Strengthening Families, Strengthening Communities (SFSC) is an inclusive evidence-based parenting programme, designed to promote protective factors which are associated with good parenting and better outcomes for children.
Strengthening Families, Strengthening Communities
Strengthening Families, Strengthening Communities (SFSC) is an inclusive evidence-based parenting programme, designed to promote protective factors which are associated with good parenting and better outcomes for children. It is designed to support parents and carers to understand:
- how children and young people’s behaviour is influenced at different developmental stages and how it relates to their emotional health and wellbeing
- strategies to support their children’s development and wellbeing and to improve family relationships
- the steps they can take to address risky behaviours.
Wandsworth Borough Council has worked closely with the Race Equality Foundation since 2009 to embed the SFSC model into its children’s services. Race Equality Foundation continues to provide quality assurance. SFSC is delivered in other local areas, where arrangements are tailored to meet local context. It might, for example, be delivered by local voluntary organisations instead of the local authority.
SFSC in Wandsworth is designed as a preventative service that meets the needs of a diverse population, including families which have experienced violence or disadvantage. It reaches parents for children of all ages up to 18 years. It aims to empower families to make changes that can mitigate risks and promote protective factors around young people, while at the same time improving parental wellbeing.
SFSC is a parenting programme which delivers 13, three-hour weekly sessions to groups of 8-12 parents and carers, led by two trained facilitators. The programme focuses on developing healthy lifestyles, healthy families and healthy communities which are free from violence. It does this in part by improving the parent-child relationship. It has been delivered in statutory agencies, schools, and in community settings including places of worship.
The 13 week curriculum is divided into five core areas: cultural or spiritual context, rites of passages, enhancing relationships, discipline, and community involvement. Mental health is addressed both in specific sections of the course and throughout, where the themes of managing emotions and promoting protective factors for wellbeing are recurring, where the impact of drugs and alcohol misuse are discussed, and where explorations of self-harm and suicide are included in a sensitive manner. Social, cultural and ethnic contexts of parenthood and childhood are also important elements of the approach. The programme has been run for all parents and for specific groups, for example groups for Muslim women, evening groups for fathers, groups for parents of teenagers, groups in community languages and for mothers who have experienced domestic abuse.
SFSC is delivered by Wandsworth Borough Council’s LINKS service, which specialises in family group work. Parents are referred to the programme through social services, children’s social care, early help, support services for victims of domestic abuse, GPs, schools, health visitors and others. Where appropriate, the LINKS service refers parents involved in the SFSC programme onto other services. The service is represented at the regular Multi-Agency Risk Assessment Conference where individual cases can be discussed and escalated, and has close links with other specialist groups, including services like Halt and New Beginnings, which support women to recover from domestic abuse.
“[The service] helped me to cope and handle my role as a mother and to identify where I need support. I have opened up and I'm engaging more with the school and social services.” Parent
The course is designed for parents of children up to 18 years old. In Wandsworth, parents of children of similar ages are grouped together, with content tailored to meet specific concerns associated with different ages, and shared experiences among the parent group and important aspect of the peer learning element. For children and young people in the older age range, the programme responds to needs around enabling autonomy, developing mutual trust, reducing conflict, and addressing parental fears around a young person’s behaviours which may be perceived as putting themselves or others at risk, such as alcohol or drug use, early sexual activity, or involvement in violence and other criminal activities.
The programme is designed to create safe spaces for parents to seek support, share and receive information about raising their children. It encourages solutions which arise from a better parent-child relationship, rather than direct interventions which focus on the young person. Parents are encouraged to reflect on their own behaviour, to address their childhood experiences as well as their parenting challenges, and recognise their ability to make changes.
Adjusting to the Coronavirus pandemic
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Wandsworth created a virtual SFSC offer, with plans in place to return to face to face delivery when appropriate. COVID-safe service recovery planning is different from area to area with some requiring face to face events to be held in a single, managed location within the council and other areas showing more flexibility on the use of community venues with adherence to strict risk assessments and COVID-safe practices.
How this approach works with families
Family life is the core focus of SFSC. As well as reflecting on their own roles, parents/carers are encouraged to understand the influence of other key individuals (siblings and wider family members, neighbours, professionals, other trusted adults) in the life of their child. In some cases, this means encouraging family members to join SFSC programmes. Wandsworth Borough Council has further strengthened parent/carer involvement by training parents as SFSC facilitators.
While the programme concludes after 13 weeks, some parents have been able to return for a second time for further support, many continue to have supportive contact with each other, through a WhatsApp group for example, and all parents receive manuals to help embed the learning after the sessions conclude.
SFSC has enjoyed success with parents from a number of backgrounds, including teenage parents, parents from diverse and marginalised communities, and parents with complex needs including domestic abuse and parental mental health problems. Hundreds of parents have attended SFSC courses in Wandsworth since 2009. Before the Coronavirus pandemic, the Borough averaged delivery of 16 SFSC groups a year with an average of 8 parents per group.
Outcomes are monitored through completed evaluation forms and verbal feedback. Feedback is also received from referrers, schools, agencies, and, where possible, directly from children. Common themes are that parents change their parenting, typically report feeling less stressed, and their households being calmer, with less conflict at home.
“My son has changed as the direct result of me being a more confident parent and I shout less.” Parent
SFSC’s positives outcomes have been highlighted in a range of local and national studies (Kelly, 2019; Karlson, 2013; Wilding and Barton, 2009). These demonstrate measurable improvements:
- improved parental self-esteem and parenting confidence
- increases in positive parenting practices (praise, listening, spending time) and reductions in less positive practices (shouting, criticising, anger)
- better relationships with children, and perceptions of child’s self-esteem, emotional regulation, help seeking, self-discipline, and likelihood to avoid violence and crime
- one study, looking at hundreds of participants across England, found a significant reduction in psychological distress, where the number of parents who could be considered ‘highly likely to be depressed’ was halved (Kelly, 2019)
- reductions in child socioemotional difficulties, including conduction problems, hyperactivity and inattention, and peer problems (Kelly, 2019).
A randomised controlled trial is currently underway, led by University College London, to further expand the evidence base. This will include monitoring outcomes specific to mental health and wellbeing (Watt, 2019).
Group work makes a difference: The group setting enables useful elements of shared reflection and peer challenge, which can be received more positively than interventions delivered directly by a professional. Facilitators have observed an increase in connection and informal support networks from the programme, based on the sense of community and mutual support which the group based sessions encourage. Some participants establish long term relationships with other group members and continue to support each other, addressing issues of isolation.
“The village gets bigger.” SFSC trained facilitator.
Safe, accessible spaces can be created: The programme is designed to create an environment where parents can share information safely and be heard and listened to but also an opportunity to get information and ideas to support them in raising their children. ‘Graduation’ from the service is often celebrated as an achievement by participants, with the occasion marked with food and social gathering. Where parents and carers have been referred to the programme with poor confidence as guardians, facing disadvantages of their own, or with serious concerns about their child’s behaviour, this represents a significant step in reframing and destigmatising the need for parenting support. Establishing parenting courses in community spaces, providing them in community languages, at times when people are free to attend (evenings), providing hot food, and offering childcare also help to make these spaces work for parents and carers.
The service evolves: The model has evolved from the training of facilitators within the council to a programme which is firmly embedded within the council’s family group work team. By 2019, 37 group work practitioners had been trained in SFSC.
Benefits have a ripple effect: Some parents have reported significant changes in their lives, including increased confidence to begin voluntary work, explore education, and seek out paid work. The service is also recognised by facilitators and parents as fostering a level of trust among parents that empowers them to access other services for themselves and their children, for example counselling, specialist children and young people’s mental health services, and support for domestic violence.
Kelly, Y. (2019) Evaluation of the Strengthening Families, Strengthening Communities programme 2014/17. London: Race Equality Foundation.
Karlsen S. Evaluation of the Strengthening Families, Strengthening Communities programme 2009/10. Race Equality Foundation. 2013
Wilding J, Barton M. Evaluation of the Strengthening Families, Strengthening Communities Programme 2005/06 and 2006/07 Full Report. 2009
Watt, R. et al (2019) Research protocol: TOGETHER: A randomised controlled trial evaluating the effectiveness and cost effectiveness of 'Strengthening Families, Strengthening Communities': a community led parenting programme. UCL.