By Dawn Powers
The Vermont Agency of Human Services (AHS) is striving to create and integrate a sustainable, systems-wide Strengthening Families (SF) approach. This is an evidence-based approach focused on increasing family strengths, while simultaneously promoting child development, and reducing risk of child abuse and neglect. Identification and promotion of protective factors for children and families is a critical element to this approach.
Implementing this approach doesn’t necessarily mean significant or disruptive change to the current system. Rather, these changes are often small but influential. Simple changes in daily practice, such as program self-assessment and accountability, can make a big difference.
A recent investment through the Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge Grant in 2013 allowed Vermont to expand its Strengthening Families Child Care Initiative to family child care homes and to fund an evaluation of the SF child care model in VT. Another project guided by Strengthening Families is Help Me Grow Vermont (HMG VT). This system enhancer supports the field and existing services through developmental screenings that help identify at-risk children, promote protective factors, and connect families to services and resources in their community, who may otherwise be missed.
Applying the Strengthening Families approach across our early childhood system is critical to improving outcomes for children and families. In this blog, I am going to focus on the Strengthening Families Child Care Initiative for both center and home providers in the Caledonia/Southern Essex regions.
What are the five protective factors?
There are five protective factors that are central to the Strengthening Families approach. These factors are:
- Parental resilience
- Social connections
- Knowledge of parenting and child development
- Concrete supports in time of need, and
- Social and emotional competence of children
Programs that are able to foster these five factors have been shown to have greater positive outcomes for children, families, and communities.
A Look at the Approach in Practice
Little Dipper Doodles Child Care Center (LDDCC) was graciously willing to discuss their experience with putting the Strengthening Families approach into practice. Betsy Bailey, Owner/Director, and Marie Sullivan, Family Outreach Coordinator, offered their insight.
Strengthening Families is not a program, it is a framework or model, Marie explained. Strengthening Families Child Care grant recipients need to have four or five STARS in Vermont’s Step Ahead Recognition System (STARS), have CDD Specialized Child Care Status, and have 25% enrollment in the Child Care Financial Assistance Program. In addition, programs need to provide a broad range of comprehensive services and implement strategies identified in the SF approach. Participating childcare centers and registered homes complete the SF training and then utilize this approach to promote the five Protective Factors in their program.
Marie emphasized the importance of getting to know children and their families in order to build a relationship and strengthen social connections. As a program, you are then able to meet the family’s needs based on their current profile. In addition, trainings and resources can be offered to families to increase knowledge of parenting and child development.
One key component of the approach is case management for families with multiple service needs, or acute services – such as car repairs or insurance – to provide concrete support in times of need. Betsy explained that as a center, they have also been able to advocate for families at meetings in order to ensure that community services and agencies are accountable. This helps the center’s resources to reach further, while also promoting multifaceted, interdisciplinary support for families in accessing multiple, needed community resources.
Each teacher participates in a 17-hour Strengthening Families Toolbox training and is expected to use these skills in their daily practice, including efforts to strengthen social and emotional competence in children. Betsy, Marie, and Cigi Sterling, the administrative team, are available to support staff as well. Staff meetings are utilized to discuss this model and any issues in practice: A process known as “reflective practice.”
The Strengthening Families Child Care grant program funds this effort. Loss of funding would make it difficult – or impossible – for SF child care programs to maintain current service levels. Case management, for example, would be reduced.
Kingdom Child Care Connection (KCCC) at Umbrella completed an RFP to be a hub for family child care providers as part of the second round of the Strengthening Families Child Care initiative. They received this grant in 2014 for a three-year pilot. This Caledonia/Southern Essex child care pilot consisted of 12 local home child care providers. All providers participated in the 17-hour Strengthening Families Toolbox training as well as an additional 12 hours of training called Strengthening Families (SF) Essentials, which is a deeper dive into the protective factors framework.
In between training sessions, providers used both individual and group reflective practice through both a parent lens and program lens using the SF approach. Providers met once a month for 36 months where participants learned a new training module or held group reflective practice. In addition, each provider participated in individual reflective practice based on their program assessment – this included goal setting related to SF program assessment or assistance with STARS as well as parent relationship building and support with navigating the early childhood and community resource systems.
The grant included funds to support stipends for participating child care providers, a generous flexible family fund allocation, and support for KCCC staff time and mileage. The flexible funding associated with this grant was beneficial in supporting families in so many ways including home and car repairs, dumpster cost to remove mold in home, summer camp, snow tires, and beyond. Providers increased resource knowledge and were able to support families with a warm hand off without just referring families to Kingdom Child Care Connection. Providers presented SF activities to families and, in doing so, stepped out of their home provider roles.
Providers received an annual stipend to participate in the hub. In addition, the hub sponsored two family fun events to strengthen social connections between families– a family bowling event with 840 games of bowling played as well as family time at Kingdom Children’s gymnastics – where families engaged in activities with their children. The wrap around services experienced by families and individual/group reflective practice for providers made this hub a successful model in Caledonia and Southern Essex.
The hub pilot concluded December 31, 2017. The coordinator for this project, Kim Buxton, reported consistent participation and individual growth for all providers who participated in this peer cohort. “Providers as a group reviewed every flexible family funding application; they took ownership of process- reviewed and processed as a group. Often providers live parallel lives with families and need to check in with their own biases for an opportunity for self-reflection.”
KCCC no longer has the funding or the staffing capacity to support the SF work as it did with this hub. However, Kim Buxton shares that she is an SF trainer and is available to continue both toolbox and essential trainings until 2019 in her VAEYC role for Strengthening Families programs and providers who have added SF to their STARS application.
What are the challenges and benefits of this approach?
Despite the many benefits evidenced by this approach, challenges also exist. Betsy at LDDCC noted that staff are often on call 24/7, working during the evenings and even into the night. Administration needs to set boundaries with staff and families in order to support families without being triangulated into the family’s stressors. Often, staff also face similar struggles as the families they are serving, including financial stressors.
That being said, one key benefit of the Strengthening Families Child Care model is that, though many families are resistant to the comprehensive interview at enrollment or the significant involvement of the childcare program, many are later grateful for this involvement. Families with FSD-DCF involvement have identified the partnership of the child care program as a support. Support to families also promotes retention and continuity of care for children. Families choose to stay due to the strong relationships with staff and ongoing emotional support, as well as financial support in times of crisis. Parent surveys have identified comprehensive support and services as beneficial.
These two examples of putting the Protective Factors of the Strengthening Families approach into practice in child care centers and homes provide insight into how we can continue to expand this model throughout our early childhood system and throughout Vermont.