CFLE in Context: Family Life Education: The Launching Platform to the Helping Professions

by Clara Gerhardt, Ph.D., CFLE

Family wellness, rewarding relationships, good parenting skills and more, are the focus of our world as family life educators. Both individuals as well as families are strengthened by a perspective that puts families first, in order to strengthen, improve or enrich the family experience (NCFR, 2003). Families are vital building blocks to a stable, well functioning society. Virginia Satir, the eminent family therapist, commented that parents are the 'architects of the system' – implying that parents are the builders of the landscape of our society. The historical underpinnings during the 1800's, recognized the value of developing and improving the 'rural home', and early family life educators worked in the field of home economics to enhance practical home based skills (Powell & Cassidy, 2007). These strengths have shifted towards a more developmental approach, spanning the lifespan, as well as focusing on aspects related to family functioning in a larger context, such as family resource management, family law and public policy, framed by a thorough understanding of professional ethics.

Human Development and Family Studies have proved to be a powerful launching platform into the helping professions and majors find employment dealing with the entire lifespan, from cradle to grave. To illustrate, a brief listing of employment areas of genuine graduates from our program: parenting and birthing support, peri-natal care, childcare and preschool education, nursing, sales and advising, ministry, admissions counseling, public relations, hospitality industry, social work, elder care and a variety of therapies including occupational, physical, speech and hearing. Two graduates, fascinated by Family Law and Public Policy, went to law school. Three students recognized their business acumen. One became a mortgage counselor. Family finances are yet another expression of family functioning, and economic decisions made by the family can enhance or debilitate family functioning. Another has entered a financial planning concern where she relates especially well to female clients who seek financial guidance. One of our local political candidates proudly lists her background in family sciences as a foundation to her family friendly policies.

Admittedly many of these professions required additional graduate education, but the foundations were laid with family life education. Our alumni give us the feedback that the well balanced curriculum, as detailed in NCFR guidelines (NCFR, 2011), gave them broad based foundations that served them well in graduate studies and actual careers.

Specific examples from the beginning and the end of the life cycle represent the professions of two of our family studies graduates. The first is a birth worker who provides non medical support to prospective parents before, during and after birthing. The birth worker, or labor companion, is also known by the name doula, derived from the Greek. Occasionally the word doula is used in the contexts of other life events such as death, loss of a child and such. Our graduate is currently employed by a group of obstetricians, and accompanies patients who request extra support. It should be emphasized that she is not a midwife, and that the medical aspects of the births are managed by medical personnel within a hospital setting. Birth workers do not give clinical advice and do not provide opinions concerning the medical management. A responsible labor companion works in the emotional and interpersonal realm; becoming the spokesperson for the parents. She guides the father to effectively support the mother to ultimately optimize early infant-parent bonding. After the birth she may provide post partum care as determined by family needs. As a supportive guide, while not offering medical opinions, she can be of assistance concerning breast feeding, new born care, and emotional adjustment to the new family member. With expertise in infant and child development, parenting, as well as pre counseling skills, the family life educator is well suited to the demands and challenges of this profession. Labor companions are not regulated in the US, although optional certification is available.

The second alum works as an undertaker, dealing with death, end of life arrangements, and funerals. Some of the roles include embalming, preparing the body, as well as the funeral and/or burial itself. Undertakers take on larger emotional roles when they support families who do not have religious affiliations, and who cannot rely on the support of clergy. In most of the US, an undertaker is a legal requirement. The family studies graduate states that the pre counseling skills and the course on death and dying, have uniquely prepared him. He complemented his family studies degree with courses from a community college, dealing specifically with end of life, body preparation and extensive regulation within the undertaking industry. He feels that his FLE certification gives him credibility as a professional, and adds to his competence in dealing with grief and mourning.

The fact that certification as a family life educator does not lead to a single career outcome, is both a strength and a challenge. It opens doors to a variety of career options, mostly ones where nurturing and strong interpersonal qualities are desirable. Qualities such as empathy and human relatedness are the glue of a sophisticated societal network, and form the cornerstone of professions that relate to our essential humanness. Students who choose this major usually express their desire to make a difference, they see their profession as a calling and they sacrifice higher earning potential for the humanitarian rewards.

There is a common thread linking the helping professions, and certain skills and qualities deserve to be fostered and mentored.

The ABCs of a successful family life educator

Attitude and attributes: An ethical, respectful people centered approach; caring within a broad based background of human development and family dynamics.

Builders of relationships: family life educators find a niche in all life's developmental stages, in sickness and in health.

Caring and creative communicators: professionals who are ethical, skilled and engaged towards making a difference in a diverse range of contexts.

Many roads lead to success

Many roads lead to success as we foster and grow these ABC qualities. Certain opportunities should ideally be part of an undergraduate family studies education. The following are a few challenges the educator can meet:

  • Nurture a student chapter of NCFR

Nurture a student chapter, where students learn about leadership, group collaboration, initiative and making a difference through real life engagement. For example our students teamed up with Dietetics and Nutrition to serve meals in a homeless shelter. Another initiative involved families of patients with organ transplants. This was an expression of support after one of their classmates had been an organ recipient.

  • Intense internships

Mentor meaningful practica and internships: students build networks, professional skills and get a glimpse of potential careers by shadowing professionals.

  • Cultural competence

Expand the worlds of our students. Encourage diversity and cross cultural engagement through local community initiatives, mission and study trips, as well as study abroad opportunities. A hands-on collaboration enhances mutual understanding and respect, and holds the promise of cultural competence.

  • Creative teaching and learning

Foster creative and collaborative learning through fresh teaching/learning techniques. An example is problem based learning, where students learn through reality based problem solving and targeted questioning. Many of us already implement hands on activities such as presenting actual parenting courses, as part of the parenting and family life education classes.

  • Mentors lead the way

Encourage and create and a mentoring platform with alumni and community non profits to facilitate networking both within the profession and the community.

As the bold verbs indicate, we as educators should rise to the challenge and nurture, mentor, expand, foster and encourage the minds of the next generation entrusted to us.


The National Council on Family Relations (NCFR) has been actively engaged in growing the awareness surrounding healthy family functioning and family wellness. In addition to guiding young graduates towards professionalism with the Certified Family Life Educator (CFLE) certification and the support of academic programs that meet these requirements towards certification, NCFR as an organization has become a mouthpiece for networking professionals and students. Family Studies graduates are successfully entering graduate programs and finding appropriate career placements predominantly in the helping professions. They have diverse skills that meet wide ranging employment criteria. For that reason family studies graduates can be found in likely and unlikely places.

As a society we have correctly recognized that families are the nucleus of a stable society. Our students with family based expertise can contribute to making the promise a reality, by facilitating strong families who set the stage for a next generation to spread their wings and fly, having been parented lovingly and responsibly.

“The greatest gift we can give to the world is creating a continuous, uninterrupted, loving family structure.” Aldona Laita (2002)


National Council on Family Relations, NCFR (2003). Assuring the future: family life education. May, 2003. Minneapolis: NCFR.

National Council on Family Relations, NCFR ( 2011). Family life education framework, 3rd ed. Poster. Minneapolis: NCFR.

Powell, Lane H. & Cassidy, Dawn (2007). Family life education: an introduction. Working with families across the lifespan. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press.

Clara Gerhardt, Ph.D., CFLE, is a professor in Family Studies at Samford University, Birmingham, Alabama, with a special interest in Parenting.