Recent changes in social policy are having a significant impact on the delivery of human services. At the same time, multiple factors are placing children and their families at increased risk for negative outcomes. In the midst of this turmoil, early childhood education educators must remain committed to a family-focused philosophy that has the potential to improve the quality of life for children with disabilities and their families. This article discusses six principles associated with strength-based approaches to family support: a philosophy based on family strength; a partnership approach to service provision; a family-centered, family-driven agenda; an individualized response to family needs and capacities; a broad-based, comprehensive view of family development; and an assessment of outcomes based on family functioning and the quality of life of family members. Challenges in implementing strength-based, family support approaches for families with multiple risks are discussed and implications for policy and research are presented.
Recent changes in social policy are having a significant impact on the delivery of human services. Among these changes are the restructuring of the health and behavioral health-care systems as a result of managed care and Medicaid waiver programs, the decreased role of the federal government in the funding of social service systems, the implementation of welfare reform packages, the call for “leveraging” of funds among service agencies, and the increased emphasis on outcome measures and performance-based budgeting methods. Each of these policies has been developed in an effort to rectify problems in existing systems, but the interactive effect of implementing multiple policy changes simultaneously is creating turmoil in social service systems (Kagan, 1996).
At the same time, societal circumstances that create risks for children and families are increasingly pervasive. Job market volatility, economic instability, overworked and underfunded social service agencies, increased problems with substance abuse, community and family violence, and neighborhood disintegration expose children and families to multiple risks. This collection of risk factors works in synergistic ways to compromise a child’s development (Schorr & Schorr, 1988; Simeonsson, 1994), and families exposed to multiple risks are more likely to have children who demonstrate poor developmental outcomes or serious emotional problems (Knitzer, Steinberg, & Fleisch, 1990).
In the last decade, early childhood special educators have been challenged to view early intervention as family support rather than as a child-focused endeavor (Bailey, Buysse, Edmonson, & Smith, 1992). The impetus for a focus on families grew from lessons learned in the deficit-oriented programs of the 60s and 70s (Dunst, Johanson, Trivette, & Hamby, 1991). A family-focused approach is based on at least three assumptions: (a) that children and families represent an interdependent family system; (b) that intervention is more powerful when families are involved and supported; and (c) that family members should have a voice in all aspects of services that are provided to them. Part H of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 (now the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1990) marked a shift from disability programs that had a “charitable” origin to an effort that acknowledged both the importance of empowering families and the merits of a prevention perspective in the provision of early intervention supports (Florian, 1995).
Although legislation has mandated a family-centered approach and provided a mechanism for delivering family supports through the Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP), professionals face many challenges in the provision of services. Professionals who provide supports to families must have the philosophical orientation that supports a family-centered approach and an ability to provide supports within a transdisciplinary framework (Gallagher & Desimone, 1995; McCollum, Rowan, & Thorp, 1994). Compounding those challenges are the complex difficulties that face early interventionists as they support families who may experience pervasive poverty, intrafamily and community violence, inadequate health care, and substance abuse. Early interventionists are likely to be overwhelmed by the pervasiveness of difficulties facing multi-risk families and unsure of ways in which to provide appropriate support.
In this article, we propose that an examination of family support approaches will offer guidance for providing intervention and supports to multi-risk families. The family support movement represents a fundamental change in the philosophy, goals, and processes that guide the delivery of social services. These new approaches, which actually have their roots in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, are characterized by six principles: (a) Family support services must be delivered from a strength-based and capacity-building approach (Dunst, Trivette, & Thompson, 1994; Weissbourd & Kagan, 1989); (b) families and service providers must work together in partnership (Dunst & Paget, 1991; Dunst, Trivette, & Johanson, 1994; Rappaport, 1981); (c) support services must be family centered and family driven (Dunst & Trivette, 1994); (d) support services must be individualized at the family as well as the child levels (Dokecki & Heflinger, 1989; Karp, 1996); (e) family support services must be broad based and comprehensive (Weissbourd & Kagan, 1989); and (f) outcomes must be measured not solely as changes in an individual but as improvements in the quality of life and functioning of the entire family (Weissbourd & Kagan, 1989; Zigler & Berman, 1983). This article describes each of the principles that characterize strength-based approaches to family support and major issues associated with implementation of these principles. Implications for policy and research are also presented.