Family Support

Family Support is about meeting the needs and achieving the rights of children.   The UNESCO Child and Family Research Centre is at the forefront of international theory and empirical work on Family Support. For us, Family Support is underpinned by four common-sense, yet theoretically robust concepts:

Social Support

We all need support from others to survive. The idea that effective social support acts as a buffer to stress is an established concept in social services. Social Support is a major theoretical focus of the UNESCO Centre’s work. For children at risk, positive and accessible social support networks can play a vital role in dealing with adversity.  Understanding how and where people get support through informal sources including nuclear and extended family, friends and community networks as well as through formal structures such as work, school, social organisations and professional services therefore is central to research and teaching at the UNESCO CFRC.


It is well-recognised that in spite of challenges, many children survive and have successful lives. Resilience theory is linked to a strengths-based approach and described as the ability to "bounce back” in the face of adversity. It is manifested in mechanisms for working with children and families that find expression in the idea of strengths-based practice, an orientation in social work that focuses on the competencies, possibilities and promise of families and communities and not their deficiencies. Working to a resilience-building agenda is widely endorsed among practitioners and policymakers as central to future service planning and policy orientation.

Social Ecology

Children’s needs arise in different contexts of family, school, and the wider arena of state policy. Social ecology theory is an overarching framework that highlights how individuals and families, their communities and wider society mutually influence each other. At the heart of ecological theory is a desire to identify ways in which those experiencing stress or difficulty can be supported through their social ecology such as community or culture. It provides the framework for the increased focus on community and family level interventions with children and young people over the past two decades and is the third strand underpinning the UNESCO CFRC’s Family Support orientation.

Reflective Practice

These principles are underpinned by a model of Reflective Practice, a deliberate process of thinking about and interpreting experience in order to learn from it.  Applying a model of reflection to practice issues in a regular and formalised manner is part of our Family Support approach.

Family Support at the UNESCO CFRC:

Our interest in Family Support reflects the Centre’s strong commitment to children’s rights – recognised in the awarding of the UNESCO Chair in Children Youth and Civic Engagement.  As elaborated in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, families have great significance in children’s lives, with parents identified as having the primary responsibility to create the necessary conditions for children’s development, and the State identified as key in supporting parents to meet their responsibilities.  Our approach to Family Support, with children’s rights as the ultimate goal, emanates from this understanding of the respective roles of parents and the State.

familysupport_small.jpgIn Ireland, a Family Support based policy has emerged with a focus on preventative and supportive measures to strengthen capacity of families undergoing adversity.  The Office of the Minister for Children and Young People and The Atlantic Philanthropies early intervention investment programme reflects this commitment. The UNESCO CFRC is significantly involved in this programme through evaluation and research of selected sites and services. Within this environment, the UNESCO Centre has a key role in documenting and disseminating a variety of good practice approaches and in undertaking research and evaluation to assist organisations offer high-quality, evidence based services.

The Agenda for Children’s Services is an example of a policy document reflecting a strong family support orientation.  The Agenda, a framework produced by the UNESCO CFRC for the Office of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs focuses on effective family support in a context of good reflective practices across frontline social work and other related professionals.

Family Support Practice Principles

1. Working in partnership is an integral part of family support.  Partnership includes children, families, professionals and communities.

2. Family Support interventions are needs led and strive for the minimum intervention required.

3. Family support requires a clear focus on the wishes, feelings, safety and well being of children.

4. Family support services reflect a strengths’ based perspective which is mindful of resilience as a characteristic of many children and families lives

5. Family support promotes the view that effective interventions are those that strengthen informal support networks.

6. Family support is accessible and flexible in respect of location, timing, setting and changing needs and can incorporate both child protection and out of home care.

7. Families are encouraged to self-refer and multi-access referral paths will be facilitated.

8. Involvement of service users and providers in the planning, delivery and evaluation of family support services is promoted on an ongoing basis.

9. Services aim to promote social inclusion, addressing issues around ethnicity, disability and rural/urban communities.

10. Measures of success are routinely built into provision so as to facilitate evaluation based on attention to the outcomes for service users and thereby facilitate ongoing support for quality services based on best practice.

Dolan, Canavan and Pinkerton, Family Support as Reflective Practice (2006)

Key Resources 


  • Dolan, P., Pinkerton, J. and Canavan, J. (eds.) (2006) Family Support as Reflective Practice, London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.