Strengthening families for the future

In brief

Strengthening Families for the Future (SFF) is a 14-week program for families with children aged 7-11. The program’s unique design has been proven to reduce risk factors, build individual resilience, and enhance family protective factors because the whole family is involved and they learn new skills together.

This issue of Evidence in Action looks at the program, its work to date, and what the future holds. Evidence in Action profiles knowledge generation, exchange, and implementation activities across Ontario.

Front row (l to r): Laura Ciccone, Erin Marriott,
Michelle Lewis. Back row: Laura Blundell, Joanne
Bovine, Ione Clapham, Erin McGinnis

What is Strengthening Families for the Future?

Strengthening Families for the Future (SFF) is a 14-week program for families with children aged 7-11. The program’s unique design has been proven to reduce risk factors, build individual resilience, and enhance family protective factors because the whole family is involved and they learn new skills together.

Each weekly session incorporates a shared meal for the parents and children, separate one-hour sessions for parents and children, and a family session, where they practice skills they learned in their separate sessions. Practicing new skills together helps families make real and sustained changes in their interactions. The sessions are led by trained facilitators and are designed to be active and engaging. 

The goals of the program are to: 

  • reduce children’s or adolescents’ intention to use alcohol or other drugs, and to reduce other behaviour problems;
  • increase children’s resilience and life skills, including communicating, resisting peer pressure, recognizing their feelings and solving problems;
  • increase positive and effective parenting skills; and
  • improve family communication.

The original program was developed in 1988 by Dr. Karol Kumpfer of the University of Utah and has been evaluated extensively. It was updated for a Canadian context and underwent further extensive evaluation starting in 2000. SFF has been listed as a best practice program by Health Canada. 

Sanya Velemirovich, Child Protection Support Worker,
Family and Children’s Services Niagara

How did it start?

In 2008, a presentation about SFF was given to 35 school youth workers at the Niagara Catholic District School Board. The enthusiastic response it received prompted a meeting with the then Parenting Program Committee of Niagara, which eventually morphed into the Strengthening Families for the Future Niagara Coalition (SFF Niagara Coalition).

Successful programs often start with a seed of support. The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health gave SFF Niagara Coalition a small grant. The money made possible training, manuals, and weekly family meals and incentives for the participant families. Thanks to this financial support and the extensive in-kind support from the SFF Niagara Coalition agencies, the program was piloted between 2009 and 2011 in the Niagara Catholic District School Board Elementary Schools located in Crystal Beach, Welland and Port Colborne. All programs are free to the participants. 

How did the program do?

The pilot program was an overwhelming success. Facilitators witnessed skill-building and improved family dynamics for many of the families that attended. Many of the parents wanted to continue with the program after the 14 weeks were completed. Quite simply, they felt supported: they experienced a feeling of belonging, fellowship with other parents, increased parenting skills and most importantly growth in their children’s skills. These success stories from the pilot program gave the SFF Niagara Coalition a renewed energy–and sparked a question: “How do we offer a free program to a wide geographical area that has little or no public transportation between city centers?”

The answer: taking the program to the people and working together to provide in-kind resources. This meant setting up permanent sites in the three largest cities in the Region: St. Catharines, Niagara Falls, and Welland. Two of these sites are located at Community Health Centres; the one in Welland, at the John Howard Society of Niagara. 

What was learned?

As noted in The Strengthening Families program materials SFF works best when it is offered by several agencies working in partnership, with one person overseeing the co-ordination--and this is exactly how the Niagara SFF Coalition has addressed program implementation.

An additional strength of the coalition model is that SFF facilitators learn about the services each other’s agencies provide. During one 14 week program and depending on the size of the group, there can be up to 8 facilitators needed and these facilitators come from several different agencies across Niagara. The Family and Children’s Service of Niagara have taken the lead on the coordination of the “train the trainer” sessions which is a unique feature of the SFF program.

A central intake process through Contact Niagara contributes to the coordination and collaboration of the SFF Niagara program.  When families are registered for one of the sites they can also be told about other services that are available to them creating “wraparound services” for these vulnerable families.

 “SFF Niagara’s success also comes from it’s no barriers policy,” says Sanya Velemirovich, a Child Protection Support Worker for Family and Children’s Services Niagara. “Even when parents and children are not living together they are accepted into the group. We even have parents repeating the program because they received so much benefit from it and saw such growth in their children’s development.” Since 2009, there have been 98 families from across Niagara that have completed the program and this represents 197 participants.  

What the future holds

A grant from the Niagara Prosperity Initiative grant program will allow the program to provide transportation for participants to attend the program, provide highly nutritious food for the family meal, and provide participation incentives such as grocery cards. The John Howard Society of Niagara will be the lead agency for the grant and will be the host for the coordinator position that will manage all sites in Niagara. The grant is a very positive recognition of the SFF Niagara Coalition’s efforts to foster collaboration among agencies, enhance service sector coordination, and strengthen programming for vulnerable families in Niagara.

As Sanya stated, “it is the small successes that keep us going and these successes impact our participating families and the community in a positive way. Thanks to the support of the Niagara Prosperity Initiative grant these successes can continue for the next several years.”

What the future holds

Strengthening Families for the future and it’s implementation in Niagara fits well with the larger provincial strategy outlined in the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care’s report, Open Minds, Healthy Minds: Ontario’s Comprehensive Mental Health and Addictions Strategy. One of the key child- and youth-centred priorities is to lay a foundation for good mental health early in life. Developing parenting programs for families is one of the priorities. 

Strengthening Families for the Future Niagara Coalition Agencies

Contact Niagara; Family and Children’s Services of Niagara; John Howard Society of Niagara; Niagara Catholic District School Board; Niagara Falls Community Health Centre; Niagara Regional Public Health Department; Pathstone Mental Health Services; Powerhouse Project; Quest Community Health Centre.

For more information, please contact the coordinator at the John Howard Society Niagara: Rachel Clair at RClair [at] jhs-niagara [dot] ca.

Author: Bonnie Polych, Regional Knowledge Exchange Lead, West Region