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Helping Families

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Title of Project: An investigation into families' experience of helping (and enabling) strategies utilised by family services.

Outline of Project:

The investigation will attempt to explore carers' perceptions of family support workers' helping strategies. Additionally it is intended to consider how emerging themes can be used to inform and shape vocational programmes.

Research Questions

What are carers (of children with special educational needs) perceptions of family support workers' helping strategies?

How do parents understand to the world of "helping strategies"?

How do helping strategies compare and contrast with existing support models utilised by family services?

Definition of Terms:

Family Support Worker refer to any statutory (professional) or non-statutory person designated to support families with children with learning disabilities

Participants refer to all people actively involved in the research.

Researcher refers to the principal investigator.

Family refers to any social unit embedded within other formal and informal social support systems and networks that are responsible for the care of a child or children.

Effective Helping Strategies are defined as: "an act of enabling individuals or groups (e.g.; a family) to become better able to solve problems, meet needs, or achieve aspirations by promoting the acquisition of competencies that support and strengthen functioning in a way that permits a greater sense of individual or group control over its developmental course", (Dunst & Trivette, 1988c, pg. 163).

Special Educational Needs refers to a child with a learning difficulty which calls for special educational provision to be made for her/him, a child has a "learning difficulty" for the purposes of the Education Act 1996 (Chapter 56) if:

(a) He/she has a significantly greater difficulty in learning than the majority of children of his/her age,

(b) he/she has a disability which either prevents or hinders him/her from making use of educational facilities of a kind generally provided for children of his/her age in schools within the area of the local education authority,

(c) he/she is under the age of five and is, or would be if special educational provision were not made for him/her, likely to fall within paragraph (a) or (b) when of or over that age.


The strategies used and the nature of support offered to families with children with special educational needs continue to develop. These developments have been the focus of much debate since the turn of the last century, (Dunst, Trivette & Deal 1994, Grant, Ramcharan, Mcgrath, Nolan, and Keady, 1998, King, Rosenbaum and King, 1997).This discussion in the wider context, details philosophical debates and human service developments related to the people with learning disabilities. These changes have been shaped by themes related to social justice and human rights and social policy that have influenced human service changes for example the shift away from institutional to community based services. Economic influences have also had an impact on the way services are purchased and provided. Ackers and Abbott (1998) detail the contribution of the mixed economy of welfare provision. They also evidence the influence of political ideology on social policy. The development of social policies whose primary function was to control and reinforce social behaviour was a contrast from a period of laissez-faire (leave alone) in the nineteenth century. During a period o f post-war social re-construction Britain witnessed the development of a political consensus. The results of these changes reflected interventionist social policy founded on citizenship and principles of social justice, ..."this period saw the development of the "modern" welfare state" (Akers & Abbott 1989 pg. 38). The policies of the New Right in the 1980's witnessed a return to laissez-faire principles. These principles were unpinned by a commitment to monetarist economics and repositioned individual responsibility in an effort to reinforce the dependency culture that is created by the welfare state, (Jones 1991). Alongside these developments attempts to shape and develop services in an effort to meet the needs of families have been actively pursued by services in the UK over the last century.


Empowerment has been linked to many of the current shifts in practice and is worthy of exploration. Zimmerman (1990a) has described empowerment as an enigma. Empowerment can be viewed as a philosophy, a paradigm, a process, for example forming partnerships.

Definition of Empowerment

There would appear to be no agreed upon definition of the term. Thomas & Velthouse (1990) suggest that "...the term has been used, often loosely, to capture a family of somewhat related meanings"(p. 666) .It is suggested that the concept conveys ideas regarding an individual's endeavours to gain personal control over his or her life. Its form is described as having an almost spiritual element Rappaport (1985)..."at the level of the level of being able to make a difference in the world around us," (p.17). A content analysis of a number of definitions was conducted by Dunst et al (1995). The summary of this analysis postulated that the varied definitions had a number of common elements. Five elements were identified: mastery and control processes, intrapersonal and interpersonal behaviour, interact ional relationships and beliefs. Empowerment can be practised, described or actioned, (Zimmerman & Rappaport 1988, Simmons & Parsons 1983. Mcknight (1987) & Swift (1984) relate the concept to the developments of systems that endeavour to counter macro, political, economic and social issues. Dunst et al (1994) highlighted the many different contexts in which the empowerment phenomenon has been used in the literature, these include: community psychology, organisational psychology, participatory research, education, early childhood intervention, family support, business and management, help giving, family-centred intervention, citizen participation, public policy, medicine, social work, speech pathology. The popularity of the empowerment concept has contributed to what many view as paradoxical interpretations



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