CFLE Directions: A Family Life Education Advocacy Success Story

by Dawn Cassidy, M.Ed., CFLE, NCFR Director of Education
CFLE Network
Content Area
Professional Ethics and Practice

I want to share the story of Certified Family Life Educator (CFLE), Justin Petkus, and his effort to get the profession of family life education more widely recognized and understood within the Head Start program in Michigan. It's a wonderful example of what can be accomplished with a focused effort.

NCFR often uses the analogy of working upstream when describing family life education (FLE). We often say that FLE is about keeping people from falling in the river and about teaching them how to swim so they are prepared in the event they do. There is a PowerPoint presentation about this story on the NCFR website. Justin is like the couple in this analogy, in that he and his agency were looking to try a new approach to working with families.

Last July I received an email from Justin asking if I could help him in his effort to explain why the CFLE credential and the approach of family life education was appropriate for the work of home visitors at the Head Start agency where he worked in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Justin was the Home Visiting Administrative Supervisor for Head Start for Kent County. The agency was involved in a "paradigm shift" in the approach they were taking in their work with families, basically moving from a philosophy of "I am here to save the family" to "what strengths can be built upon to support parenting in this family."

This paradigm shift involved a new approach to home visiting focused on prevention, education, and collaboration. The agency is still involved in case management and therapy, but those services are disbursed by others in the agency or through referrals to ensure that the home visitor doesn't lose focus or blur the lines of their role. Previously, home visitors were trying to be "everything" for the families, counselor, therapist, parenting guide, etc. which created boundary issues and led to a lot of burn out. In addition, the home visitors weren't always meeting the needs of the child, as the 90 minute home visits were often spent counseling the parents. The agency still wants the needs of the parents to be met of course, but just through an alternative resource.

Because the new approach to home visiting at Head Start for Kent County was, in essence family life education, Justin was encouraging the use of CFLEs in the home visiting roles. However he was running into some resistance because the agency had largely relied on licensed social workers in the past. Even though licensure was not required and did not necessarily represent the knowledge, skills and abilities needed to carry out the new approach to home visiting that the agency was embracing, there was concern about hiring people who did not have licensure. The federal performance standards from the Office of Head Start are as follows:

"Home visitors must have knowledge and experience in child development and early childhood education; the principles of child health, safety, and nutrition; adult learning principles; and family dynamics. They must be skilled in communicating with and motivating people. In addition, they must have the knowledge of community resources and the skills to link families with appropriate agencies and services." (Performance Standard 1304.52(e))

CFLEs can meet these standards but, in Justin's words "there seemed to just be clout associated with saying 'our staff are licensed through the State of Michigan.'" In his view the standards set in the past for his agency had been internally created to hire LMSW's because previous management was trying to model after an infant mental health program, which is not the intent of Head Start home visiting per the performance standards.

Justin's situation was parallel to that faced by another CFLE, John Machir who, as Supervisor of the Mountain State Healthy Families agency in West Virginia, was also working to get recognition of the qualifications of CFLEs to provide home visiting services. John wrote an article, Certified Family Life Educators as home visitors: Making the case, which appeared in the spring 2014 issue of the CFLE Network. I shared John's article with Justin, as well as the white paper, Family Life Education: A Profession with a Proven Return on Investment, which resulted from the FLE Focused Dialogue session facilitated by Ellen Taner at the 2013 NCFR Annual Conference.

Over the course of the past six months I have worked with Justin to help others at his agency understand the logical role that CFLEs can play in their home visiting program in order to ensure that best practice principles are being utilized. Justin created an excellent PowerPoint presentation comparing the previous agency model with the new model using concepts and figures from the Domains of Family Practice Model (2011) to show the similarities and differences between the approaches of Family Life Education, Family Therapy, and Family Case Management. In August, Ellen Taner and I, participated in a conference call with Justin and many of his colleagues where we presented information on family life education and the CFLE credential. As a result of that meeting we were successful in helping his colleagues understand the appropriateness of hiring CFLEs for the home visiting positions and the agency has gone on to include CFLE as a recognized credential.

Additionally, Justin has established a more formal relationship with Central Michigan University (an NCFR CFLE-approved school), to provide internship opportunities and to hire their graduates. I have been asked to participate in a conference held in Grand Rapids in June along with Dr. Robin McWilliams, the Director of the Siskin Center for Child and Family Research and one of the nation's leading experts in best practices for home visiting. While much of the approach that Dr. McWilliams promotes qualifies as family life education it is not often called that (a familiar problem in our profession). My goal at the conference will be to increase awareness of the role that family life education and Certified Family Life Educators can play in the home visiting arena.

Justin's vision is that "The Office of Head Start recognizes family life education as the theoretical field guiding the practice of Early Head Start Home Visiting, leading to more clear guidelines of the staff qualifications needed to carry out this methodology, i.e., CFLEs. According to Justin, the "how" practicality of this is what Robin McWilliams provides. The "who" and "why" is what NCFR can provide." Justin will share more information about his efforts to advance CFLE and family life education through an article in the spring CFLE Network and a chapter in the upcoming NCFR publication, Family Life Education. The Practice of Family Science, due out this spring.

I've spoken frequently in the past of the need for all of us in the family field to be advocates for the profession. This is how change happens. As Ellen Taner has pointed out in her advocacy work on behalf of family life education over the past few years, we need to "live globally, act locally." Start where you are, as Justin has done, and do what you can in that setting. The work that he has done at Head Start for Kent County can be used as an example for other Head Start agencies throughout the country and has the potential to influence national Head Start policy. If each of us works to increase the recognition and value of professionals with training in family science and/or the CFLE credential in our immediate setting, we will go a long way toward advancing this profession.


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

National Council on Family Relations (NCFR). (n.d.). Family Life Education PowerPoint. Retrieved from /cfle-certification/what-family-life-education

Kirby-Wilkins, J., Taner, E., Cassidy, D., & Cenizal, R. (2014). White paper. Family life education: A profession with a proven return on investment. National Council on Family Relations. Retrieved from

Petkus, J.M. (2014). Home Visiting Paradigm Shift. Head Start for Kent County.

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