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Family Support Services


Jacquelyn McCroskey

Susan E. Smith


Most schools encourage parents to become involved in their children's education, and some may even require parent participation in school activities. Most teachers and educational administrators, however, realize that parents who are working several jobs to make ends meet or struggling with complicated health or family problems may not be able to help their children learn. Those who are recent immigrants or who did not do well in school themselves may not know how to help or may feel intimidated by school. The challenges of daily life can be so overwhelming–especially for poor families living in dangerous or decrepit inner-city neighborhoods or those living in far-flung rural areas with few resources–that educational success for children may not seem to be a realistic family priority.

In response, many schools are increasing their efforts to support families and to assure that both parents and children get the social and health services they need. Theories and models of how to do this effectively vary widely, and experts have suggested a number of different approaches. Some schools focus on assuring referral to outside agencies providing services for families and children, others on partnering with these allied agencies to bring services on or near school campuses, and still others on increasing support services offered by the school itself. These programs are designed to increase access to needed services, to improve academic performance, and to help parents prevent or resolve problems, develop new skills, and learn how to participate more effectively in their children's education.

Such programs draw from a century of reform efforts on two parallel, but often interrelated, tracks–education reform and neighborhood-based social services. In 1995 David Tyack and Larry Cuban described some of the ways that these ideas have overlapped:

Prodded by a variety of lay reformers to expand social and health services, educational administrators added programs of physical education and recreation and gave instruction in health. Hundreds of cities added vacation schools (later called summer schools), school lunch programs, and medical and dental care, especially for the children of working-class immigrant families. States and urban districts began creating special schools or classes for physically or emotionally handicapped students–the number of separate state or district schools for such children increased from 180 in 1900 to 551 in 1930. Cities also created new categories of classes for "misfits"–children who were too "backward" to proceed at the normal rate in graded classrooms or too unruly for the teachers to handle. (pp. 20–21)

Late-nineteenth-century settlement houses offer one of the earliest examples of how neighborhood-based services for families can supplement the work of overcrowded inner-city schools. For example, the first Hull-House (established in Chicago in 1889 by Jane Addams and her associates) developed programs such as a day nursery and kindergarten for the children of "hard-driven mothers who went out to work all day, sometimes leaving the little things in the casual care of a neighbor, but often locking them into their tenement rooms" (Addams, p. 127). Hull-House also sponsored "clubs" for the "large number of children who leave school the very week they are fourteen years old, only too eager to close the school-room door forever on a tiresome task that is at last well over" (Addams, p. 86).

While settlement houses offered many ideas about how to support families, another approach was taken in the late nineteenth century by Charity Organization Societies, which developed case-by-case methods of aiding poor and troubled families. During the last century, ideas about how to help poor families and children swung back and forth between these twin poles of casework and neighborhood-based social services. One end of the continuum suggests that problems are primarily within the individual or family (requiring individualized casework) and the other that they are social, structural, or economic (requiring neighborhood and community solutions). Recent interest in orienting family support services around neighborhood schools can be seen, at least in part, as another generation's "reinvention" of neighborhood-based support services for families and their children.

Conflicting Values about How Schools Should Support Families

Some argue that schools need to focus on educational issues, leaving social issues to families, religious, civic, and community institutions. Others believe that children who come to school hungry, sick, or frightened cannot learn, no matter how thoughtful the curriculum or how accomplished the teacher. Opinions on how schools should interact with families are varied and deeply felt, based on individual experiences, values, and perceptions.

While questions about whether and how schools should be involved in supporting families are debated in forums across the country, however, most schools already provide a broad range of nonclassroom "support services" designed to promote academic achievement. Because each school district or local educational authority sets its own policies in response to local expectations and conditions, there is a very wide range in the nonclassroom-based supports and services offered across school districts or even between schools in the same district. Some schools have many such services whereas others have very few–and some do a better job than others of tracking and organizing the resources they do have. For example, distress over there being "no services" for the children in one inner-city school in Los Angeles in the mid-1990s led to a count of the different kinds of programs already in place to provide support services to students. When the counters found that seventeen different kinds of "school support services personnel" were already working in the school, everyone agreed that the first priority was a "resource coordinating council." Coordinating the support services that were already available was an essential first step, but the next steps included assessing the other needs of teachers, students, and parents and developing partnerships with local allied agencies to provide some of the services most needed in the community.

What Are Family Support Services?

All families need help and support in raising their children. Some can get by with the informal support of family and friends, employment-related benefits such as health insurance, and fee-for-service arrangements to purchase child care or other needed services. Many families, however, will also need help from public, nonprofit, and community-based agencies that provide services to children and families on a free or low-cost basis. The service delivery systems that provide these services are organized somewhat differently in each community, but the services needed by families generally include child care, parent education, income support, and health and mental health services. Some families also need help in dealing with dependent (abused or neglected) or delinquent youth.

In some communities (often suburbs or relatively homogenous smaller urban areas), the established public and private human service systems work reasonably well, information about and referral to different kinds of services is available, and families find the help they need. In too many other communities, however, families face serious barriers to accessing and using services. In rural areas, the services may be far away or not available at all. In dense urban areas–especially poor inner-city neighborhoods with large numbers of immigrants and families with multiple needs–human service delivery systems tend to be chaotic, overwhelmed, and confusing. Sometimes even the most knowledgeable people do not know where to find key child and family agencies, much less how families get access to different kinds of specialized services.

Schools are the most visible neighborhood institutions serving families and children, but many school personnel do not know about many community resources so they cannot guide parents who need help. Some school employees are reluctant to get involved in family troubles or to try to bridge complex institutions, and others are frustrated when their efforts to help do not work. Despite these difficulties, however, in many rural areas and inner-city communities where the needs of children and families are most visible and urgent, partnerships between schools, allied public and private agencies, and community-based groups are flourishing.

In some places, reform efforts have led schools to better define and mobilize their internal resources or to develop connections with services offered by allied agencies. In others, schools have opened their buildings and playgrounds after the school day ends to external organizations that provide after-school activities, parent education, and many other family support services. In some jurisdictions, school leaders have actively engaged in partnerships to change local policies to assure that the services families need are available through allied agencies. Assuring that these allied agencies are ready and able to help families can free schools to attend to their primary purpose, as Lisbeth B. Schorr suggested in a 1997 description of Missouri's Caring Communities program:

teachers who had once been kept at arm's length by human service professionals, were trained to spot signs of trouble in their pupils–from slumps in classroom performance to depression–and to convey their concerns to Caring Communities coordinators. "The greatest accomplishment of Caring Communities is that I feel relieved of responsibility for social problems," said one teacher. "I can really teach." (p. 288)

Because conditions are so different in each community, there are many ways to approach the question of what schools can and should do to support families and assure that children are not so hungry, sick, or troubled that they cannot pay attention to learning. The answers are being invented (and sometimes reinvented) in communities across the country. The solutions devised are as varied and numerous as the communities served, but the following critical issues have received special attention from professionals in the field:

  1. How to prevent family problems from developing in the first place
  2. How to assure that young children are ready for school
  3. How schools can more effectively connect families to specialized treatment services
  4. How to improve training for and the evaluation of family support services

Preventing Family Problems

While the idea of supporting families is not new, discussions took on a different tone in the early 1980s with the establishment of the Family Resource Coalition, later called Family Support America. This national organization serves as a catalyst to assure that families have access to the support they need in welcoming surroundings in their own communities, where knowledgeable and respectful staff speak the family's language and understand its cultural traditions. These services are designed to recognize and build on family strengths, increase family stability, prevent problems, improve parenting skills, and enhance child development.

Whether they are based in schools, child-care centers, social agencies, or medical clinics, preventively oriented family support programs should be guided by shared principles, which include: (1) staff and families work together in relationships based on equality and respect; (2) families are resources to their own members, to other families, to programs, and to communities; (3) programs affirm and strengthen families' cultural, racial, and linguistic identities and enhance their ability to function in a multicultural society; (4) programs advocate with family members for services and systems that are fair, responsive, and accountable; and (5) programs are flexible and responsive to emerging family and community issues. Guided by such principles, the "family support movement" is working to change professional attitudes and practices, encouraging more egalitarian, flexible, respectful, and responsive interactions with families.

School Readiness

Guided by the family support movement, many people have focused on providing effective early childhood intervention programs to enhance child development and help children and parents get ready for school. After analyzing results from a number of the most rigorously evaluated early intervention programs, RAND researchers in 1998 concluded that these programs can provide significant benefits, especially for disadvantaged children and their families.

The significance of early childhood experiences in later learning was reaffirmed by the National Research Council and the National Institute of Medicine in a 2000 analysis of the extensive scientific evidence:

A fundamental paradox exists and is unavoidable: development in the early years is both highly robust and highly vulnerable. Although there have been long-standing debates about how much the early years really matter in the larger scheme of lifelong development, our conclusion is unequivocal: What happens during the first months and years of life matters a lot, not because this period of development provides an indelible blueprint for adult well-being, but because it sets either a sturdy or fragile stage for what follows. (Shonkoff and Phillips, pp. 4–5)

Their summary of the evidence affirms the positive effects of high-quality early childhood programs on school performance, and suggests that a number of different kinds of preschool programs can be effective: "Taken together, the follow-up literature provides abundant evidence of intervention-control group differences in academic achievement during middle childhood, but no consistent or distinctive pattern of preschool curriculum or program format" (Shonkoff and Phillips, p. 351).

Recognizing the salience of early development, more programs are being developed to help both preschool children and their parents–assuring that children and parents are ready to get the most from school. For example, school-linked family support services can help parents find affordable, high-quality child care, improve parenting skills through parent education information and experiences, and help ease the transition between child care and school. At the same time, leaders in communities around the country have also realized that significant changes may be needed to help schools get ready for the changing population of children and families.

Connecting Families to Specialized Treatment Services

Many schools have focused on identifying children with problems so that they can be referred for testing, special education, or treatment. Even with more access to early childhood development and prevention services, specialized treatment for children and youth with behavior and health problems will still be needed. In this area too, there are enormous local differences in the availability, cost, and quality of specialized treatment services. Not surprisingly, problems are most likely to be found in poor rural districts where families have little access to services and in large inner-city districts where there are not enough resources to go around.

Partnerships between schools and allied public agencies responsible for providing health and mental health services, intervening in cases of child abuse and neglect, and responding to juvenile violence and delinquency are working effectively in some communities. For example, evaluation of California's Healthy Start Initiative, a statewide effort designed to help schools build bridges to allied public and community-based agencies that serve the same families and children, has demonstrated significant improvements in child and family outcomes. The long-term goal of many such reform efforts is to restructure existing child and family services systems so that they are less fragmented and more integrated, less intimidating and more accessible, and less confusing and more understandable to families. Unfortunately, that goal remains a dream in most places.

The Challenges of Training and Evaluation Efforts to develop and sustain school-community partnerships present a number of challenges. Two questions require immediate attention.

First, how can education and training be improved to build connections? The possibilities of training different kinds of professionals to form effective interprofessional teams, and to collaborate more effectively with families, are being explored in university-community pilot projects throughout the country. Most university-based training for teachers and health and human services professionals, however, is still based in separate specialties that do not prepare professionals for work across disciplinary and organizational boundaries. Most of the people who work in school-community partnerships must learn on the job, and only a few have the time, energy, or resources to share the important lessons they are learning.

Second, how can the effectiveness of all kinds of school-community partnerships be continuously evaluated? The people involved in such partnerships should be able to document the costs and benefits of different approaches to family support services. Targeted evaluation research can help to refine and improve programs, to improve planning, and to document results for participants, school boards, principals, teachers, and taxpayers. While some data is available on the outcomes of these efforts, a great deal more information is needed to guide further development of the field.


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ADDAMS, JANE. 1999. Twenty Years at Hull-House, with Autobiographical Notes (1910). New York: Signet Classic.

ADELMAN, HOWARD S., and TAYLOR, LINDA. 2000. "Looking at School Health and School Reform Policy through the Lens of Addressing Barriers to Learning." Children's Services: Social Policy, Research, and Practice 3 (2):117–132.

BRIAR-LAWSON, KATHARINE, and LAWSON, HAL. 1997. Connecting the Dots: Progress towards the Integration of School Reform, School-Linked Services, Parent Involvement, and Community Schools. St Louis, MO: Danforth Foundation.

CIBULKA, JAMES G., and KRITEK, WILLIAM J., eds. 1996. Coordination among Schools, Families, and Communities: Prospects for Education Reform. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

DRYFOOS, JOY G. 1994. Full Service Schools: A Revolution in Health and Social Services for Children, Youth, and Families. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

DRYFOOS, JOY G. 1998. Safe Passage: Making It through Adolescence in a Risky Society. New York: Oxford University Press.

HALPERN, ROBERT. 1999. Fragile Families, Fragile Solutions: A History of Supportive Services for Families in Poverty. New York: Columbia University Press.

KAGAN, SHARON L. ; POWELL, DOUGLAS R. ; WEISSBOURD, BERNICE; and ZIGLER, EDWARD F., eds.1987. America's Family Support Programs. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

KAROLY, LYNN A. ; GREENWOOD, PETER W. ; EVERINGHAM, SUSAN S. ; HOUBE, JILL; KILBURN, M. REBECCA; RYDELL, C. PETER; SANDERS, MATTHEW; and CHIESA, JAMES. 1998. Investing in Our Children: What We Know and Don't Know about the Costs and Benefits of Early Childhood Interventions. Santa Monica, CA: RAND.

KNAPP, MICHAEL S. 1995. "How Shall We Study Comprehensive, Collaborative Services for Children and Families?" Educational Researcher 24 (4):5–16.

MCCROSKEY, JACQUELYN, and EINBINDER, SUSAN. 1998. Universities and Communities: Remaking Professional and Interprofessional Education for the Next Century. Westport, CT: Praeger.

MCCROSKEY, JACQUELYN, and MEEZAN, WILLIAM. 1998. "Family-Centered Services: Approaches and Effectiveness." Future of Children 8 (1):54–71.

SCHORR, LISBETH B. 1997. Common Purpose: Strengthening Families and Neighborhoods to Re-build America. New York: Doubleday, Anchor Books.

SHONKOFF, JACK P., and PHILLIPS, DEBORAH A., eds. 2000. From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

TYACK, DAVID, and CUBAN, LARRY. 1995. Tinkering toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

WAGNER, MARY; GOLAN, SHARI; SHAVER, DEBRA; NEWMAN, LYNN; WECHSLER, MAJORIE; and KELLEY, FIONA. 1994. A Healthy Start for California's Children and Families: Early Findings from a Statewide Evaluation of School-Linked Services. Menlo Park, CA: SRI International.

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FAMILY SUPPORT AMERICA. 2002. <www.familysupportamerica.org>.


Because of a combination of demographic trends and inadequate income supports, children comprise the demographic group at greatest poverty risk in the United States. In the mid-1970s, there was grave concern about elderly poverty, as nearly one in three elderly adults lived in poor households. Since then, the indexing of social security benefits to inflation has allowed benefits to better keep up with living costs. As a consequence, the elderly are now less likely to be poor than most other Americans. Alongside this success story of social policy ameliorating poverty, however, is the unfortunate fact that children have replaced the elderly at the low end of the U.S. economic ladder.

While the percent of children living in single-parent homes increased from 10 percent in 1960 to 31 percent in 1998, in 2000 more than half of poor families were headed by unmarried mothers. A minority of children will experience a childhood in which both parents are present, and, though mothers are more likely than ever to be employed, many are the only earner in their household. Mother-only families not only rely on lower wages than those typically earned by males but also must manage child-care and other parenting responsibilities alone. Income supports become increasingly important in these instances.

As more middle-class mothers become employed, income support for parents has increasingly required work participation. This trend culminated in the passage in 1996 of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which created the principal program for poor families, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. Cash support for families is limited. In response to concerns over work disincentives and fraud, in-kind benefits have become more common than cash. These in-kind benefits, particularly food stamps, health insurance, and health care, are available to more families than are income supports.

Specific Income Support Programs

There are six family income support programs, divided into cash supports and tax benefits. The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) blurs the line between the two categories. No program alone raises families from poverty, but the EITC, coupled with full-time work, can raise a small family just above the poverty line. To make ends meet, low-earning, single-parent families must often supplement income supports with child-care and housing subsidies, medical assistance, and food stamps.

Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). The TANF program, which is the best-known income support program, is often generically referred to as "welfare." This program replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) as part of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996. TANF provides time-limited cash support to families with minor children. While states have discretion in defining program details, particularly benefit levels, states may not use federal money to offer families cash grants for more than two consecutive years or for more than five years over their lifetime. Adult recipients are also mandated to participate in work, or work-related activities, for at least thirty-two hours per week. Certain provisions exempt a small number of parents, such as those with newborns or those caring for children or relatives with disabilities.

Supplemental Security Income (SSI). SSI provides cash assistance to elderly persons or persons with disabilities whose income falls below the federal poverty line. Originating as Aid to the Blind and Aid to the Aged, part of the Social Security Act of 1935, then as Aid to the Disabled in 1950, SSI was created in 1972 from the consolidation of existing programs for the disabled and indigent elderly. Eighty-nine percent of SSI recipients also receive Social Security. Children with disabilities are also eligible for SSI.

SSI funding comes solely from the federal government, and it is administered by the Social Security Administration. As a result, benefits and eligibility are uniform across states. The maximum allowable annual federal SSI benefit in 1999 was $6,000. Over-all, SSI income support is about 75 percent of the poverty level.

General Assistance (GA). While no federal program exists to aid able-bodied adults under sixty-five years of age, most states and localities offer minimal cash grants. Most recipients are single adults, but others receiving benefits may include parents with children in public custody, parents previously convicted of a felony (making them ineligible for TANF), and parents who have timed off of TANF. GA grants are generally intended to offset minimal living expenses, not as a substitute for work, and offer support well below the poverty level. In 1992, forty-one states offered GA programs. Since then, there have been severe cutbacks in GA programs, with some states, such as Michigan, eliminating the programs altogether.

Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). The EITC program was originally established in 1975 to address a major criticism of AFDC–that it encouraged single parenting and discouraged work by limiting eligibility to nonworking single parents. The EITC, which is administered by the Internal Revenue Service, functions like a negative income tax, supplementing the earnings of low-income workers who have children. While tax policy is more often used to assist middle-class families, in the form of mortgage deductions and business credits, the EITC uses tax policy for a program targeting low-income families.

In 1996 a family with one child with earnings of up to $25,000 per year would be eligible for a tax refund under the EITC program. The tax credit has survived several important revisions over the years. Eligibility has expanded to include nearly all low-income families with children. The credit can be paid in installments throughout the year, instead of as a year-end refund. The maximum grant is paid to minimum-wage, full-time workers, with the consequence of lifting their wage up to poverty level. Proponents argue that the credit must be sufficient to ensure that full-time workers, even at minimum wage, do not have to raise their families in poverty.

Tax deductions and credits. Nearly all families benefit from tax code provisions, most often from the $600 per child tax credit and the $2,900 per person tax exemption. Tax code also allows for the deduction of certain child-care expenses. Unlike most benefits to families and children, these are universal supports to families regardless of income. Other tax policies, such as mortgage interest deductions, disproportionately assist middle-and upper-income families.


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