how do i make change happen with families?
We found that positive outcomes for families were built up through an evolving, expansive and non-linear process. Impacts didn’t happen in one big event but through multiple smaller steps. These examples of small things with big effects are most effective when each step:
- Has an effect bigger than the work done to get there
- Has an effect that endures
- Enables other steps to be taken
- Moves forward (advancing on something that matters to parents) and outward (expands what is possible)
- Works like a ratchet – progressively, but also providing a safety net to stop sliding backwards.
Small steps can be marked on an expanding spiral, as families work progressively on problems.
The changes we studied all involved four kinds of smaller steps that met the criteria above. These are explained below, and are conceptualised in terms of an expanding spiral – a companion to building impactful partnerships and working at the frontier.
The steps shown along the spiral can potentially have positive contagious effects. This means that the benefits of accomplishing one can keep going and helpfully affect other aspects of change.
The significant benefits of the seemingly small steps described below explain why investing in them is so important, even if their impact is not immediately obvious.
It helps to think of making change happen in terms of an expanding spiral
Help, challenge and possibility are at the core of the spiral: they are enabled by partnership-building processes
Being able to tell their story on their own terms can open up possibilities for change
Commenting on families' strengths and legitimising them by backing them up with concrete examples
Just as with building impactful partnerships, it is helpful to think of these findings in terms of a spiral. The main line is the change happening for families. Facilitating this process is an evolving art that requires nuanced judgement in context, unfolds differently each time, and cannot be reduced to a fixed formula.
Smaller steps can be marked on the line. They all link back to one or more aspects of the essence of impactful partnership: help, challenge and possibility. The fact that the spiral loops around the centre more than once illustrates how change processes may involve revisiting similar problems or strategies several times. This is expansive rather than repetitive if each return involves coming at the problem in a new way, from a new space (as parents, helpers, and as a partnership). As with building impactful relationships, this process may be disrupted, for example, when things don’t go according to plan, or when things that worked previously seem to become less effective.
Key concept: dynamic balance
Dynamic balance here refers to two foci for new meanings or interpretations of the world. These relate to what counts as normal, focusing on parents or children, specific issues in relation to the big picture, and the dance between trusting the child and taking charge as parents. Dynamic balance does not mean equal parts, but a shifting emphasis between two aspects, depending on the context.
ensuring families feel respected and listened to
Parents need to feel listened to and respected, and this in itself can prompt positive change
Our study showed that there can be a difference between helpers listening to and respecting families, and parents feeling respected and heard. It takes special kinds of work to achieve the latter.
Many stories of major change began simply by asking parents to tell their story, listening attentively and without judgement. Helpers had to resist the urge to leap in and solve problems. Processes where this step was missed or done too quickly tended to be less successful.
Effective ways of making families feel listened to and respected included:
- Saying nothing when parents pause – giving them a chance to start again
- Reflecting back, for example, ‘I can see that is very important to you’
- Asking parents to say more about something.
Practices like these had the effect of signalling to parents that their story, told on their terms, matters – it was not a rushed agenda imposed by someone else.
“I think validation is one of the important things, that somebody listens and validates, then helps to tap into the resources, referrals to other services or inner resources within a family or individual, to help them build back up.” (Helper)
When parents felt respected and heard there was a contagion and a ratchet effect – it opened up possibilities for other kinds of change, and acted as a safety net as the relationship evolved.
making families' strengths visible
Helpers simply noticing strengths in families is not enough - what is needed is to make those strengths visible to family members themselves
The idea of strengths-based approaches is not new. However, our study showed that for maximum impact, it wasn't sufficient for helpers to build on strengths they had spotted in families.
What worked best was when helpers made those strengths visible and shared them explicitly with parents. Often this also needed to be backed up with something concrete, to convince parents these were legitimate and real – not just compliments to make them feel better.
Listening carefully to parents’ accounts of the past, or watching carefully what was happening, were fertile grounds for achieving this.
For example, one nurse heard a mother’s story of changing countries and jobs and used it to point out how resilient the mother had been. In another example, a home visitor took a short video using the mother’s phone, showing the mother how much her child made eye contact and smiled with her, and highlighting the strong attachment between them.
re-imagining through dynamic balance
Change often requires careful navigation between two contrasting aspects of parenting
The best examples of change happened when helpers struck an appropriate dynamic balance between contrasting aspects of parenting.
This balance was different in every case, and changed during the course of work with particular families. Common to all was that the shifting between pairs of features enabled parents to re-imagine things in significant ways.
One helper used the term ‘exquisite balance’. The idea of ‘exquisite’ is useful in capturing how special this balance can be, and the skill involved in achieving it. We use the term ‘dynamic balance’ to stress how this isn’t a fixed target for all relationships, or even for one relationship, but is a changing feature – another aspect of the evolving art of impactful partnership.
The most effective helpers remained attentive to each aspect of parenting, playing a role in ensuring optimum balance. And regardless of the focus, the significant effect was always that parents re-imagine something. In doing so, they take crucial steps along the expanding change spiral.
“I always knew I had Molly’s support. My friends would be like, oh yeah, he’ll grow out of it. I’m like, yeah, but I’m in the here and now, I need something now.” (Parent)
The following four bubbles show the different pairs that need to be in dynamic balance, and the aspect of positive change in families that they relate to.
Me and my child
Change often relates to learning how to navigate between trusting a child (even babies and young infants) by giving them a say or letting them decide, and taking charge as an adult
Bringing about change often involves helping parents discern when it is helpful to focus on their child, and when to focus on themselves: balancing both addresses the relationship and enables solutions to come into view
What is changing?
Lasting, meaningful change in families requires both specific issues and the big picture to be addressed. Broader challenges are overcome by working on smaller, achievable problems (small things with big effects), but these specific issues only become significant in relation to the big picture of what matters to the family
Is that normal?
The idea of normal, or being abnormal, can be very powerful. Effective helpers enable parents to consider what is normal in general and what is normal in their family context, in a flexible and healthy way that doesn't lead to parents concluding they are failing or are off the scale
enabling parents to take new action
Changing their views of themselves, their family and what is possible underpins parents' learning, which then enables them to try new things
All the steps build towards enabling parents to take new action. Consistent with the mind-expanding view of partnership as a learning process, changing interpretations (ways of making meaning or making sense) is a basis for acting differently.
Taking new action is not easy. Even what seem like small changes can feel risky or daunting. The ratchet effect of being heard and respected, recognising strengths and re-imagining can give parents the courage and confidence they need to try new actions.
These actions can not only relate directly to their interactions with children, but also involve accessing help from other sources, and committing to self-care.
When new actions contribute to desired impacts, and their connection with those impacts is clear to parents (see noticing resources for details of how this is achieved), they can produce a helpful contagious effect as parents may feel confident expanding the contexts in which they apply a particular new action or trying out other new actions. One small change in interpretation may expand into a new action that may expand further into new interpretations or actions.
Using the making change happen spiral 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.