The Strengthening Families Movement: Looking Back and Looking Ahead

In 2001, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation approached the Center for the Study of Social 300x300protective & Promotive Factors Policy to develop a new approach to child abuse and neglect prevention—one that would reach millions of families before there was any concern about maltreatment or involvement with the child welfare system. CSSP explored the research about what makes families thrive and what characteristics were associated with a lower risk of child abuse and neglect, developing a framework of five critical protective factors, and a new approach that would transform the way that early care and education providers worked with and supported families, with a focus on parents’ strengths. (Learn more: Read a paper, The Strengthening Families Approach and Protective Factors Framework: Branching Out and Reaching Deeper; a summary of the research behind Strengthening Families; or a brief handout about the initiative.)

The Strengthening Families initiative was based on four big ideas:

  • Focus on protective and promotive factors, not just risk factors. Protective factors are described as “conditions or attributes of individuals, families, communities, or the larger society that mitigate or eliminate risk.” Promotive factors are described as “conditions or attributes of individuals, families, communities, or the larger society that actively enhance well-being.” In contrast to risk factors, protective factors open up a strengths-based conversation with parents and point the way toward action.
  • Strengthening Families is an approach, not a model. It can be applied in everyday practice in any setting that serves young children and their families. Rather than an entirely new model or structured program, Strengthening Families guides providers to make small but significant changes in how they interact with families. This also means that providers from a variety of different systems, using different models in their own practice, can use the Protective Factors Framework as a unifying framework and common language.
  • A changed relationship with families. Implementing Strengthening Families means viewing parents as partners in achieving positive outcomes for their children. Unfortunately, many child- and family-serving systems hadn’t been operating in this way—and many still don’t. Shifting to a strengths-based approach and true partnership means that providers and parents are members of the same team.
  • Alignment with developmental science. Strengthening Families focuses on early childhood as a sensitive period of development, and on supporting the relationships that are critical to development in the early years. It also provides a pathway for responding to adverse childhood experiences and other trauma that children and parents may have experienced. In short, Strengthening Families helps providers, programs, and agencies to better align their practice to what we are learning every day from developmental science.

In 2005, seven states began piloting Strengthening Families, with technical assistance from CSSP, to determine how systems working together at the state level could use this framework to shift practice. While the focus in the early years was on implementation in early care and education, the framework was quickly picked up by child welfare systems, home visiting programs, and others eager to have a concrete way to put a strengths-based approach into practice. More and more states joined the Strengthening Families National Network—which now includes 35 states and territories as well as 14 national and federal partners that support their members and constituencies to use a protective factors approach.

As Strengthening Families has been implemented across the country and around the world, it has also informed the development of other bodies of work at CSSP. For example, within the Young Children and their Families team, parent partnerships, family strengths, and the protective factors themselves are a key focus of multiple projects, from the Early Childhood Learning and Innovation Network for Communities to the National Center on Parent, Family, and Community Engagement – and beyond. And a parallel framework of protective and promotive factors for youth, Youth Thrive, now has wide influence in child welfare and juvenile justice systems throughout the country.

From the time it was launched, Strengthening Families has had greater impact and influence than its developers dreamed it would. It continues to influence our work here at CSSP and in child- and family-serving systems throughout the country. The work of Strengthening Families won’t be done until all children grow up in families that are strong in these key protective factors, and in communities that support families to build those protective factors. We’re not there yet, but Strengthening Families has helped us move in that direction.

Selena Chavez is a Program & Research Assistant at CSSP.