how can i use everyday instances to build parents' confidence and capacity?

Noticing  |  Attaching significance  |  Attributing agency

Examples of complete sequences

The second pathway for expertise looks at how the things that helpers notice can be used to initiate short but powerful processes that drive concrete change while responding to what is happening in the family.

What helpers notice is crucial. By adding two further steps, helpers can transform noticing into something that drives positive change forward.

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Helper notices something (either happening right now, or something reported by a parent), informed by expertise


Helper helps parents understand why what has been noticed is significant in relation to something that matters to the parents


Helper connects what is noticed with parents' past, present or future capacity to care for their children and bring about positive change - attributing agency


The sequence of noticing, explaining significance, and attributing agency to parents doesn’t take long to complete. However, each instance helps to empower parents, and contributes to larger change. This is another example of the ‘small things, big effects’ principle. It is also a means through which helpers’ expertise is brought into productive entanglement with what parents know and do.

Because what is noticed transforms ways of making sense of a particular action, behaviour or statement, this sequence also upholds the idea of partnership as a mind-expanding process (another key framing idea). As a result of being coupled with significance and agency, parents’ bases for interpreting and acting in the world are expanded.

Noticing creates a pathway for expertise to be used in partnership with parents. Noticing happens through sensory and reported channels – relating either to what is going on right now, or what parents say about their situation. Therefore, this process is a way to achieve the grounding and grounded characteristics that are part of the essence of impactful partnership.

This sequence can be used to:

  • Build on existing strengths
  • Enhance the impact of guided change
  • Challenge parents (working within the optimal challenge zone - see challenging effectively).

Using the notice-significance-attribution pathway makes practice responsive to what is happening in the moment and to what matters to parents. It also provides a constructive way to challenge parents.

In phases 1 and 2 of the study, when we observed helper-parent interactions, we saw this sequence over 1,500 times, in varied service contexts.

We refer to these steps as pedagogies of noticing. This expression highlights how the practitioner or volunteer helps parents learn (pedagogy), and that this learning is based on what the helper notices.

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Key concept: agency

Agency relates to what we are able to do. It is not a skill or talent. It is about someone’s capacity to influence the world around them and move in a particular direction. If someone is agentic, they can set goals to direct their actions, carry out relevant actions, and evaluate progress towards their goals [1]. Agency is not exclusively a property of an individual, it also concerns how they relate to and work with others [1]. Being agentic is the opposite of being passive and helpless. Agency is not necessarily about ‘big’ moments that radically change things. Agency comes into play in how and why we use ‘tools’, including ideas, strategies and physical objects, when working on a problem [2]. When these tools help us focus on the nature of a solution, rather than be occupied with a problem, then our capacity to act in the world is transformed. Of relevance to the noticing sequences discussed here is what helpers do to enable parents to recognise their own sense of agency, and to facilitate development and expression of that agency in the future.

See also ‘Agency of the child

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Sensory and reported channels


The first step - noticing - is the catalyst for these expansive and agency-building sequences. Without helpers noticing relevant things, there can be no follow-up. 

What we fail to notice cannot be acted upon.

The things that could potentially be noticed might be happening live during interaction with families, or come from what parents say about other times and places.

Noticing therefore happens through two channels:

  • Sensory channel – embodied expertise, based on attuning, seeing, hearing, sensing; live events, happening here and now
  • Reported channel – verbal communication, based on soliciting relevant detail from parents; parents’ accounts, happened then and there.

Helpers’ alertness through these channels affects the potential to kick-start these valuable sequences. These channels were used in all the settings we observed. However, there were differences between services in terms of how noticing was made to count.

In some services, helpers relied more on the reported channel (like in home visiting, where actual contact time is short), while in others the sensory channel was used more (as in playgroups, toddler clinics and day stays).

Using these channels effectively depends on different kinds of expertise. The sensory channel involves bodily attuning through multiple senses. The reported channel relies on the ability to help parents provide sufficiently detailed accounts of what has been happening and/or their hopes for the future.


What is noticed?

We found that helpers noticed things about children, parents, and parent-child interactions:


Actions, e.g. kicking legs, sucking thumb

Gestures, e.g. turning head away

Expressions, e.g. smiling

States eg. tired, hungry alert


Actions, e.g. using an alarm to wake a child

Beliefs, e.g. that their child is 'broken'

Parent-child interaction

Interpreting cues, e.g. parent thinks the child is tired

Accomplishments, e.g. parent soothes the child

Qualities, e.g. breastfeed is calm

Attaching significance

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From mundane to meaningful


What helpers notice would often have been overlooked by parents, or understood as mundane, irrelevant, or a sign of failure.

Making noticing count requires helpers to explain the significance of what has been noticed in relation the problem they are working on with parents.

In this second step, helpers use their expertise to make connections between what they noticed and what matters to parents. To have any impact, these connections have to make sense to parents.

Accomplishing this is not just about stating facts. It is about making reasons clear: because of this, then that.

“They can be happy playing on the floor. Then when we pick them up, they start to cry. You think, what have I missed? But you haven’t missed anything. Often they’re just letting you know, my needs need to be met now.” (Helper)

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Attributing agency to parents

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Connecting with parents' capacity



This third step is vital in making noticing count. It concludes the sequence by clarifying:

  • Parents’ role in accomplishing something positive
  • Parents’ role in making change happen
  • Potential for parents to make positive change happen.

Attributing agency can have a huge impact on bigger change processes as parents feel confident and capable of trying other things and commiting to new challenges. It can show parents that progress is being made even if the final goal is not yet reached. This can solidify the partnership relationship and boost parents’ commitment to the process.

Attributing agency can also build parents’ confidence and help them value themselves. This is important in making change happen. It also helps parents feel they are up to taking on challenges, avoiding the sense that they are not ready for change.

This can be a crucial focus in challenging parents effectively. We found many examples of helpers useing these three-step pathways to challenge parents’ judgements of themselves as failing, hopeless, and unable to do anything to make change happen.

Helper: "Really lovely strategies you’re doing to help her. You’re probably not realising all the wonderful things you’re doing."
Parent: "He used to be unhappy, at mothers’ group, all the happy babies but he wasn’t. But now he’s delightful."
Helper: "Sounds like you’re enjoying being a mum."

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Examples of complete sequences

Sequence 1

Nurse: I like the way you're feeding him upright, he can have more control over what comes out

[Sensory channel used to build on parent's existing strengths]


Sequence 2 - reported channel

Mother: I'm taking her to listen to the tap running, whatever works

Nurse: So you're finding what you can do to ease her stress levels

[Reported channel used to build on parent's existing strengths]


Sequence 3

Baby grizzles while on her tummy on the floor

Nurse: That's enough, we don't want her getting upset

[Sensory channel used to enhance guided change]


Sequence 4 

Mother: I set the alarm to feed, but both boys are screaming

Nurse: How would you feel if you let them wake you? [rather than using the alarm]

[Reported channel used to challenge parent]


Using the noticing sequence 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.

Worksheet 9 - Making noticing count (to print on A4)

Worksheet 9 - Making noticing count (to print on A3)

Noticing tool for use with families


[1] Edwards, A. (2005). Relational agency: learning to be a resourceful practitioner. International Journal of Educational Research, 43(3), 168-182. doi:10.1016/j.ijer.2006.06.010

[2] Engeström , Y. (2011). From design experiments to formative interventions . Theory & Psychology, 21(5), 598-628. doi:10.1177/0959354311419252