Nick Hopwood

Early intervention new research: it’s not just about services by professionals

The first five years of a child’s life are pivotal to their learning and development. We know that various forms of social and economic disadvantage are strongly linked to children falling behind in these crucial years. This is why governments provide a range of services to families of very young children. All children deserve the best possible start in life.

However, providing the right services and measures for our youngest and potentially most vulnerable citizens is not easy. It is an area of research my colleagues and I have been working on. In this blog I will share what we have discovered and where our research is headed.

The economic argument for early intervention

It’s about productivity too. If the social or moral arguments in favour of supporting families with young children at risk are strong, the economic argument is equally persuasive. By some estimates, every $1 well spent in services that address problems early on (often called ‘early intervention’), we can save up to $17 in avoiding more costly problems and remedies further down the track.

In 2011 the Australian Productivity Commission advocated a focus on disadvantaged children and families who would benefit most from intervention. The priority should be to minimise the gap in outcomes for children affected by disadvantage.

Stepping in to help parents who are struggling to provide the all-important start to life that they would wish for their children, is something all governments should do.

What services and measures are provided to Australian parents of young children?

In Australia, like in many other countries, our governments provide a range of services for parents with young children. These include home visiting by nurses to all families – a key way to spot circumstances that might put parent or child wellbeing at risk. Where risks are identified, families may be offered longer term home visiting, clinics focused on toddler behaviour, parenting groups, and facilities that they can visit for a day or longer.

The people working in these services come from a range of professions including nursing, social work, psychology, and medicine. Each is associated with well-developed forms of specialist expertise, originating in long histories of practice, continually updated as a result of recent research. This expertise can cover issues such as child development, parenting strategies, and mental health.

But intervention by ‘specialists’ can be difficult to get right

The problem is that having strong, evidence-based specialist knowledge is not enough. It is no guarantee that a professional will be able to provide the specific support and guidance that a particular family needs and can work with in their own context.

Furthermore, when professionals adopt the position of ‘expert’ and tell parents what to do, problems arise. Even if the suggestions are based in evidence and appropriate for the family, if parents feel judged, are not listened to or involved in the process, they are unlikely to follow through on professional advice.

So, professionals working to support families with children at risk need more than just specialist expertise. They need to be good at listening to parents, involving them in the process of deciding what is important and what to do about it.

The way forward is partnerships between professionals and parents

Recognising this, new approaches to services for such families have been developed. Among these is the idea of partnership between professionals and families. In Australia the Family Partnership Model has been widely implemented as a basis for achieving this. Professionals receive extra training focusing on working collaboratively with parents. This helps develop a different form of expertise – relational expertise – that sits alongside specialist knowledge.

Adopting partnership approaches has been successful, but some challenges remain. Sometimes, it is hard for professionals to know how to put their specialist knowledge to use without undermining the partnership approach. Also, because partnership means that support follows what matters to parents, professionals can’t simply use standardised approaches or pick solutions ‘off the shelf’.

Instead, effective partnership means that professionals have to be good at learning from and about families: what is important to them, their strengths, their capacity to cope with new challenges, and how they can become more resilient. They also have to be good at working with families to find solutions that may be totally unique.

More vital research is needed

A study, funded by the Australian Research Council, is being conducted by researchers at the University of Technology Sydney, focusing directly on these issues. It aims to find the ingredients of successful partnerships that have lasting, positive impacts for families.

The Creating Better Futures study is innovative because it looks at the problem from an educational perspective. It investigates learning between professionals and parents in both directions (not simply parents learning from experts), tracking how valuable outcomes come from both parties collaborating in partnership.

The first phase of the project was based on observing professionals at work in a many different day stay and home visiting services provided by Karitane, Tresillian, and Northern Sydney Local Health District. Significantly it found that effective work involves a combination of several ingredients, including specialist expertise, developing relationships with parents, skills as facilitators of others’ learning, and an ability to learn and respond to new information.

The project is finding out what the necessary knowledge and skills involve and how they contribute to the most effective forms of support for families. Taking a learning-based approach reveals features that have been overlooked and helps to solve the problems that professionals face in their work.

Our research continues, but already it illustrates the huge value of using an educational research perspective to tackle broad social problems.


Nick close up copyDr Nick Hopwood is Senior Lecturer at the University of Technology Sydney, School of Education. His research interests include parenting services, professional practices, workplace learning, and environmental education. He has published widely in these areas and gives talks to academic and professional groups nationally and internationally. He has written for The Conversation about the controversies surrounding interventions for parents, and maintains a blog (with a linked youtube channel and twitter feed @NHopUTS) about a range of issues in research and academic work. He is leading the Creating Better Futures project, working with Dr Teena Clerke. You can follow progress of the project through the CBF Newsroom and on twitter @BetterFutureUTS.