Jay's World of Abstracts 00006

The Ecology of the Family

A Background Paper for A Family-Centered Approach To Education and Social Service Delivery
Prepared by Christie Connard with Dr. Rebecca Novick
February 1996

[Standard disclaimer: The nature of abstracts are that they are pieces of something larger. Not everyone is going to be happy with my choice of abstracts from any larger work, so if you are dissatisfied, I would refer you to the original document, which should be able to be found on the Internet. I encourage others to make their own abstracts to satisfy their needs.

Jay's Introduction

The paper abstracted here comes out of a commission from an educational agency (much like our RCC#6). It is an excellent look at a promising trend in looking at children as a part of families instead of just as individuals. Also, it tries to put families in a positive light, as opposed to the common view of families as the root of all the problems of children.


A Family-Centered Approach is a PROCESS for delivering services to families that will fit many different "content areas," be it support for teen parents, family literacy or education for low-income children. It is not a set of particular practices but rather a "philosophy" in which families are recognized as having unique concerns, strengths and values. A Family-Centered Approach represents a paradigm shift away from deficit-based, medical models that discover, diagnose and treat "problems" in families to an ecological model. The ecological model which is the theoretical foundation for a Family-Centered Approach, is described below. It views families from the perspective of "a half-full cup" rather than half empty. This approach builds and promotes the strengths that families already have. The key components of a Family-Centered Approach are:

The ecological paradigm is still emerging. It represents a integration of research and theory from developmental psychology and sociology, with experiential knowledge from social work, family support, early intervention and early childhood education. It represents a coalescing of what researchers are learning about the way different social environments and relationships influence human development. Because it is a new model with many as yet unexplained elements, the ecological model is still in a state of flux. However, the basic tenets of the ecological model have been established for some time and can be stated as:


A focus on the individual, isolated and independent, is deeply embedded in our culture and values. In contrast, an ecological model emphasizes the interconnections of events and the bi-directionality of effects between organism and environment. An ecological perspective views human development from a person-in-environment context, emphasizing the principle that all growth and development take place within the context of relationships. Thus, a child must be studied in the context of the family environment and the family must be understood within the context of its community and the larger society. The language of the ecological model provides a sharp contrast to the image of the lone frontiersman pulling himself up by his bootstraps, the "paddle my own canoe" mentality upon which our legal, educational, and social service delivery system are often based.


We are used to thinking about the environments children experience, but the environments families encounter also contribute to child development by their impact on family functioning. In a community there may, or may not, be the resources and relationships a family needs. Within its community setting, each family fabricates its own web of support from the formal and informal resources available. A family may forge many connections, a few strong connections, or no connections at all to the community resources. These connections link families to the tangible and intangible resources of the community.

Just as the child's environment offers challenges and opportunities, community settings offer challenges and opportunities for healthy family functioning. Generalizations about family-community interactions found in the literature include:


Traditionally, public schools have not had a strong emphasis on family involvement and support. Schools of education have typically offered little direct training in forming parent/teacher relationships. A 1987 University of Minnesota report on improving teacher education listed what researchers identified as the thirty-seven most important teaching skills; learning how to work with parents was not among them (Louv, 1992). However, a number of factors have contributed to the current focus on parental involvement as a way to improve educational outcomes for all children, particularly children from low-income families.

During the last 20 years, vast economic and demographic changes have resulted in increased economic hardship and stress for many families and an accompanying pressure on schools to increase our nation’s competitiveness in a global economy There is growing recognition that fostering "readiness" for kindergarten and for succeeding educational environments will require addressing the strengths and needs of the whole child. The National Education Goals Panel endorsed a complex, multifaceted definition of readiness, which includes physical well-being and motor development, social competence, approaches toward learning, language and literacy, cognitive development, and general knowledge (NEGP, 1994). This comprehensive definition requires a new approach to schooling, one which includes a shared responsibility for children’s development and "will likely permanently alter the school’s relationship with families and communities" (Kagan, 1992, p. 8).

Recognizing the vital role that parents play in their children’s education, Title IV of the National Education Goals 2000: Education America Act encourages and promotes parents’ involvement in their children’s education, both at home and at school. Three decades of research have demonstrated strong linkages between parental involvement in education and school achievement (Riley, 1994). Family involvement is highest among middle-and upper-class families. However, regardless of parents’ education, parental involvement with children’s schooling is associated with better attendance, higher achievement test scores, and stronger cognitive skills. In addition, when parents help elementary school children with their schoolwork, social class and education become far less important factors in predicting the children’s academic success (Dauber & Epstein, 1993).

Low-income, minority, and limited-English-proficient parents, however, may face numerous barriers when they attempt to collaborate with schools. These include: lack of time and energy; language barriers, feelings of insecurity and low self-esteem, lack of understanding about the structure of the school and accepted communication channels, cultural incongruity, race and class biases on the part of school personnel, and perceived lack of welcome by teachers and administrators (Fruchter, et. al., 1992; SREB, 1994).

Given these potential barriers, it is not surprising that research has demonstrated that successful parent involvement programs must have a strong component of outreach to families. Studies show that school practices to encourage parents to participate in their children’s education are more important than family characteristics, such as parent education, socioeconomic and marital status (Dauber & Epstein, 1993). A 1988 study of parental involvement in schools concluded that it wasn’t parents who were hard for schools to reach, but schools that were hard for parents to reach (Davies, 1994). If schools are to become places where families feel welcome and recognized for their strengths and potential (Riley, 1994), school personnel must not only embrace the concepts of partnership and parent involvement, they must be given training and support to translate their beliefs into practice (Epstein, 1992).

While traditional forms of family involvement have focused on the supposed deficits of low-income and/or minority families, new models, congruent with the Family-Centered Approach advocated in this paper, emphasize building on family strengths and developing partnerships with families, based on mutual responsibility. In these approaches, parents are involved as peers and collaborators, rather than clients. Fruchter, et al. (1992), have identified four tenets of programs which have been shown to improve the educational outcomes for all children, particularly those of low-income and minority children: 1) Parents are children’s first teachers and have a life-long influence on children’s values, attitudes, and aspirations; 2) Children’s educational success requires congruence between what is taught at school and the values expressed in the home; 3) Most parents, regardless of economic status, educational level, or cultural background, care deeply about their children’s education and can provide substantial support if given specific opportunities and knowledge; and 4) Schools must take the lead in eliminating, or at least reducing, traditional barriers to parent involvement.

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