Parent Child Interaction (PCIT) is a treatment that improves behavior in children between the ages of 2 and 7 by establishing nurturing and secure relationships between children and parents. By reinforcing positive behavior while playing, and ignoring negative behavior, psychologists are able to use early intervention techniques to stop child aggression and dangerous/defiant behavior. Individually, this type of therapy is proven effective with children becoming more attentive, getting along better socially, following rules and not acting out as a way to receive negative attention.

West Virginia University professor Cheryl McNeil has been awarded a grant for $65,773 from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the National Institutes of Health for “Project Connect: Translating PCIT into Foster Care Settings,” evaluating whether or not treatment for conduct-disordered young children can be accomplished in a group therapy session. The total budget for the project is $450,000 over two years.

“Parents are learning how to decrease the child’s need for negative attention by ignoring the behaviors or redirecting them elsewhere,” McNeil said. “For positive behavior, parents are taught techniques to praise the children, which help parents to develop better preventative skills. We also provide them with ‘Time-Out Training.’”

For children in the foster care system, there are higher rates of behavior problems, with more children being classified as “out of control.” In environments with other children or animals, these children often lose placement because of violent behaviors. By forming secure relationship attachment with parents, children are better behaved not only in the home, but in school settings as well.

“We are aiming to decrease the number of lost placements so that we can provide children with safe, secure and loving environments.”

Generally, this sort of therapy takes place in individual sessions; with parents and child interacting as a psychologist watches from behind a two-way mirror and tells the parents how to react to their child’s behavior. However, with this subcontracted grant, McNeil is trying PCIT in group sessions to see if it is as effective as the individual family approach. If so, this group therapy will be able to be implemented into training for families with foster children, as well as reunions between children and their biological parents.

The study began in July, with each family in a group format for two all-day sessions. So far, McNeil has found it more difficult to used PCIT in group settings because it takes highly trained child care staff to use this therapy with multiple children. The group therapy sessions typically are conducted with eight foster parents and a total of 12-18 children. Although child behavior is managed quite effectively during the individual coaching time with a single family, it has been challenging for the child care workers to manage the disruptive behavior of the identified children and siblings when the children are waiting for their turn to work with the therapists.

McNeil and her fellow researchers are hopeful that they will find the right formula that makes this therapy approach work because group sessions are more cost effective than working individually with each foster family. The results of this project should be beneficial to the future of foster care training, as well as providing valuable information about best practices for assisting biological parents in reuniting with their children.

This study will be continued with additional testing groups over the next year.

For more information, contact Cheryl McNeil, professor of clinical child psychology, at (304) 293-2001 ext. 31677 or



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