Seeing early child and family support as a mosaic of triangles

If the triangles cannot be clearly seen in the mosaic, there is something wrong in the design

Note: This piece was written as a contribution to an international discussion during May 2020. Notes [1] and [2] were added in June 2020.

Peter Limbrick writes: I firmly believe there are some almost universal basics in early child and family support, and if we can get these basics right we will have something of relevance to people in many countries of low, middle or high economies.

[1] The pandemic lockdown is being eased in the UK as I write and I imagine many early child and family support managers and practitioners will be surveying their operation to see what is left of it after the combined ravages of austerity and C-19. It might be a matter of picking up the remaining pieces and trying to fit them together to make something coherent and usable. I would suggest the place to start is at the grassroots to make sure each child and family is part of an effective triangle.  

My basic element is a triangle with corners C, P and H:

  • P is one or more parent/carers with rights and responsibility in bringing up C.
  • C is one or more children with some sort of special needs in the family being brought up by P.
  • H is a person who comes along to help P.

P is looking for help and accepts H’s offer and so the triangle is formed. H might be a lone operator or a representative of an organisation.

[2] ‘Helper’ is a very general term that describes a function or role with a family without specifying a professional title. A helper could be a nurse, teacher, nursery worker, social worker, health visitor, paediatric therapist, psychologist, fieldworker, keyworker, counsellor, community health worker or other. Davis gives an excellent account of the helper in the Family Partnership Model in his essay The Helping Relationship: Understanding Partnerships.

I expect many people reading this will have been a part of this sort of child-parent-helper triangle It is a triangle of human relationships that:

  • functions with and is inspired by some sort of philosophy/values
  • conforms to some agreed rules/principles
  • engages in some actions/practice that have outcomes.

1. Philosophy/values

So, what are the values that give this triangle its reason for being? My list includes respect for children, respect for parents and the families they are part of and help create, respect for helpers and their motivations and respect for what parents and helpers can achieve in partnership. (We should also respect what the child brings into the triangle. I like to think of C, P and H playing and working together.)

Each of these values can be explained and expanded. For instance, respecting and valuing children can include:

  • The child is a child first and foremost and is not defined by any disability.
  • The disabled child has the same needs as other children for love, bonds of attachment, nutrition, warmth, clean environment, play, experiment, exploration, development, learning, success, praise, self-esteem, confidence and celebration.
  • Children with life-limited conditions are helped to enjoy the richest possible experience of life.
  • All children are helped so that pain, stress and anxiety are reduced as much as possible.
  • Each baby and child’s ‘voice’ is carefully listened to.

{This list is taken from Horizontal Teamwork in a Vertical World p 75}

2. Rules/principles

The agreed rules/principles can include some that are general for most triangles and some that are specific to an individual triangle. Examples can be that assumptions are replaced by listening, parents take the lead in setting the agenda for helpers, children are not expected to learn while they are crying, other children in the family are not automatically excluded from the work/play sessions.

3. Actions/practice

Actions/practice is what the triangle does to move towards agreed ambitions and aspirations for the child and family. The general style is for the helper to support the parental role rather than taking over – to help the parent learn how to give the child new skills and understanding. This is always in response to a parent’s request for help in a particular activity, for example, drinking from a cup, achieving a bedtime routine. The aim is to achieve collective competence that integrates relevant skills of the Helper, the Parent and the Child.

If the helper is part of an organisation, then he or she is backed up in her role by people with different skills – another level of collective competence. All first baby and infant skills and understanding are acquired in the family setting as everyday tasks are mastered (dressing, washing socialising, playing, helping, etc). These can be the primary focus of the triangle’s actions/practice.


This approach to early child and family support in each triangle is both child- and family-centred. The child is helped to attach, develop, learn and enjoy a quality of life. Parents are respected, acknowledged, listened to and supported - and generally helped to maintain the family’s wellbeing. Triangles develop, evolve and function within particular environments and cultures.

An early child and family support system for a town, city or region must be a mosaic of these triangles. A close examination of the mosaic must always reveal these triangles. If the triangles cannot be clearly seen, there is something wrong in the design.

In the high-economy countries I know something about (UK, Australia, Canada) where services for babies and young children with special needs can sometimes be more or less institutional/traditional, the triangles cannot always be found. Their identity is lost in a grey blur in which the triangles are corrupted in their philosophy/values, rules/principles or actions/practice. For instance, too many people in the helping role around a family can cause overload and confusion and fragment the child.

The P - C - H triangle is offered here as the basic element of early child and family support. The child's condition, the family's situation and the local culture/environment will all influence which person comes along as Helper - perhaps a teacher, a health worker or a social worker. Perhaps a caring person who is none of those.

Peter Limbrick, May and June 2020

Comments welcome

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