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Building early childhood educators’ capacity to apply a strengths approach to working with vulnerable families and children

Full reference
Fenton, A. & McFarland, L. (2018). Building early childhood educators’ capacity to apply a strengths approach to working with vulnerable families and children. NZ International Research in Early Childhood Education Journal, 21(2), 19-31. Retrieved from 

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Original Research Paper
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Building early childhood educators’ capacity to apply a strengths approach to working with vulnerable families and children

Angela Fenton and Laura McFarland
Charles Sturt University, Australia


This paper investigates the use of a strengths approach by early childhood educators when working with vulnerable children and families. The paper examines existing strengths approach literature and research and draws on findings from an evaluation of a small-scale project to implement a strengths approach to working with children and families within a regional Australian early childhood service. The project included theoretical development aimed to clearly define and introduce the strengths approach and modelling of a range of practical strategies for addressing complex issues. Survey and EView (electronic interview) findings revealed that at this localised level, educators felt positive about using explicit and implicit strengths approach strategies in their work with children and families. Factors reported as being important to implementation were a “mind-shift” about working with families; noticing an implicit strengths approach; and acknowledgement of “human resources” as well as physical resources. Participants reported that continued development and connections with community agencies would help to sustain their use of a strengths approach. The findings from the nuanced study were supported by the wider review of existing literature and together provide positive encouragement for further in-depth research regarding the use of strengths approaches in early childhood contexts.

Key words: Strengths based approach, vulnerable children, teacher practice, evaluation.



McCashen (2005) defines a strengths approach as “a philosophy for working with people to bring about change … [that] acknowledges and addresses power imbalances between people working in human services” (p. v). Historically, strengths approaches and perspectives (the terms being used interchangeably) emerged in the United States from social services, therapeutic and psychology disciplines, where practitioners reported success when using the approach with complex issues such as family trauma and child abuse (Glicken, 2004; Saleebey, 2009). Internationally, early childhood practitioners work with children and families with similar complex needs on a daily basis and a strengths approach is increasingly promoted for use in Australian and New Zealand early childhood educational contexts (Ministry of Education, 2017). However, research on how a strengths approach can be defined and applied in early childhood contexts is limited (Fenton, MacDonald & McFarland, 2016; Fenton & McFarland-Piazza, 2014; Fenton, Walsh, Wong & Cumming, 2015). While theoretically, a strengths approach promotes a social justice focus on creating collaborative partnerships with families to address issues rather than enforcing ‘expert-led’ decisions, evidence on how this is actualised in early childhood practice is lacking. To this end, the 5 step strengths approach implementation guide developed through social services work of St. Luke’s in Australia (McCashen, 2005) is examined as a useful translation tool. On a practical level the 5 steps suggested to implement a strengths approach are 1) exploring issues with stakeholders, 2) visioning an outcome, 3) identifying strengths, 4) identifying resources, and 5) developing strategies for solutions to issues.

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