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March 2020Vol. 21, No. 2Coaching to Improve Family Engagement

Written by the Children's Bureau's Capacity Building Center for States 

Effective family engagement—or the active, ongoing collaboration with families, children, youth, and other stakeholders—is at the heart of child welfare. It is the recognition that families are the experts on their children and are partners in the child welfare process. Agency leaders and program managers strive to continuously improve family engagement skills among their staff and understand that holding families at the center of the work of child welfare is vital.

Results from round 3 of the Child and Family Services Review indicate that family engagement continues to be a challenge for many states and jurisdictions. Coaching in child welfare practice is particularly effective in building skills and mastery for family engagement. The relational nature of coaching, where leaders and team members work together toward improvement, can serve as a model for staff looking to build stronger relationships with families.

Characteristics of Coaching

The Coaching Toolkit for Child Welfare Practice defines coaching as "a process by which the coach creates structured, focused interaction with learners and uses appropriate strategies, tools, and techniques to promote desirable and sustainable change for the benefit of the learner, making a positive impact on the organization" (Northern California Training Academy, 2012, p. 4).

Effective coaching is a both an art and a science. Whether coaches are supervisors, outside consultants, peers, or others, there are common characteristics of coaching (Capacity Building Center for States, 2016):

  • Coaching is personalized and tailored to the unique needs of the learner. 
  • Coaching is relationship based. The quality of the relationship between the coach and learner is paramount. The relationship must be open and trusting.
  • Coaching is goal oriented. Goals are typically jointly created and help structure the coaching process.
  • Coaching is growth oriented. The coach and learner check in regularly to identify areas of positive growth and areas for additional growth.
  • Coaching is ongoing. The benefits of coaching are realized over time with the deepening of the relationship. Goals will change as new skills are mastered and new opportunities present themselves. It is the ongoing process of coaching that contributes to sustainable change.

Strategies for Coaching to Improve Family Engagement

While coaching is tailored to the specific needs of the learner, there are cross-cutting strategies that are useful in improving family engagement in any coaching partnership.

  • Identify biases and develop strategies for managing them. We all have biases. Encourage learners to explore and own their biases regarding families in the child welfare system. Only then can learners begin to build skills to manage them. Use these questions to help learners explore their biases:
    • What does it feel like when you experience biases?
    • What triggers a bias?
    • What is at the core of the bias?

Once learners understand more about their biases, they can develop strategies, skills, and tools for dealing with them when they emerge.

  • Reinforce new strategies. Effective family engagement in child welfare is complicated. As learners begin to implement new strategies, coaches can help staff identify and celebrate small successes while reminding learners that mastery takes time.
  • Support transfer of learning. As learners explore biases and develop skills to improve family engagement, coaches can help learners clarify their areas for continued growth through practice and reflection.
  • Develop problem-solving skills. Coaches can help child welfare staff practice new family engagement skills and strategies in the field and process these experiences through reflection and exploration. Doing so provides an opportunity for the learner to analyze the interaction with the family and identify strategies that worked and those that did not. By looking critically at the interaction, the learner can develop skills for self-reflection and problem-solving.

Coaching is a valuable tool for building staff competence and confidence to engage families effectively.

By asking purposeful questions and using other strategies that promote self-reflection and learning, coaches can help child welfare staff overcome challenges, identify solutions, strengthen their relationships with families, and make progress toward goals.  


Capacity Building Center for States. (2016). Coaching in child welfare. Retrieved from

Northern California Training Academy. (2012). Coaching toolkit for child welfare practice. Retrieved from

Resources to Learn More About Coaching