Mencap NI have been developing new Early Intervention and Family Support Services to give children in Northern Ireland the best start in life and support families from when their child is diagnosed with a learning disability. 

A major part of this work is a parent support programme designed by the University of Kent called E-PAtS (Early Positive Approaches to Support) and recently 47 parents from across Northern Ireland received their certificates on completing the new programme and celebrated with a family fun day at the Mencap Centre in Belfast.

Over 100 attended the family fun day, which was organised at the request of parents so they could come together and meet each other’s families, as many strong bonds have been made amongst the parents who took part in the E-PAtS programme.  

Parents supporting parents is a key part of the E-PAtS Programme and all training is conducted with a local parent facilitator. Five parents and five Mencap staff have been trained in Belfast to help deliver the E-PAtS programme.

Jonny Collins, whose son Noah attended the Mencap Children’s Centre in Belfast last year has now become a trainer and facilitator for the E-PAtS Programme. 

"E-PAtS was great, I learned so much. I didn’t realise until I had done the programme that Noah was always communicating through his eyes, even if he did not say many words.”

“The E-PAtS course was brilliant because it gives you a voice. When you join the course you are given a file explaining all the things that you are entitled to throughout the programme."

"The amount of friends and support groups that we have made has been great. It makes you realise that you are not alone.”


The E-PAtS Parent Support Programme was developed by the Tizzard Centre at the University of Kent by Doctor Nick Gore and Dr Jill Bradshaw, called the ‘Early Positive Approach to Support’ (E-PAtS). The programme focuses on areas that families of children with a learning disability really need help with, such as communication, sleep, behavioural issues and personal well-being.

Dr Nick Gore has been directly involved in setting up the Northern Ireland programme, he said:

“E-PAtS has been developed through ongoing partnerships with a range of professionals and the families of children with learning disabilities over the past five years, initiated by funding from the estate of the late Patricia Collen. Patricia, who had a learning disability, spent much of her childhood and adult life living in Normansfield Hospital in Teddington, England, but in later years experienced high quality community support living in a service provided by Mencap. Whilst this was a joyful period for Patricia her family questioned how different life could have been with better opportunities and support at an earlier stage.”


“The vision of E-PAtS, has therefore been to ensure positive lives for children with a learning disability and their families from the get go."

"Working with families and staff at the Mencap Centre has been a fantastic opportunity to move a big step closer to this aim."

"Facilitators and organisers have shown a much needed mix of skills, sensitivity, enthusiasm and commitment to getting things right – I’m really grateful for their hard work and very much look forward to working together more in the future."


The E-PAtS programme provides parents with space to share the joys and challenges they have faced and provides a practical toolkit to support them with new strategies that can reduce challenging behaviour, improve communication with their child and improve the family’s wellbeing and resilience.

The E-PAtS journey can be an emotional one. Amy Harron, whose son Finn attended the Mencap Children’s Centre, said:

“I found the E-PAtS course more emotional than I’d expected. I think everyone did, especially because it focuses on you as a person in terms of how you’ve responded over the past few years." 

"It helps you think about how you felt or how you’ve looked after yourself, your family or your partner and all of these things that you need to think about, but it’s easy to forget about when you have so much going on.”


The next phase of the E-PAtS programme starts in Belfast in October 2017 (this month).  Alongside E-PAtS, Mencap NI are developing a programme of workshops and courses for parents to learn Makaton, advice on the Educational Statement process, play workshops to support children’s learning and development, holistic therapies as well as social events to bring parents and their wider family circle together. 

Maragret Kelly, Director of Mencap NI said:

“We are committed to ensuring all children with a learning disability have the best start in life and E-PAtS is a very practical part of that commitment.  E-PAtS is aimed at intervening early and providing parents with skills to support their child’s development and life chances.  It is our universal offer to all parents who have a child with a learning disability or significant developmental delay. Over the next year we will be expanding our range of family support services to build on the excellent work of E-PAtS and develop our support for parents.