Supporting Early Childhood Preservice Teachers in Their Work With Children and Families With Complex Needs: A Strengths Approach

Feb. 15, 2014

Source: Journal of Early Childhood Teacher Education, Volume 35, Issue 1, p. 22–38, 2014
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

The purpose of this article is to examine the possibility of teacher educators using the principles of the Strengths Approach when teaching preservice teachers to enrich the preservice teachers understanding and skills in parent–educator communication across a range of children’s early development, protection, attachment, and learning needs.

The qualitative data presented in this article were drawn from a larger Australian doctoral research project (Fenton, 2012), which examined the potential of using the Strengths Approach (McCashen, 2005) to prepare early childhood teachers for child protection issues.
Details of the original research project, which gathered three phases of qualitative data from 19 preservice early childhood teachers who studied a newly designed Strengths Approach child protection module.


The findings reveal that the preservice teacher responses used for this study indicate that before learning about and practicing the Strengths Approach, the participants initially struggled in their approach to working through complex issues with families and children.
For example, the participants' responses at the beginning of the strengths module expressed hesitation, anxiousness, a lack of confidence and in some cases, discomfort with their prospective roles as early childhood educators involved with the multiple and complex issues affecting children and families.
Regardless of the expressions of uncertainty, most early responses also demonstrated an interest and engagement to learn about issues involving children and families and to explore their roles as early childhood educators.

However, after participating in the Strength Approach module, the participants indicated changes in their perspectives and approaches to these complex issues, coming to the point of seeing families as partners, communicating with children and families, valuing the differences in families, and avoiding judgments.
For example, the responses from Phase 2 indicate that participants can see how children’s learning and well-being is not distinct to the education context but is firmly situated, connected and inseparable from the cultural and family contexts.
The responses demonstrated multiple issues, such as poverty, disadvantaged Indigenous communities, possible physical abuse, culturally diverse backgrounds and languages spoken, separation from parents by divorce or working away from home, neglect, poor hygiene, and inadequate nutrition were all articulated.
The responses indicate that many of the children that the participants worked with on practicums were observed as not being prepared for the service or school day, particularly those in Indigenous communities.
They appear to listen more carefully, seek additional input (either from child, teacher aide or supervising practicum teacher), which indicates a potential to identify and explore strengths and resources.

Finally, the responses in Phase 3 indicate a significant shift in some of the participants’ thinking about working with families and complex issues, and recognition of the value of the Strengths Approach (McCashen, 2005) as an aid for practice in their work in helping children and families develop to their full potential.
Participants confirm the importance of relationships and that all families are different and have different values. Participants also show recognition that parents and educators can be partners on a journey together.
Strengths principles of trust, collaboration and empowerment emerge from the responses in this phase.
Participants indicate an understanding that there can be numerous causes of children’s and families’ behaviors, and that talking to them in order to find out more about the situation, rather than labeling or judging, is important.


This study also highlights a potentially useful framework which can assist early childhood educators and other stakeholders to work with children and families, particularly those with complex needs.
Given that research indicates that working with families is an often neglected area of teacher education courses and an area where educators often feel ill-prepared, Approach framework outlined in this study could be a useful focus of such courses.



This study highlights the potential challenges early childhood educators can meet when working with children and families with complex needs.
The authors suggest that although the Strengths Approach (McCashen, 2005) emerged from social service origins it may also be useful for educational contexts. In early childhood education, the Strengths Approach aligns strongly with the Early Years Learning Framework and the Code of Ethical Conduct (NAEYC, 2004).

Teacher educators preparing early childhood educators for their work with all children, including those with complex needs, may adapt, use, and explain the principles of the Strengths Approach to demonstrate how parent–educator communication can be enriched.
The potential of the Strengths Approach to be used outside of its social service origins to enhance teacher education and early childhood practice when working with children and families with complex needs is an opportunity worthy of further research.

Fenton, A. (2012). A strengths approach to child protection education (Doctoral dissertation). James Cook University, Queensland, Australia.
McCashen, W. (2005). The strengths approach. Bendigo, VIC, Australia: St. Luke’s Innovative Resources.
National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). (2004). Code of ethical conduct:Supplement for early childhood adult educators.

Updated: Nov. 11, 2015