An example of strengths-based engagement

Image by John Hain from Pixabay

The following is part of a reflection from Vanessa Linden, one of my students in HLSC6105 (Engaging families and communities) as part of her Master of Family Studies at the University of Newcastle. She was happy for me to share it on the blog.

I was invited a couple of weeks ago to teach Lactation classes for 3 days at the main maternity hospital while the Lactation Consultant was away. Normally you stand at the front of the class and talk about the anatomy and physiology of the breast and how the milk is made etc.

I started the class standing at the front and soon found that these new mums were yawning, dads were waiting outside, babies were crying… I stopped the class and grabbed a chair and asked the mums to sit around in a circle and also asked if the dads could come in. They all agreed so I invited the dads in. They picked up their babies and when it was calm, I asked each person ‘how are you feeling?’

The first mum burst into tears, the second mum said she was tired, then the next dad said he was so overwhelmed etc. I gave them tissues, water to drink and many couldn’t stop crying! We talked about the baby blues, having time out for themselves when they go home, and this tiredness and overwhelming feeling is normal the first few days after the birth of a baby.

I hugged them, they hugged each other and I think it was the best breastfeeding class that I’d ever taught even though we only talked about breast feeding for 10 minutes out of 30 minutes. I felt happy that everybody was so grateful when they left the class, but I also thought that I’d probably never be invited back again!

I returned two days later and was called into the bosses office… she told me that everybody was talking about my class and how the feedback forms were rated 5 stars, and they had all mentioned that the breast feeding class was the highlight!

I can only say that participating in ‘Engaging Families and Communities’ has changed the way that I teach new mums and dads…for the better! (Vanessa Linden, Master of Family Studies student)

I think her story is more a comment about her courage to try something new and her ability to see what was happening in the group, than it is a comment about the course. It demonstrates the importance of seeing the individuals behind our work.

It is also an example of a strengths-based approach to working with groups because she changed the focus from one way information giving to real two-way communication, she created a very different power dynamic (it become power-with rather than power-over) and she recognised the group’s ability to support each other.

If you liked this post please follow my blog, and you might like to look at:

  1. Seven principles for a strengths-based approach to working with groups
  2. An introduction to strengths-based practice (a video lecture)
  3. Power and strengths-based practice
  4. 7 principles guiding my work
  5. A video and some tips on family engagement
  6. Engaging fathers: An overview of evidence-based practice

If you find any problems with the blog, (e.g., broken links or typos) I’d love to hear about them. You can either add a comment below or contact me via the Contact page.

Posted in Being an academic, Facilitation & teaching, Families & parenting | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Research at the Family Action Centre

Includes a graphic with Policy and Practice in the middle and then three items surrounding it: 1. Research (Family and community focused); 2. Teaching (Discipline of family studies); 3. Outreach (Family and community support programs). The graphic is surrounded by images of our work, images of some graffiti ("Hope" and "Listen to the voiceless") and the Family Action Centre logo,

Today I’m giving a two minute “pitch” about research at the Family Action Centre (FAC) as part of a research day for the School of Health Sciences, University of Newcastle. Even though we are not a health science and you might expect us to be more aligned with social sciences or social work, we are part of the School of Health Sciences in the Faculty of Health. During a restructure many years ago (probably in the 90s) the FAC was placed in the Faculty of Health as an independent research centre. In a more recent restructure when we needed to join a school within the faculty, we joined Health Sciences because, like us, they had a real focus on professional practice.

The brief for the pitch is “Your challenge is to show how your discipline’s research contributes to a consumer, client or potential industry partner in 120 seconds aided by 1 slide and a prop.” The slide is above, and the prop is one of our FAC flags.

Here’s my pitch.

Since our beginning 1986, the Family Action Centre has focused on changing policy and practice. We do this through research, teaching and outreach. At these research days you only see a small part of our team, because most of them are in the field supporting local families and communities. Growing from a foundation in practice, our research is usually very closely related to practice. Rather than researching the extent of social disadvantage in the Hunter, you are more likely to find us researching strategies to address this social disadvantage, for example a collective impact project promoting health and wellbeing in Muswellbrook by leading the research and ensuring the initiative is data driven. It is this combination of research and practice that makes our approach special.

Because we often explore how to address wicked problems that are multifaceted and confusing, it’s essential we work in partnership with families and practitioners.

The FAC is probably best known for research relating to fathers. From humble beginnings supporting local community services to improve father engagement, the fathers and families research team now have an international reputation in creating innovative, 21st century approaches to supporting fathers. For example, the SMS4Dads project has led to a range of partnerships (including some in this room) to adapt the approach to other contexts.

But this is only one part of our research agenda. Our other research focus, Strong Families—Capable Communities, involves a range of projects with community partners include working with Uniting to explore best practice in post separation counselling and mediation, and a new partnership with Insurance and Care NSW (icare), and its network of practitioners, to trial digital, compassion-focused approaches to supporting the wellbeing of injured workers.

Through our research partnerships we are able to build on the strengths and aspirations of families and communities to create lasting change.

If you liked this post please follow my blog, and you might like to look at:

  1. My current projects (April 2019)
  2. What is asset-based community-driven development (ABCD)?
  3. An introduction to strengths-based practice (a video lecture)
  4.  10 things I’ve learnt about strengths-based community engagement
  5. Power and strengths-based practice
  6. 36 ideas for helping to engage fathers

If you find any problems with the blog, (e.g., broken links or typos) I’d love to hear about them. You can either add a comment below or contact me via the Contact page.

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An introduction to strengths-based practice (a video lecture)

I teach a number of online courses (or subjects) at the University of Newcastle about working with communities and families in the Graduate Certificate of Family Studies and the Master of Family Studies. At the heart of my teaching is strengths-based practice and the above is an introductory lecture introducing students to some of the ideas we will explore over the semester.

In it I suggest 8 principles underpinning strengths-based practice:

  1. Recognise that individuals, families and communities have many strengths and the capacity to learn, grow and change
  2. Focus on strengths and aspirations
  3. Look for, and build on, the many resources that can be found in a wide range of social environments
  4. Take care with the language you use because it changes how we see people, situations and possibilities
  5. Collaborate and support self-determination
  6. Work in ways that promote empowerment
  7. See problems and challenges as the result of interactions between people rather than within people
  8. Keep a commitment to social justice

It isn’t a highly polished recording but hopefully it will be useful to some people. I’d love to hear what you think.

Here is the script for the video and at the end, there are some other posts that are related and a list of the references and photo credits.

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Posted in Families & parenting, Strengths-based approaches & ABCD, Working with communities | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Reflections on the election

As you can tell from my last post, my 15-year old daughter is quite involved in the Student Strike 4 Climate movement and worked hard in the lead up to the election. On the day, she spent six hours at a polling booth trying to get people to think about climate change when they voted. My elder daughter also spent a couple of hours handing out how to vote cards.

Polls had consistently predicted a narrow win for Labor but, once again, the polls were wrong, and the conservative coalition (who have failed to take serious action on climate change) are back in power for another three years.

Besides the lack of strong leadership on climate change and some of the policy implications, one of the things that worries me most about the result is the message it gives the students who had worked so hard to make it a climate election. Alexa, and I’m sure many of the other students, felt they were actually making a difference. Whenever there was a story about climate change and the election, there was usually vision of the student strikers, and there was a sense they were really helping to raise awareness about the impact of climate change on future generations.

The election results, however, suggest that adults weren’t listening and that they really don’t care: other issues were seen as more important. For the young people (and others) who understand the potential impact of climate change on their future; this is very hard to comprehend.

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Posted in Environmental sustainability, Social change | 7 Comments

School Strike 4 Climate: Make it a #ClimateElection

Alexa holding a poster advertising the School Strike 4 Climate on 3 May 2019

We are facing a climate emergency. Through the School Strike 4 Climate, children and young people, who will pay the greatest price for climate change inaction, are finding their voice and demanding that politicians start showing leadership in responding to this global crisis.

Alexa (my 15 year old daughter) is helping to organise Newcastle’s action as part of the next Australian school strike on the first Friday of Term 2 (3 May). The students are calling for the national election, 15 days later, to become a #ClimateElection and demanding that our politicians think beyond the next election and consider the impact of their decisions on future generations.  

The last Student Strike saw around 150,000 people attend rallies around the country making it one of the largest, if not the largest, climate action in Australia. The student organisers are calling on everyone to come out and support them on Friday 3 May to make it even larger.

The student strikers may be too young to vote, but they are making themselves impossible to ignore and are ensuring climate change is kept in the spotlight as a major election issue.

The average age of the 2019 federal members of parliament is 52. In 50 years, most of them will be dead, but the consequences of their inaction on climate change over the last few election cycles will continue to impact the students of today.

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An interactive exercise exploring parenting styles

Parenting style compass

The Alternatives to Violence Project in Newcastle has been exploring workshops on nonviolence and conflict resolution with parents and partners. The following is an exercise Gener Lapina and I have developed (with input from Anne Hoffman) to explore four parenting styles:

  1. Authoritarian
  2. Permissive
  3. Uninvolved
  4. Active (often called Authoritative).

The styles are based on a combination of two dimensions: how responsive (or warm) parents are and how demanding and controlling (or strict) they are. For the workshops, we are using the dimensions of warmth (from very warm to harsh) and expectations (from having high expectations in regards to your children’s behaviour to having very low expectations).

Before the workshop, we prepared a large compass (using four sheets of flip chart) with the labels Warm and Harsh on the vertical axis, and Expectations on the horizontal compass(see above).

The process:

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Posted in Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP), Facilitation & teaching, Families & parenting | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Interested in postgraduate study in family studies?

The Family Action Centre at the University of Newcastle offers two online postgraduate programs in family studies:

You can do up to three subjects in each of three 12-week trimesters a year, and can start in any Trimester. (In 2019 Trimester 1 started on 4 February, Trimester 2 starts on 20 May, and Trimester 3 starts on 2 September.)

If you could be interested, we are offering an online, interactive information session on Wednesday 10th April, 2019 at 7.30pm, Newcastle time. (Click here for other times in Australia and around the world.) At the information session you will hear from Alan Hayes (the director of the Family Action Centre) and Jennifer St George (the program convenor), learn more about both programs, be able to ask questions, and hopefully be inspired to study with us!

You can book (so that you receive the link to the free Webinar) and found out more at

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Posted in Families & parenting | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

My current projects (April 2019)

I’m employed as a lecturer at the Family Action Centre (FAC), University of Newcastle (Australia) which is a great place for somebody with my interests as the FAC incorporates teaching, research, and the delivery of family and community programs. (Before moving into a more academic role I was employed as a community worker supporting permanent residents of caravan parks.)

There is always something interesting going on. Here are some of the projects I’m currently involved in.


In 2013, the Family Action Centre introduced the first Australian postgraduate program in family studies (a Graduate Certificate of Family Studies and a Master of Family Studies) and we also offer a range of undergraduate subjects, focusing on family studies, in the Bachelor of Social Science and available as electives in other degrees.

This year I’m teaching three online subjects (all our teaching is done online to allow students from anywhere in Australia or even the World to study with us):

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Strengths-based measurement and collective impact

Sign - Changed Priorities Ahead
(Photo: Addison Berry )

Data driven approaches like collective impact often prioritise shared measurement and collecting data, particularly quantitative measures, and do not consider the impact of what questions they ask, how they collect data, and who is responsible for interpreting the data.

If we adopt a strengths-based approach to collective impact it is important that we think about strengths-based approaches to measurement. The questions we ask in collecting data and measuring impact, not only give strong messages about how we see the communities and people we work with, but they also actually shape how we see them.  

The questions we ask in trying to measure the impact of our work can send messages about how we see the community and, if we are not careful, they can help reinforce negative perceptions. Here I will consider the difference between two youth surveys used in collective impact initiatives (one which is clearly deficit-based and one which is more strengths-based) before discussing some other issues relating to a strengths-based approach to measuring impact.

A deficit-based survey

The first, a youth health survey, is a 114 question survey used as part of a collective impact initiative in the USA. Only 20 of the questions (18%) were positive, 16 (15%) were neutral and 78 (68%) were negative. Continue reading

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A strengths-based approach to collective impact

A word cloud based onstrengths-based collective impact. Other key words include change, power-with, people and community.
(Created with Wordle)

Collective impact is an approach to addressing complex social problems. As discussed in the previous post (Collective impact and community engagement), community engagement needs to be at the heart of collective impact, but the (sometimes subtle) message underlying too many initiatives is that the community is part of the problem. When initiatives take a top-down approach and do not involve the community from the start, they are implying that the community has little of value to offer.

Adopting a strengths-based approach to collective impact fundamentally changes the questions we ask and the way we relate to the people affected by the issues being addressed. Although the focus of collective impact is on creating change that will help address complex social problems, thus starting with the problem, it is still possible to be strengths-based. In addressing the issues involved, we can discover what is already working in the community, what their vision is for their community, what resources they can contribute to creating their vision, and who is passionate about helping to create change.

Dan Duncan 1, in discussing what collective impact can learn from asset-based community development, suggests that:

Professionals often believe that we have achieved community engagement when we ask people, “What do you need and how would you like it delivered?” Then we change our service model based on the input received. However, I believe we have the opportunity to make an even greater difference in our communities when we help the people we serve to move beyond their roles as clients and advisers to become producers of their own community’s well-being. My experience tells me that if we truly want to make a difference, we need the people we serve to act as co-producers. We cannot do it without them. (p. 5)

If we do not actively engage community members in creating change, it leads to them being the objects of change (having things done TO them) rather than them being the subjects of change (where they are the ones DOING something).

Asset-based community development and other strengths-based approaches to working with communities:

  1. Focus on community assets and strengths rather than problems and needs
  2. Identify and build on individual and community assets, skills and passions
  3. Are community led
  4. Are relationship driven.
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Posted in Working with communities | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments