As we transition into summer, many of us are reflecting on the past year and how we supported our families. What strategies did we use and how effective were they? How did we collaborate with families for mutual support? What did we learn from our family engagement practices? As the saying goes, hindsight is 20/20. Last month we tuned into a key aspect of family partnerships, specifically gathering feedback from families to build stronger programs.
This month we focus on bringing a strengths-based approach to our family needs assessments. We will discuss what a strengths-based mindset looks like in family partnerships, key factors to consider, and what strategies and tools can support this process.
What is a strengths-based approach?
As we mentioned in our Family Engagement tip in December 2020, a strengths-based approach is a way of interacting with families that is grounded in understanding and developing the strengths and capabilities of the families we serve. It starts from the belief that each person has unique strengths and capabilities that determine their evolving story, instead of allowing perceived limitations to define them. This capacity building effort is a process and a goal that evolves with time.
A strengths-based approach to family engagement holds onto two key assumptions: 1) all families have strengths, and 2) All families are doing their best, given their reality. When we connect with families, making sure to build trusting and open relationships, we get to understand what their reality looks like.
We need to build relationships with families if we want them to feel comfortable sharing their strengths and needs with us. Check out this infographic below for specific ways to build relationships with families to build trust and show our support for them.
Moving on from "Family Needs Assessment"
Typically, family needs assessments focus on what families hope to gain from their early learning program or the ways the program can support the family that will improve the child’s well-being. Here we hope to flip that mindset by rethinking this process and offering a family strengths and needs assessment. Reimagining our typical family needs assessment into a family strengths and needs assessment allows us to value families as equal partners with valuable insights and capabilities, in turn leveling up the work we do together. Our family engagement moves from being one-sided, “Early educators help families because they have these needs”, to a more symmetrical style of “Early educators and families work together to help meet family needs”. This creates the opportunity to recognize family strengths and empower the families, particularly in support of their child’s wellbeing. What’s more, when we show families that we value their strengths, they may feel more comfortable discussing their needs.
Going back to our first assumption: all families have strengths – they have something to share! These are often known as funds of knowledge which consist of the everyday knowledge and skills that contribute to the overall success of the family, which are passed down from generation to generation. This knowledge comes from life experiences, particularly relevant information to their location, culture, local norms, social groups, etc.
We already tap into a family’s knowledge of their child. However, each family has so much knowledge that we may not be considering. Check out this box on the right for other funds of knowledge that families have.
What are some funds of knowledge that families have?
- Home language
- Learning & communication styles
- Family values and traditions
- Location & transportation methods
- Friends & family network
- Community & safety systems
- Household habits & chores
- Family occupations
- Educational & recreational activities
- Media (TV, movies, books, etc.)
- Health knowledge
Preparing for a Strengths and Needs Assessment
Taking a strengths-based approach often means our programs will consider different preparations before changing our family engagement practices. We can prepare families and staff by creating comfortable opportunities to discuss, train, and practice for this type of approach.
- Actively choose a strengths-based mindset: In addition to learning about a strengths-based mindset and setting up programming accordingly, we as program staff reflect and incorporate this mindset into all of our interactions with families; whether that’s direct (speaking to families and children) or indirectly (speaking about families). We are intentional and consistent in actively choosing a strengths-based mindset.
- Recognize what we bring to the interaction: This includes our own ideas, biases, expectations, assumptions, emotions, judgement, etc. Being aware of our thinking and perspective helps us get closer to assuming families are doing their best and have something to share.
- Consider the family member’s perspectives: Families can come with different experiences in tow; some may be eager to receive support and others may be skeptical or cautious in sharing and opening up. Many families can feel a mix of emotions. One of the most powerful messages we can share with a family is to clearly say “I am not here to dwell on negative aspects of your family’s life, but rather work with your family to identify goals and support your family in moving forward.”
- Build trusting relationships: Consider how to empathetically approach families. Conversations on needs assessments or other family matters can feel intrusive and judgmental if approached without building some connection with the family. Check out our previously shared infographic for some ideas.
- Be careful about making assumptions about families strengths and needs: We can work with families to co-create a full panorama of their strengths and needs. This can ensure that we share requested resources or supports, not those we may think of based on the assumption that a family has a certain need or strength.
- Choose what strategies work for your program and families to capture family strengths and needs:
- One-on-one strategies:
- A casual conversation with a family with where the provider takes notes on strengths/needs during or afterwards,
- A guided conversation between a provider and family to collaboratively fill out assessment forms,
- Provide families with assessment forms, with a provider available for on-the-spot assistance
- Remote alternative: Provide families with assessments forms (electronically or printed) to complete on their own time – with provider contact information available for questions and/or instructions or video provided for guidance
- Group settings: Offer large sessions for step-by-step demonstrations to support families on how to fill out assessments, where providers can direct the overall group and/or attend to each family.
- One-on-one strategies:
- Choose or create tools that assist with collecting family strengths and needs:
- Family Needs, Interests, and Strengths Assessment to gain an understanding of where the family is and develop shared goals with families. This 1-page assessment, adapted from ECLKC, focuses on family wellbeing, school readiness, and parenting/family/personal aspects.
- Funds of Knowledge worksheet to accompany existing family needs assessment, similar to this example provided by OHS National Centers.
- Eco-map worksheet to represent the family’s connections, resources, and supports and the relative strength of each, as is shared on page 12 of WestEd’s Assessment of Family Strengths and Needs. Figure 1 is an example of this tool.
- Train staff on the selected tool(s). Make sure to include practice scenarios to complete the tool with different types of families/family members to further help staff feel ready to adapt.
- Decide how to capture insights from these assessments to get an overview of all families’ strengths and needs. This will be particularly helpful for planning program activities and family service plans.
- General counts: What strengths, needs, and/or interests show up the most across all families in the program?
- Individual family service plans: Once we have worked with a family to identify these strengths, needs, and interests, we can co-create a plan that works for everyone and counts on the family’s strengths and our programs services.
Of the ideas shared here, consider how to adapt certain suggestions and/or select the ones that are most suitable for your program’s capacity and requirements in a way that creates a comfortable environment for families to share. Family child care programs can simplify many of these ideas and tools for their purposes and family interaction styles. With a little creativity and communication, these implementation steps can also be completed in person or virtually.
Strategies for a Strengths-Based Approach
Breaking it down: A Strengths-Based Needs Assessment in Parts
Once our programs have laid the groundwork for supportive relationships with families, picked our key tools, and prepped our staff, we can start up the process of a family strengths and needs assessment. These next steps are a flexible guideline that programs can adjust for their protocol and capacities.
- Get to know family strengths. What is working? Starting with a family’s strengths helps start this type of interaction on an empowering note. It is important to explicitly acknowledge and support what a family is already doing and what is going well.
- Co-identify family needs. What may not be working or could work better? We can share previous examples of how we have supported and collaborated with other families to clearly show how a family can benefit from opening up and sharing their needs. This can include the child’s specific needs and the family’s overall needs. Here we can check-in with families to touch base on which needs they do or do not want program support in addressing.
What to do with this information: Macro and Micro Levels
3. Share program supports and resources: Depending on how a family’s assessment was completed (on their own or in person), we need to be timely in recognizing what is shared with us. Now we can bring our program supports and services to the table, clearly explaining what we can do as a team. It is important to answer any pending questions or clarify any offerings.
4. Co-create a plan that utilizes family strengths and program offerings to address family needs:
- Integrate families’ strengths into programming: A family’s strengths can be used in combination with program offerings to meet their needs. Once we have reviewed the family’s strengths and needs as well as the program offerings, we can co-design a plan that take advantage of the strengths and works for both parties!
- Suggest and facilitate collaborations across families such as two families helping each other out with drop-off and pick-up times if they are having issues with scheduling transportation, if both families are comfortable.
- Create a provider-family representative committee after a round of assessments to work with family representatives in brainstorming creative solutions that programs & families can execute, based on the assessment data and insights found.
- Offer group or program-wide encounters with community agencies to address many families’ needs on a larger-scale by connecting them to community supports like resource centers, job training programs, etc.
- Schedule program activities directly addressing families’ needs using in-house program services like parenting classes, family game nights, etc.
- Nominate and prepare “family leaders” who have had positive and empowering experiences with the assessment and resulting collaborative support with the program. These family leaders can support new or less engaged families with these assessments by sharing their story, encouraging these families, and supporting the trust between the program and families.
*For more ideas in addition to above, check out last month’s family engagement tip on gathering family feedback for stronger programs for ways to collaborate with families on program efforts.
5. Periodically reassess plans with family: What’s working? What needs another look or more suitable support? These conversations are a good chance to share changes, new needs, program offerings, etc. that may affect the supports/services selected for families. Consider asking for feedback from each family:
- After Completing the family strengths and needs assessments, survey families on how comfortable the approach was, what was helpful, what can be improved, etc.
- After Collaborating over a long period of working together (ex. 6 months, 1 program year), survey or interview a family to debrief on their experience with this approach. Gathering wisdom from older families who have experience with this approach in our program can help us better prepare and support new families. Check out more of these nuggets of wisdom from page 27 of WestEd’s Assessment of Family Strengths and Needs.
As early educators, we have all come across strong and capable families. Taking a strengths-based approach to reimage the family needs assessment is our chance to believe in and empower families! What’s more, we will find that families and providers will experience more confidence and bring out the best in each other.
Check out these ready-to-use resources for early education programs and families.
- WestEd – Assessment of Family Strengths and Needs
- Head Start – Family Needs, Interests, and Strengths Assessment (English) – (Spanish version below)
- Head Start – Evaluación de Necesidades, Intereses, y Fuerzas de Familia
- California Dept of Education – Family Engagement Toolkit
- OHS National Center on Cultural and Linguistic Responsiveness – Funds of Knowledge Handout
- National Center on Parent, Family, and Community Engagement – Strategies for Family Engagement: Attitudes and Practices
Family Education Coordinator, Quality Start Los Angeles
Cristina Espinoza has worked as a family and youth development professional for 5 years, including having served as a Peace Corps Volunteer as a youth development promoter in Costa Rica. In conjunction with Quality Start Los Angeles, Cristina is passionate about supporting families to feel empowered in the changing landscape of their surroundings with their children’s wellbeing at the forefront. She is a champion of strengths-based systems and services that build resilient families and youth.