The Domains of Family Practice Model: A Tool for Advocating for Family Life Education

by Judy Myers-Walls, Ph.D., CFLE; Sharon Ballard, Ph.D., CFLE; Carol Darling, Ph.D., CFLE; and Karen Myers-Bowman, Ph.D., CFLE
CFLE Network
Content Area
Professional Ethics and Practice

This report is a condensed version of the following article:

Myers-Walls, J. A., Ballard, S. M., Darling, C. A., & Myers-Bowman, K. S. (2011). Reconceptualizing the domain and boundaries of family life education. Family Relations, 60, 357-372.

What is Family Life Education and how is it similar to and different from other family-related fields? A definition of Family Life Education (FLE) is presented on the National Council on Family Relations (NCFR) website for the CFLE program. It describes the profession as using information about healthy family development within a preventive, family-systems perspective to teach knowledge and build skills so that individuals and families may function at their optimal levels (NCFR, n.d.). While that definition begins to describe the scope of FLE, it includes such breadth that it leaves unanswered questions. What is beyond the boundaries of FLE or what does it not include?

Differential Paths Toward Healthy and Effective Families

Professional identity confusion may be greatest when FLE is compared to family therapy (FT) and family case management (FCM) (Cassidy, 2015). Consequently, our analysis examined these three common and overlapping professional roles. We focused on the professions/roles themselves rather than on the individuals performing those roles, because many professionals fill multiple roles over time. We used the journalistic questions: why? what? when? for whom? and how?


FLE, FT, and FCM each defines its long-term goal – why that discipline works with families: to build healthy, competent, and happy family members and relationships. However, the specific purpose of each occupation is different. Those differences are illustrated in Figure 1. FLE concentrates on increasing knowledge and skills by providing information, tools, and strategies to motivate and equip families to improve their lives and their functioning. FT, in contrast, attempts to ameliorate problems and correct a condition that is keeping families and individuals from functioning optimally. FCM also works with families who are facing problems, but its goal is helping families to negotiate and comply with systems and supports to fixing situations in which there is a problem. These intermediate goals have direct linkages to differences in methods and approaches used by the three professions.


What is the content or research base that professionals use as their foundation for working with families? FLE, FT, and FCM use similar literature and research to inform their work, because they all focus on families. However, there are some areas unique to each role as well. See Figure 2 for our classification of shared and unique content categories.


The next question we address is When? This question considers two issues: When do practitioners in each role deliver services to families, and what is the time orientation of those services?

When are services offered? This question addresses when services are delivered in respect to the occurrence of the families' needs, problems or concerns. FLE focuses on providing services for families both before problems arise and also early in the process, using primary and sometimes secondary prevention. FT, however, fits best within secondary and tertiary prevention, and FCM fits most clearly in the tertiary category. Secondary and tertiary prevention focus on solving problems during or after an issue has surfaced. The continuum in Figure 3 illustrates the first component of the time aspect of working with families.

What is the Time Orientation of Services? (See Figure 4.) FLE often deals with issues and challenges in the present and the "here and now" while intended outcomes are projected into the future. Many FT approaches (although not all) address past family experiences and issues in order to help members understand and make changes in the present and future. This adheres to the belief that a family's history influences its current patterns of interaction. Finally, FCM often is precipitated by a current crisis and is focused on present needs and solutions.

For Whom?

For whom are FLE, FT, and FCM intended? Because FLE services are most often voluntary, participation is based heavily on families' felt or self-identified needs, although professionals may work with mandated audiences, or they could consult family literature to ascribe some likely or anticipated needs of a target audience. FT uses a balance of felt and ascribed needs, relying on clinical assessments to determine needs and encourage families to identify and find motivation from their own felt needs. FCM is based on ascribed needs almost exclusively, using assessments, investigations, and reports to identify families not meeting particular expectations.


Answering the How question is in many ways the culmination of efforts to define and differentiate the fields of family practice, because it is dependent on the answers to the other questions and addresses the actual processes that family professionals use when working with families. We include four steps in this category: the processes of determining specific participant needs and setting program goals and objectives, the techniques used when services are delivered, the settings and modes of services, and how families are involved in the services. We summarize our reflections on these four steps in the How section of Table 1.

Considering the answers to the How question, one sees clear contrasts among the three roles. The FLE process of working with families normally begins with the purpose of increasing knowledge and skills based on the broad literature about healthy family functioning in a primary or secondary prevention context for any families who are motivated and able to function in an educational setting. FLE professionals establish program objectives that are applicable to a population, use settings and modes that are varied and broad, and attempt to involve family input at all levels.

The FT process begins with the purpose of ameliorating family problems using an understanding of family development and therapeutic methods in a secondary or tertiary prevention context for families who have been referred by self or others. The How component starts with an individual assessment of personal and family functioning, is usually delivered to one client or family at a time, and involves family input as partners in the therapeutic process.

The FCM process is grounded in the purpose of helping families comply with regulatory expectations and uses community resources based on the foundation of intervention research and in a tertiary prevention context for families in need of services. The How answers begin with an individual family assessment or investigation to assess compliance with or violation of laws and guidelines, services are offered to families wherever they are, and attempts are made to include families and their support systems to increase adherence to treatment plans and goals.

Using DFP to Advocate for Family Life Education

The DFP model can be used to advocate for FLE with different groups including employers and established family professionals, students and new professionals, professors and trainers, and advisors and career/ employment counselors. Family professionals can use the DFP model to examine their work in varied settings to help with career planning and employment-seeking, or to alter the demands of a current job to more closely fit a professional's training and skills. Employers can use the DFP model to develop job descriptions or to write mission statements for their agency or organization. University instructors and academic advisors/career counselors can use the model to help students understand the different ways in which they can work with families and to determine the domain of practice that is the best fit for them. Additionally, university instructors can better prepare students to fully enact the role of being an FLE. Current professionals who see themselves in the FLE field can use the model as a guide to keep them firmly grounded in the expectations and foundations of FLE and to encourage referral, networking, and cooperation across the domains. Overall, the DFP model cannot only help to differentiate different roles, but can encourage collaboration in order to better meet the ultimate goal of strengthening families.


Cassidy, D. (2015). Family life education: Advancing the profession. In M.J. Walcheski & J.S. Reinke (Eds.), Family life education: The practice of family science (pp. 311-323). Minneapolis, MN: National Council on Family Relations.

National Council on Family Relations (NCFR). (n.d.). What is family life education? Retrieved from /cfle-certification/what-family-life-education.

Note: Self-study and classroom or workshop lesson outlines based on the DFP may be found on the Purdue University website.

Sharon Ballard, Ph.D., CFLE, is Associate Professor, Human Development & Family Science, East Carolina University

Carol Darling, Ph.D., CFLE, is Professor Emerita, Family & Child Sciences, Florida State University.

Judy Myers-Walls, Ph.D., CFLE, is Professor Emerita, Human Development & Family Studies Purdue University

Karen Myers-Bowman, Ph.D., CFLE, is Associate Professor, Family Studies & Human Services, Kansas State University

Copyright © 2016 National Council on Family Relations (NCFR). Contact NCFR for permission to reprint, reproduce, disseminate, or distribute by any means.