what kinds of work does partnership involve, and how can I navigate fluidly between them?
The first pathway for expertise focuses on fluid movement between four distinct activities that relate to change, and so help to understand how impact is created through partnership.
Each activity has a different focus and purpose and involves different helper and parent responsibilities. Each activity also requires different forms of helper expertise, and different ways in which that expertise is brought to bear in work with parents.
Understanding what is happening - "Show me the ball"
Expanding new ways of making sense, imagining possibility - "Let's look differently at the ball"
Doing something practical together - "Let's hold the ball together"
Considering the factors that might buttress change in the long term - "How will it be for you holding this new ball?"
How one activity leads to and shapes another is a crucial part of the dynamic flow of impactful partnership
The four activities reveal how helper expertise can be used effectively in partnership. They also show how helper expertise comes into productive entanglement with what parents know. All the interactions we studied could be described in terms of these four activities .
Each activity contributes to larger change, but also brings about change in its own right, another example of the ‘small things, big effects’ principle.
Please note that the quotes in this section are from interviews with helpers.
Key concept: partnership activity
The term ‘partnership activity’ is used here in both an everyday and a particular, conceptual, sense. In everyday terms, it refers simply to what helpers and parents do together when working in partnership – talking, reflecting, carrying out physical actions, and so on.
The concept partnership activity connects it with the learning theory that informed the ideas about the optimal challenge zone (and zone of proximal development). In this sense, activity is defined as something that people do together that is oriented around a particular purpose, or shaped by particular motives . Shifting from one partnership activity to another therefore implies a change in what is being worked on. The goals or bigger issues that drive the partnership can stay the same but the focus within this shifts.
A shift from one activity to another brings with it changes in the responsibilities and expectations of both helpers and parents. It also requires different forms of expertise to be drawn on and brought to bear in different ways (e.g. through particular kinds of questioning or physical actions).
So, dynamic flow between partnership activities in the conceptual sense isn’t just about each change in topic or change in what the partners are doing. The idea points to changes that have implications for expertise and responsibility. All the partnership work documented in this study was done through the four distinct activities shown below .
Work done in one partnership activity typically shapes what happens in other activities. It can surface the need to shift into another activity or produce a resource that enables another activity to go beyond what was previously possible.
locating and orienting change
Show me the ball
Exploring the challenges facing a family, understanding the problem from the parents' point of view, and seeing this in the context of the family circumstances, history, and hopes for the future
Impactful partnership requires helpers to have a deep knowledge of how parents experience particular problems. This can be thought of as show me the ball.
“I’m asking all this so I can think about the best strategies for you.”
The purpose of this activity is to understand the past – what has been happening and the effects on the family. It also begins the process of looking prospectively towards desired futures.
“That seems to be working well for you.”
The helper is responsible for asking appropriate questions and listening attentively. Parents are responsible for answering fully and honestly, even when these questions bring up strong emotions and relate to difficult issues.
“What do you think has brought about the change?”
Locating and orienting change depends on specific forms of expertise. Helpers need to be good at making parents feel comfortable, asking difficult questions in non-threatening ways, and listening/watching for subtle cues that indicate there may be more going on. Helpers also need to use their specialist expertise to know what contextual features might be relevant, and to infer significance in what parents are saying.
How the helper follows up matters greatly. Responses can affirm parents as capable and begin the work of getting them to recognise their own knowledge and take it seriously.
We found this activity was sometimes enough to bring about spontaneous change . Just talking about problems to someone who cares but doesn’t judge can have important effects (see Making change happen).
creating new meaning for change
Let's look differently at the ball
Expanding ways of understanding the problem and what might be possible; often involves challenging parents' views of themselves as failing
Concrete change for families begins with, and depends on, understanding problems in new ways. This is what brings solutions into view and can be thought of as let’s look differently at the ball. This is a key way in which partnership is mind-expanding, as the same problems (child behaviours, parent struggles) are looked at with new eyes and imbued with new meanings that form the basis of new actions.
“What have you read or been told about this?”
The purpose is to re-interpret the past and anticipate the future in terms of ways to tackle the problem. Helpers often take the lead here, offering alternative explanations of why things have been happening and what might address them.
“What do you think is going through her mind when that happens?”
Parents need to have an open mind, and to communicate when things don’t make sense or when they are doubtful about new meanings. This is crucial: if parents aren’t convinced new meanings make sense and are relevant to them, they won't accept them as a basis for change.
“You said it went well the other day, what did you do that time?”
When this is done well, helpers enrol parents in the process so that new meanings come from parents as much as possible.
This not only makes bigger changes possible, but also results in parents having new relationships with the problems they are facing, in terms of how they understand causes and solutions.
Change through joint live action
Let's hold the ball together
When particular care-giving needs arise during the interaction, helpers can get involved and provide direct support in-the-moment; they can lead, guide, prompt, offer commentary on what is going on
This occurs when helpers offer hands-on support when a child needs immediate attention. It can arise when settling, feeding, or responding to toddler tantrums, for example, and can be thought of as let’s hold the ball together. In these moments, the helper supports actions that lie in a parent’s ZPD (see challenging effectively) in-the-moment, as the new actions are happening - often for the first time.
“What you did was lovely, telling her what’s expected.”
The helper guides and supports parents in-the-moment. Parents are asked to follow this guidance, and communicate if they are finding it hard or uncomfortable.
“Did you hear that silence? Does she do that at home sometimes?”
To do this well, helpers have to be really good at giving clear guidance, reading children’s cues, assessing how parents are doing, and explaining why they are suggesting particular things.
‘He’s responded beautifully to those strategies you’re using: your hands, your voice.”
On nearly every occasion of joint live action, success was defined in terms of giving it a go – trying something out to see if it worked, giving the child practice. This reduces the risk of failure and helps to make each instance of live action an example of positive change (even if, for example, the child still needs to be held in arms to settle).
Planning for change
How will it be for you holding this new ball?
Impactful partnership relies on positive changes becoming embedded in families and lasting over time; so, helpers have to consider the factors that might buttress ways forward and deal with risks that could pull things backwards
Much effort and progress can be wasted if changes are not put in wider family context. The most successful cases we studied involved careful planning after possible solutions and strategies were identified. This can be thought of as parents holding a new (lighter) ball.
“We talked about how sometimes things go along really well and then, because children grow and change, there might be some change in what she wants to be happening and how, what she would do about that.”
The helper is responsible for asking relevant questions. These depend on the helper knowing factors that can impede change, such as parents neglecting self care. Parents have to disclose things that might get in the way of embedding change in the family.
This creates change in itself by helping parents realise how other issues connect with the problem they are working on. It also initiates bigger changes.
sequence of activities
These activities don't normally happen in one smooth sequence. In most of the cases we studied, the focus changed frequently and often rapidly from one activity to another. The diagrams below show how different interactions in home visiting and day stay services unfolded in terms of the four activities. Each activity is given a separate colour (see key). This shows that there is not a single best way of going through the activities, but rather how navigating these is part of the evolving art of impactful partnership.
The diagrams should be read from left to right, top to bottom, like a normal page of text. Each square represents a short interaction focused on one of the four activities. Several in a row show that this was sustained for a while, and a big block of the same colour shows one activity lasted for considerable time.
When done well, each activity creates new possibilities for the others. For example, live action could prompt new meanings and help realise aspects of planning that need attention. Hence, the four activities are in a dynamic and expansive relationship with each other.
This interaction (from a day stay service) involved relatively sustained focus on each activity in turn, beginning with locating and orienting change. Having explored the issues from the parent's point of view, the practitioner then led a discussion about different ways to understand and respond to the problem, which related to settling a child for sleep. When the child got tired, this created an opportunity for joint live action, and when the child was asleep, they moved into the planning activity, reflecting on what had worked, and considering how new settling practices could become embedded back at home.
This interaction, from a home visiting service, shifted between activities much more rapidly. The mother frequently raised new issues for discussion, and the practitioner had to balance moving onto new topics with coming back to those that required further consideration. So, there were lots of cycles of the mother 'showing the ball' followed by the helper expanding meanings and possibilities. Several moments of joint live action arose, due to the child's changing behaviours during the visit (breastfeeding, being calm and settled, crying, showing tired signs). The nurse kept returning to planning in order to secure and stabilise a fragile situation, particularly relating to the mother's mental wellbeing.
This interaction is different again. It comes from an ongoing relationship between a practitioner and parent, and so a long 'show me the ball' was not needed - rather, an update on what had happened since the last visit was sufficient. Much of the interaction was focused on creating new meaning and joint live action in response to the child's immediate needs. A shift towards planning activity led to important new issues coming to the surface, prompting movement back to 'show me the ball'. All the while, the discussion refocused on joint live action around the child when necessary.
Using the four partnership activity resources to enhance your practice
The main worksheet (ready to print on A4 or A3 paper) is designed for practitioners to reflect on their practice. There is also a version that you may find helpful to use in your actual work with families - this contains the main figure and some key prompts.
 Hopwood, N., & Clerke, T. (2016). Professional pedagogies of parenting that build resilience through partnership with families at risk: a cultural-historical approach. Pedagogy, Culture & Society, 24(4), 599-615. doi:10.1080/14681366.2016.1197299
 Day, C., Ellis, M., & Harris, L. (2015). Family Partnership Model: reflective practice handbook (2nd edition). London: Centre for Parent and Child Support, South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust.