“Research partnerships are important to understand and develop effective parenting programmes”

In conversation with Jamie McLaren Lachman

Founder of CWBSA and research fellow focusing on parenting programmes (South Africa)


Clown Without Borders South Africa (CWBSA)  works in prevention and child violence reduction work in sub-Saharan Africa. Considering that children are cared for primarily within the context of family, CWBSA has been involved in initiatives focused on empowering parents and caregivers to provide a protective environment where children can grow safely. As a member of an international collaboration known as Parenting for Lifelong Health (PLH), CWBSA is the primary implementation partner responsible for the dissemination and capacity building of two evidence-informed parent training interventions aimed at strengthening families and reducing violence against children at home and in their communities – PLH for Young Children and PLH for Adolescents, or the Sinovuyo Caring Families Programme and Sinovuyo Teens as they are known here in South Africa. Parenting for Lifelong Health is one of the few parental initiatives that have level of evidence in low incomes countries. 

Jamie McLaren Lachman (aka Jabulani Nene Mshengu aka Banjo Max aka Dr Jamie Clown) is the founder and executive director of Clowns Without Borders South Africa. He has over 20 years of experience as a physical theatre performer, musician, storyteller, songwriter, mindfulness facilitator, and clown. Jamie has performed and facilitated 100s of shows and workshops to support the wellbeing of children and families around the world. He also has a DPhil in Social Intervention from the University of Oxford where he also works as a research officer in the Centre for Evidence-Based Research. His research focuses on the development, adaptation, implementation, evaluation and scale-up of parenting programmes to reduce violence against children and improve child and family wellbeing in low- and middle-income countries.

How did you develop your first parenting programme?

One of the reason I went into academia (I work full time as an academic and part time for CWBSA) was to develop a parenting programme called Njabulo Family Programme, using storytelling and play to help caregivers build positive relationships with their children in families affected by HIV and AIDS. We were implementing the programme in Swaziland and were asked by UNICEF Swaziland if we could help take it to scale. Initially, the idea of taking a Clowns Without Borders programme to scale was very exciting but after much thought, we told UNICEF that the programme was not ready. We were not sure if it really had an impact besides what parents and kids had told us. I also noticed that there were many other programmes for orphans and vulnerable children being implemented in Southern Africa with little or no evidence. So, I decide that the most sensible thing to do was to learn how to evaluate programmes rigorously in order to test their effectiveness. I found a MSc programme at Oxford on evidence-based social intervention so I enrolled! The Masters turned into a doctorate but I continued working with CWBSA at the same time. This enabled us at CWBSA to establish partnerships with academic universities. We were able to partner with Oxford and UCT on these big experimental studies to develop and test parenting programmes using randomised controlled trials in Cape Town and the Eastern Cape. Now we are helping bring the programme to other countries while continuing to work with Universities to build more evidence of their effectiveness.

With what objectives in mind was the PLH programme developed?

The PLH programmes were developed and tested to reduce the risk of violence against children and improve child wellbeing. It is based on a theory of change that includes improve positive child behaviour, learning how to manage teenagers around stressful environments and in a context of poverty, communicating about sexual behaviour with teenagers, reducing exposure to violence in the community and risk of contracting HIV, and reducing stressful lives.

What advice would you give to an arts organisation interested to start a parenting programme?

Most NGOs or artists don’t have resources or time to work with universities to evaluate and test their programmes. If I was an organization trying to start a parenting programme, I would first do a rigorous search to see if there are already parenting programmes with good evidence of effectiveness in your area. Instead of recreating the wheel, build a car with wheels that have already been made! If you look at the evidence around parenting programmes, the ones that work are grounded in core principles. If I was to implement a parenting programme, I would make sure that programme has the same core principles and what the literature said works already. If you can’t use it and want to develop your own programme, then do it but use what already works.

What are the core principles of a parenting programme that you were referring to?

There are a lot emerging new studies that are looking at core components of parenting programmes, “what are the core components” is the million dollar question. With PLH we used some core principles focused on changing behaviours and skills and not just increasing knowledge. A lot of programme only focus on changing knowledge and attitudes, but you need to teach parents skills and help them learn new behaviours in order to create real change. They also need the opportunity come back to provide feedback what worked and what didn’t work for them, and to find solutions together as a group. There are some core processes on how to deliver programme and then different core content depending on the age group of the children. There are also different structures with various frequencies. With the Njabulo programme, for example, you need an artist to deliver it so it limits your ability to empower other communities to implement the programme, whereas with PLH you can train community volunteers and other paraprofessionals which increases its scalability. Also, context and culture matter immensely. Something that might work in the UK might not work in SA or in Uganda. Programmes need to cultural sensitive to the parents, children, and even the people who deliver them. At the same time, it is important to be aware of that there are some universal aspects to parenting, and human relationships in general. Programmes might need to be delivered differently but we are all human so I think core principles are the same at the end of the day.

What are the specificities of a parenting programme in the South African context?

In South Africa there are different complex family structures; children are not raised by one single person. Children often have multiple caregivers and sometimes change caregivers over the course of their lives, and even within one year. So you need to think about different complex structures and how to engage with different people. You also need to understand the level of authority in the household, who is the principal caregiver? Who do you talk to? Who makes the rules in the family? With PLH we did a lot of research in South Africa with children and parents beforehand so we could understand the family’s structures. Interestingly, PLH is now being implemented in Wales where I originally trained as a facilitator of parenting programmes, so it’s has gone back to Europe. We are also adapting the programme for families in Montenegro, Moldova, Macedonia, Romania, Thailand, and the Philippines. It will have different implications on the way PLH will be implemented there.

What do you think about parenting programmes in arts education?

Arts Education is very much based on skills learning and when you think about it, it is the same for parenting programmes: they are very skills based and help parents learning skills. For example parenting programmes can teach parents how to use words to describe their emotions to their children; how to give instructions to a child; how to interact with your child (or your parent). Using role plays, or practicing skills, is a very important aspect of arts education. And it is the same in parenting programmes: you help parents gain skills by first practicing them in scenarios during sessions before implementing the same skills at home. CWBSA had to ask ourselves why were we doing parenting programmes as an arts organisation? We had an identity crisis because our main role is to provide arts-based interventions for children affected by crisis? But we came to realize that both aspects of our organisation – arts interventions and parenting programmes – do the same thing. They empower children to be children again. While clowns might have a shorter impact on sparking a sense of laughter in a child’s life, if we can help parents change the way they interact with their children, they might have more enriched and nurturing childhoods – and even pass it on to their own children!

How can other arts organisations get involved with the PLH programme?

At CWBSA we do not implement parenting programmes ourselves anymore, we are only training others who want to implement the PLH programmes. Our programmes have become very much in demand so we build capacity of other organisations to help them learn how to deliver the programme, we train the facilitators and we provide coaching. If they want to go further, we train facilitators as trainers and they can train even more facilitators. We are very demanding to our partners so they can implement the programme at the highest quality. We do it with small organisations and we also do it at a national level like in Tanzania. Sometimes we charge a fee and sometime we subsidy. You can download all the material is however available on the website for free:

For further reading:

  • Parenting for Lifelong Health: a pragmatic cluster randomised controlled trial of a non-commercialised parenting programme for adolescents and their families in South Africa; Cluver LD, et al.; BMJ Glob Health 2017.
  • Randomized controlled trial of a parenting program to reduce the risk of child maltreatment in South Africa; M. Lachman et al. Child Abuse & Neglect 72, Elsevier (2017) 338–351.
  • Process Evaluation of a Parenting Program for Low-Income Families in South Africa; M. Lachman et al. ; Research on Social Work Practice 1-15, 2016.



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