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Carl J. Dunst, Ph.D., from Orelena Hawks Puckett Institute, is a developmental psychologist who has been engaged in family support program development and evaluation for 20 years.

I think of family support in terms of Family Support America’s principles (see box). With that in mind, we need to strengthen research and evaluation in the following ways:

1. Get beyond the question: Does family support work? A more useful question is: What are the characteristics of family support programs that matter most for good practice and for good parent and child outcomes? We have no agreed on measure for identifying whether a program is or is not a family support program. I am currently designing an instrument to address this.

2. Measure the variation in program adherence to family support principles. Once we define what a family support program is, we need to measure the extent to which programs adhere to family support principles. Then we need to relate that adherence to parent and child outcomes. This allows us to establish: 1) what good program practices are, and 2) how different levels of adherence to family support principles relate to different outcomes. My colleagues and I have looked at adherence to family support principles in two ways:


  • At the program level, we interview program personnel about their beliefs and attitudes toward families, and establish the extent to which their practices are consistent with family support principles. Independent raters analyze interview data to establish an adherence measure.
  • At the practitioner level, we ask parents to assess the extent to which staff interacted with them in ways consistent with family support principles.

Family Support Principles*

1. Staff and families work together in relationships based on equality and respect.
2. Staff enhance families’ capacity to support the growth and development of all family members - adults, youth, and children.
3. Families are resources to their own members, to other families, to programs, and to communities.
4. Programs affirm and strengthen families’ cultural, racial, and linguistic identities and enhance their ability to function in a multicultural society.
5. Programs are embedded in their communities and contribute to the community-building process.
6. Programs advocate with families for services and systems that are fair, responsive, and accountable to the families served.
7. Practitioners work with families to mobilize formal and informal resources to support family development.
8. Programs are flexible and continually responsive to emerging family and community issues.
9. Principles of family support are modeled in all program activities, including planning, governance, and administration.

* Taken from Family Support America’s principles at

We use these data to develop a quantitative measure of adherence, and then look at the relationship between that measure and parent outcomes (Dunst & Trivette, 2001). If more resources were available for evaluation, we would add a third adherence measure and triangulate the measures. We would add independent observations of program practices as well as ratings of program materials and messages to get an even better index of adherence.

3. Examine the variables that moderate program practice and parent outcomes. In terms of the relationship between practice and parent outcomes, we have looked at parent self-efficacy as a moderating variable. For example, in one study (Dunst, 1999) we related adherence to principles with variations in self-efficacy and parents’ self-report assessments of their parenting ability. We found self-efficacy moderated the relationship between adherence to principles and parenting ability.

4. Invest in different kinds of evaluation. Federal and state evaluation investments need to allow for or encourage different kinds of family support evaluation. It would be interesting to see how different methods can lead to different understandings of family support program practices. For example, using case studies we differentiated between families who could secure social supports themselves versus families who identified the supports they wanted and then practitioners secured the supports for them. Families who secured the supports on their own attributed the changes to their own behavior. Where practitioners secured the supports, families made gratification appraisals for the program, but didn’t attribute changes to their own behavior (Dunst, Trivette, Gordon, & Starnes, 1993).

Carl Dunst
Orelena Hawks Puckett Institute
18A Regent Park Boulevard
Asheville, NC 28806


Dunst, C. J., & Trivette, C. M. (2001). Benefits associated with family resource center practices. Asheville, NC: Winterberry Press.

Dunst, C. J. (1999). Placing parent education in conceptual and empirical context. Topics in Early Childhood and Special Education, 19, 141–147.

Dunst, C. J., Trivette, C. M., Gordon, N. J., & Starnes, A. L. (1993). Family-centered case management practices: Characteristics and consequences. In G. H. Singer & L. L. Powers (Eds.), Families, disability, and empowerment: Active coping skills and strategies for family interventions (pp. 89–118). Baltimore: Brookes.

Additional Reading
Dunst, C. J. (2001). Parent and community assets as sources of young children’s learning opportunities. Asheville, NC: Winterberry Press.

Dunst, C. J., & Trivette, C. M. (2001). Parenting supports and resources, helpgiving practices, and parenting competence. Asheville, NC: Winterberry Press.

Dunst, C. J., & Trivette, C. M. (2001). Benefits associated with family resource center practices. Asheville, NC: Winterberry Press.

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