The Evidence Portal

Build a positive relationship

Flexible activity

When working with families, building a positive relationship is essential. Families want to work with someone who understands them and can help them in a way that works for them. When practitioners know how to connect with families, listen to and discover what’s really going on, build trust and explore solutions together, life outcomes for children can be transformed.

Practitioners should strive to foster a trusting and caring partnership, built on empathy, respect and open-communication.

How can it be implemented?

Building a positive relationship can be achieved in a number of different ways. You should use your professional judgement, and your client’s circumstances and preferences, to determine what is most appropriate.

The techniques listed below were embedded into home visiting programs. However, these techniques could be implemented in to any form of support (e.g. small group settings, neighbourhood centres).

Address immediate needs:

  • Practitioners can establish trusting relationships with families by helping them address existing crises.
  • These could include providing material aid and support, housing or ensuring family safety.
  • Addressing the family's immediate needs demonstrates that practitioners are able to meet the family's ongoing and future needs.

Encourage participation:

  • Families should be encouraged to make decisions about their needs and possible solutions. They should be active participants in goal setting and planning.
  • Engagement with families should foster self-agency where families are encouraged to exercise control over their situation and the steps they take to address their issues.

Ask families what they want and need:

  • Ask families what support they want and need and actively listen to their issues and concerns.
  • Ensure that any steps taken to address the family’s need are grounded in what the family has asked for.
  • Visitation frequency should also be based on the needs of families.

Understand individual and cultural perspectives:

  • No two families are the same. A ‘one size fits all’ approach should not be adopted when engaging with vulnerable families. Practitioners must recognise the multifaceted nature of identity, culture and their client’s experiences.
  • To successfully engage with families practitioners should be culturally competent. Practitioners should work to understand and meet the unique cultural and identity needs of their clients.
  • This could include: understanding the psychological impact of migrating to a new country, understanding the impacts of intergenerational trauma, recognising and addressing any language barriers, working hard to challenge and correct their own biases.

Long-term engagement:

  • Sustained engagement with families is necessary to build a trusting relationship. Many of the issues vulnerable families face can take time to address and so long-term engagement is necessary.
  • Where possible families should also work with the same practitioner to enable a positive relationship to develop.

Continue outreach:

  • Contact with families should continue even if they miss multiple appointments. Often missed appointments can indicate the family is struggling. Continued outreach demonstrates that practitioners care about the needs and wellbeing of the families they work with.

Many programs and practitioners use a combination of these techniques. The techniques used may also change over time as the family’s needs and preferences change.

What should I consider when working with Aboriginal people and communities?

Cultural safety is critical when engaging with Aboriginal people and communities. A whole of organisation approach should be used in ensuring services are delivered in a culturally safe way.

Children, families and communities need to have their stories heard by practitioners who understand the cultural context of their lives, and feel they have agency in decision making about their lives. Engagement across cultures requires respectful and explorative communication. This may require providers to adjust their approach to meet their clients’ needs. 

A ‘one size fits all’ approach will not be effective. Ways of working and communication should be tailored to meet the needs of the individuals and communities involved. Some considerations might include:

  • Recruit Aboriginal people and actively support them through ongoing training, mentoring and career progression strategies.
  • Provide all staff with ongoing cultural safety training and reflection opportunities to provide them with the skills and knowledge to engage safely and competently with Aboriginal children, families and communities.
  • Culturally safe service delivery begins with understanding the importance of culture in the lives of Aboriginal peoples. Cultural safety requires practitioners to reflect on how they support and provide services to Aboriginal children, families and communities, and how their own beliefs and values effect/distort their thoughts, words and actions. Through reflection practitioners have the opportunity to identify attitudes they may hold that adversely impact on  service provision for Aboriginal people; and explicitly work to change these attitudes. This is an ongoing process.
  • Embedding cultural safety into all aspects of an organisation relies on building effective partnerships between the service and Aboriginal clients and communities. Such partnerships ensure that program offerings can meet local community needs, and be informed by Aboriginal worldviews, as well as local expertise and knowledge.

Further information can be found in the Cultural Safety and Wellbeing Evidence review.

Who was the target group?

This flexible activity has been implemented with a number of different target groups. Key characteristics include:

  • Families with children, prenatal to 6 years of age, demonstrating emotional/behavioural or developmental/learning problems
  • Families experiencing significant psychosocial risk
  • Families at risk of child abuse and neglect
  • Families experiencing certain risk factors (e.g. substance abuse, mental health, inter-partner violence)
  • Families with children under 10 deemed at high-risk of child maltreatment
  • First time mothers

What programs conduct this activity?

  • In the Child FIRST program, staff were trained to approach families with warmth, empathy, and respect and to communicate in words and deeds that they are there as partners and advocates. Outreach continued even in the face of multiple missed appointments.
  • In the My Baby & Me program, coach’s foster a trusting, caring relationship with mothers to promote active and sustained engagement in the program.
  • In the Nurse Family Partnership program, new mothers develop a close relationship with a nurse who becomes a trusted resource they can rely on for advice on everything from safely caring for their child to taking steps to provide a stable, secure future for them both.
  • In the Parent Support Outreach program workers are trained in family engagement and collaboration techniques.
  • The Hawaiian Healthy Start Program builds trusting relationship with parents by helping them address existing crises.
  • In the New Zealand Early Start program, home visitors develop a positive partnership with their clients by understanding the client’s individual and cultural perspective. They also work with families long-term, throughout the child’s preschool years.

What else should I consider?

Staff training: in many of the programs listed above staff received training on how to engage and collaborate with parents and families.

Further resources

Last updated:

25 Nov 2022

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We acknowledge Aboriginal people as the First Nations Peoples of NSW and pay our respects to Elders past, present, and future. 

Informed by lessons of the past, Department of Communities and Justice is improving how we work with Aboriginal people and communities. We listen and learn from the knowledge, strength and resilience of Stolen Generations Survivors, Aboriginal Elders and Aboriginal communities.

You can access our apology to the Stolen Generations.

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