A Whole Family Approach to Reach Parents and Children Together

In a September 13, 2016 blog on the Bernard van Leer Foundation website, Joan Lombardi presents a new report released by Ascend at The Aspen Institute and the Bernard van Leer Foundation, entitled Breaking the Cycle of Poverty: Whole Family Approach. The report is the culmination of work launched by the two organizations to develop an approach that recognizes the importance of quality early childhood services and efforts to improve conditions in the family.  This work builds on the pioneering work of Ascend to promote a “two generation approach”, essential to reducing poverty and improving child development.

Joan Lombardi notes, “One of the first principles that one learns in studying child development is the importance of an ecological approach.  This approach assumes that child development is most directly influenced by the family and in turn the family is influenced by the community and the policies that surround them.”

The report encourages organizations such as colleges and training programs in the community (who may be working with the adults in children’s lives in areas such as employment, training and income support programs or health, nutrition and social support) to:

  • Recognize the importance of integrating parenting support within their services.
  • Partner with those organizations in a community that serve children. “No one program can do this alone; partnerships are essential.”

“If we want to address poverty and the impact it has on children, we have to help increase the employment and education prospects of parents and break the inter-generational cycle that can plague poor families.”

The report documents successful efforts taking place around the world that can broaden our thinking and promote new initiatives, and points out, “The demographics of families in poverty around the world may be diverse, but parents’ dreams for their children are similar everywhere:  good health, a good education, economic stability and a better future”.

The report notes,  “Child development is influenced by both access to early childhood services and by the overall conditions and well-being of the family. It is also influenced by the quality of the relationships children have with parents and in early childhood services. In addition, research shows that intergenerational education affects many areas of children’s lives, and these effects persist over time.  Parents’ level of educational attainment is the best predictor of economic mobility for their children.  Similarly, boosting parents’ income is likely to have positive effects on their children, primarily when this boost takes place during early childhood.”

Whole Family Approach

The authors of the report state, “A whole family approach is built on the premise that conditions that affect the family will have an impact on child development as will the direct experiences of the child.  Cooperation between multiple sectors is necessary to break the cycle of poverty and increase the education, health and well-being, and economic stability of children and the adults in their lives.  Whole family approaches provide a framework for looking at problems and strengths and creating more sustainable solutions…Moreover, what is good for the family is good for society.  They acknowledge that women and children’s rights are human rights.  Giving children a strong start in life and creating stability for the family require a focus on the whole, and in particular, on children’s well-being and on parents (mothers, fathers, grandparents, and other caregivers) as agents of change.”

Ascend at the Aspen Institute was launched in 2010 to catalyze conversations, leadership, and solutions around a two-generation approach, focusing on children and parents together, to build family economic security, educational success, and health and well-being.  Recognizing the alignment in their work and values, the Bernard van Leer Foundation and Ascend joined forces in 2015 to begin exploring what a whole family framework could mean in low- and middle-income countries.

Whole family approaches, also known as ‘two-generation’ or ‘+parent support’, are a response to the research that has documented the impact of a parent’s education, economic stability, and overall health on a child’s developmental trajectory. They are also a response to research that documents how children’s education and healthy development are powerful catalysts for parents.  A key element of the whole family approach is identifying goals, providing services and support, and tracking progress for both children and the adults in their lives.  “In practice, that means high quality early childhood services are provided simultaneously with services for adult and overall family stability and parenting support to promote development of the youngest children and improve overall family well-being.”

The primary changes in approach involve:

  • Serving the whole family
  • Emphasizing care and education
  • Actively promoting responsible parenting, family life, self-efficacy, and leadership skills
  • Partnering and collaborating amongst agencies to provide access to:
    • Secondary and tertiary education for parents
    • Health care, including mental health services
    • Income supports
    • Career development and vocational training
    • Focusing on both mothers and fathers as responsible parties
    • Articulating and tracking outcomes for both children and parents

The report notes, “Decades of research have demonstrated how quickly babies’ brains grow and respond to their environments, highlighting the importance of early care and education.  Recent evidence shows that the brains of new parents also undergo major structural and functional changes and that these changes support good parenting…During this transition, parents with risk factors like postpartum depression or a history of insensitive parenting experience less responsive brain development.  This brings them to their role as new parents with less supportive biology, making the challenge of parenting even tougher.  All new parents, regardless of their histories, can create a healthy start for their children and families.  Understanding how experiences and environment affect parents’ brains can help parents, service providers, and policymakers design coping strategies and approaches that mitigate risks, maximize strengths, and give families a healthy, positive start.”

The report identifies the core components of a whole family approach as:

  • High-quality early childhood development
  • Secondary and tertiary education and employment pathways
  • Heath and well-being
  • Economic assets

The authors comment that few, if any organizations can offer all these components, so “strong partnerships with shared goals and mutual accountability are critical to providing holistic services for a family”.

The report emphasizes the key role of early childhood development programs by offering an important gateway to whole family approaches.  “They provide more than care and education for children; they partner with parents and serve as a trusted resource.  The emphasis on learning and development can provide an opening for parents to explore their own hopes for the future and increase their parenting skills and confidence, which can contribute to success in employment or continued education.  Research shows that children can serve as a motivator for adults, particularly mothers.   This mutual motivation suggests that the benefits of whole family programs that build on the platform of investments in early childhood may be greater than the sum of their separate programmatic parts.”

The report also emphasizes the significance of economic assets to child development.  “Increased family income during early childhood can have a profound and lasting impact on children’s lives.  Research in the US shows that a $3,000 difference in income for low-income parents when their child is young is associated with a 17% increase in the child’s future earnings.”  They also stress the importance of savings and other financial assets to a family’s security.  “According to the World Bank, three-quarters of the world’s poor lack a bank account because of poverty, costs, travel distances and the often burdensome requirements involved in opening an account.  Being ‘unbanked’ is linked to income inequality…Other research shows that children with as little as $1 to $499 in an account designated for higher education are more likely to enroll and graduate.”  Affordable and safe transportation, housing and food assistance are also identified as key supports that can help lead to economic stability for families and have lasting and far-reaching effects on children.

Key operating principles of a whole-family approach:

  • Coordinating and aligning child and adult systems and funding streams. “Delivering whole family services requires the blending and coordinating of funds.  Aligning and linking systems at the regional and community level – eligibility standards, performance benchmarks, and coordinated administrative structures – while simultaneously pursuing improved outcomes for both parents and children will lead to whole family success.”
  • Prioritizing intentional implementation. “Being intentional about implementation details is essential.  Support for the direct-service workforce, careful consideration of program outcomes, attention to the level and intensity of services, and the use of data are all critical details that will ensure that child and parent outcomes match the intent.”
  • Measuring and accounting for outcomes for children and the adults in their lives. “Assessing how well programs and policies meet a family’s needs should include indicators that measure the impact on both children and parents.”
  • Ensuring equity. “Whole family approaches should evaluate and fix structural problems that create gender and/or racial and ethnic disparities in the ways services and assistance are provided.”
  • Ensuring interventions are culturally appropriate. “Design of whole family approaches must be based on the social and cultural context of the families they are designed to serve….Underpinning whole family approaches must be a commitment to listen to families and ensure their perspectives and experience inform program and policy design.”
  • Fostering innovation and evidence together. “Organizations should tap insights from prior evidence-based research and work at both policy and program levels to build upon what has worked for families….Policies should strongly encourage the integration of innovative approaches into emerging evidence, evaluations of effectiveness, and best practice.”
  • Building social capital. “According to a recent survey, low-income mothers with children enrolled in child care centers were 40% less likely to be depressed than those whose children were not enrolled.  The friendships mothers developed through the centers were also important sources of information and support.  In addition, many programs have found that building peer support groups for participants in higher education and workforce development efforts is an important factor in program completion.”