is that the best way to nurture good behaviour is to intervene early and support vulnerable families to help encourage confident, positive parenting.

In order to do this, Barnardo's staff work in partnership with education, health and therapeutic services, the police, youth offending teams and local authorities. We provide a range of support services including: one-to-one support to children and young people in school; drop in sessions for parents, and; home visits to support families.

We know from our experience that what works best in tackling the most difficult cases of discipline are whole family approaches to parenting and discipline, such as our schools parents support workers, Family Intervention Projects (FIPs) and intensive fostering schemes. Indeed, the evidence bears this out - recent government evaluation of FIPs shows that anti-social behaviour and truanting stopped in around half of the families where specialist intervention took place.

Our report 'Tough love, not get tough: responsive approaches to improving behaviour in schools' argues that the new discipline guidelines may even risk making discipline problems worse. A crack down only on the symptoms of children's bad behaviour fails to address the root causes, which all too often lie in a challenging home life.

Our research shows that intervening with families to tackle bad behaviour is more effective than authoritarian punishments alone. After all, the whole purpose of disciplining a child at school should be to get them to a point where they are able to turn up on time, be in a classroom and learn.

Which is why we continue to raise concerns that the Government's approach toward discipline in schools is too narrow. In a House of Lords debate on the Education Bill, we raised our fears that proposals to use force to search a child or erase data from mobile phones may be counterproductive and disproportionate. For example, teachers could use their power to erase data which might have potentially been used as legal evidence in court that a child is being sexually exploited or groomed for sexual exploitation. Should these more extreme powers remain in the Bill, we will put pressure on the Government to ensure that accompanying guidance is absolutely clear.

One child who benefited from a Barnardo's family support service was Freddie, aged seven, who was often late or absent from school and struggled to complete homework. Project staff undertook home visits to discuss the importance of regular attendance with both Freddie and his family. They also contributed to school meetings monitoring Freddie's attendance and academic progress. Freddie's attendance levels, attitude and learning all improved significantly as a result of the holistic support he received.

The best approaches to discipline help children and young people learn to manage their own behaviour. Tough love might include referring parents for parenting classes, or helping them to restore family routines and set clear boundaries for behaviour when these have been disrupted.

One way to do this is through intensive family support, and Barnardo's has been piloting a new initiative to help young families to develop their parental skills. This new service offers a flexible package of support to young parents with multiple and complex needs, for example drug and alcohol problems. Many of these young parents will have themselves experienced poor parenting, abuse or neglect and will be limited in their understanding of their child's needs.

This tailored programme includes support at evenings and weekends when young parents can be most isolated and their children are most vulnerable. Additionally a small number of families who are most at risk can access short-term foster care which will focus on whole-family approaches and will provide a safe, protective environment for parents to learn about the emotional and practical skills needed to care for a young baby.

We will always argue that focusing on extremes of bad behaviour and using harsh punishments is tackling the problem far too late. Instead we must ensure that we focus on supporting families at an early stage to prevent their children from developing discipline problems.

If the Government is serious about tackling discipline problems then it must also be serious about tackling inequality in childhood. We need to help parents be the best parents they can and that means supporting families, not just disciplining children.

The voluntary and statutory sector must continue to work together to establish intensive multi-agency support for families to help them deal with issues early on. Every parent knows there is no quick fix, no magic spell to transform children who throw temper tantrums or refuse to do as they are told. Good parenting and good discipline requires time, patience, love - and boundaries.