Fall 1993 // Volume 31 // Number 3 // Feature Articles // 3FEA3

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Beyond the Expert Helping Model

In addressing issues faced by families at risk, an empowerment model, as illustrated by the Family Ties project, provides an important alternative to the expert model. By fostering a collegial group through which family and community issues can be addressed, the empowerment model provides a means of addressing the powerlessness and hopelessness experienced by many families. The challenge to Extension is to explore this model and others in an effort to identify effective ways of providing outreach services to families at risk in the coming century.

Family Ties Project Team1

By almost any measure, families are having a more difficult time providing a safe haven for its members. A survey of the health and well-being of families over the past decade provides many indicators that families with children are in trouble.2 In the wake of the current crisis, Extension programs concerning adolescents and young children have been made a high priority. While Extension has a long history of working with limited- resource fam-ilies, understanding assumptions that guide how we work with these families can help improve the effectiveness of our efforts. This article outlines two models for working with families living in at-risk environments, with particular emphasis on the role of paraprofessionals. It further describes how application of an empowerment model to programming for at-risk families in Illinois has expanded the traditional roles of Extension paraprofessionals.

Models of Response

Since the 1960s, a primary approach to dealing with families at risk has been to involve paraprofessionals as a mechanism for employment and training as well as a way to more effectively deliver educational and social services.3 Evidence exists that paraprofessionals can effectively provide valuable help to families.4 In Extension, the most extensive use of paraprofessionals has been through the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP). How paraprofessionals and professionals work with at-risk families is largely determined by the educational model being applied.

Expert Model

Many prevention efforts designed to help families at risk are based on a set of assumptions that have been described as the "expert model" of helping.5 The core assumption of the expert model is that people with problems aren't responsible for those problems and are expected to accept direction from experts who will help them change. In this model, the experts are charged with developing a structured system of treatment that will remedy the problem.

When an expert model includes paraprofessional staff, they're responsible for implementing precise plans, developed by professionals, to help individuals improve their situation. Within the Extension System,6 this model has meant professionals design a specific curriculum to teach well-defined knowledge and skills. The curriculum is first taught to paraprofessionals who then teach clients. It's assumed the problem will be solved or the situation improved if clients use the prescribed knowledge and skills. Neither the paraprofessional nor the client helps design the solution to the problem; both simply need to follow the guidance of the experts.

The major limitation of the expert model is that it fosters dependency among clients and paraprofessionals. Since clients aren't responsible for handling their own problems, they must constantly seek expert advice when new problems occur. Likewise, treatment plans don't include the ability to solve problems, only specific instructions for fixing the immediate concern. Researchers who have studied this helping model found that clients may actually lose the ability to do something they once did well, because they have been made to feel dependent.7 Another limitation is that the paraprofessionals who implement the plans are often not taught how to adapt them to meet changing conditions. In some cases, they're actually prevented from altering plans by strict rules of implementation. Thus, expert intervention plans appropriate for one family, community, or cultural group may be applied inappropriately in another context. This may be especially true in situations where the professionals have little regular contact with clients and may not understand the prevailing cultural and social conditions.

Empowerment Model

An alternative model for working with families at risk is an empowerment approach based on the assumption that clients are responsible, in part, for improving their life situation.8 Clients view themselves as actively working to solve problems, while those in helping roles view themselves as collaborators in addressing problems. Brick-man and his colleagues write, "The strength of the [empowerment model]...is that it allows people to direct their energies outward, working on trying to solve problems and transform the environment...."9 They note this model allows the recipients to command respect because they're not blamed for their problems, but are given credit for devising solutions.

In an empowerment model, the roles of paraprofessionals are quite different than in the expert model. The paraprofessional becomes a collaborator both with the professional and the client. The paraprofessional also becomes part of a problem identification and problem-solving team. Rather than working from a prescribed curriculum, the intervention becomes a creative process of helping clients identify, analyze, and solve problems. This model offers the possibility of clients being better able to solve their own problems over time.

The empowerment model has limits, too. It may take very skilled people to address the complex problems confronting families at risk. Many of these problems are overwhelming to the families, the paraprofessional, and even the professional. Moreover, developing an individual plan for each client makes evaluating the success of an activity more difficult since there's not one treatment for all families.

Demonstrating the Empowerment Model

Over the last three years, the University of Illinois CES has implemented Family Ties, a project involving collaboration between paraprofessionals, professionals, and families in several Chicago neighborhoods to identify and remove impediments to healthy family functioning. Scholars have argued that one of the major problems affecting families living in poverty is a sense of powerlessness. At its worst, this results in a loss of hope.10 Based on this analysis, family life specialists developed the Family Ties program to foster a sense of control among family members and paraprofessionals and to encourage participants to both solve problems and increase positive experiences in their lives.

The goals of the project are to provide parent education, enhance the quality of child care in the community, and develop activities for youth. The project staff is composed of two university Extension faculty, one project manager, and eight paraprofessional staff known as "family advocates." The family advocates are housed in an elementary school (two per school) in four communities. Clients for the project include the children in each school and their parents. Implementing Family Ties has required developing orientation training, action plans, team meetings, and inservice training that reflect the principle of empowerment.

Orientation Training

Extension professional staff designed a four-week orientation program to help paraprofessionals understand their jobs and the project goals. In the first part of this training, all staff spent time developing a collegial group based on trust, mutual respect, and shared understanding. During the second phase, paraprofessionals engaged in a community assessment process. Using structured interviews with youth, parents, and professionals, the family advocates developed a working understanding of both the strengths and needs of their community. The assessment process also helped them identify resources in the community and establish partnerships with existing organizations. In the third part of the orientation program, professional and paraprofessional staff collaboratively developed initial action plans to address community issues. An action plan was based on the community assessment and included a series of steps to be followed in addressing an important concern. A critical component of each action plan was how youth, parents, and/or community professionals would be involved in planning and implementation of any program or activity-in the problem-solving process itself.

Implementing Action Plans

Following the orientation training, paraprofessionals initiated the action plans with the support of the professional staff. For example, parents and leaders in one community indicated that children who had little to do when school was out were becoming involved in dangerous activities. The action plan was to create alternatives for children and the specific outcome was a summer camp to provide fun and educational activities. Clients from another school were concerned about fires in the neighborhood. A program on fire safety was established for children and parents. Getting educational information to parents about early childhood development was the issue in another community and a joint outreach effort between Extension and a local agency was developed. People in many communities wanted to improve relationships between ethnic groups. To address this issue, one family advocate worked with school staff and children to develop a cultural exchange program between a Korean and an African-American school.

While some action plans were successful, others weren't. In some cases, the identified issue was too complex to support. For example, addressing the child care issue proved very difficult since few neighborhood buildings met the fire codes required for day care centers. Likewise, expanding the number of family day care homes was problematic because potential providers believed they couldn't earn enough money to support their families. In some cases, the professional staff were pulled in too many directions to effectively support the plans. This created several early failures that might have succeeded with a more limited set of initial plans and more staff working on fewer projects.

Supporting the Empowerment Model

Team Meetings

Maintaining the problem-solving process central to the empowerment model requires weekly team meetings of staff working in a particular community as well as the total Family Ties staff. Through an agenda-building procedure, all participants are encouraged to identify questions, issues, or successes to discuss. Each staff member's task is to bring his or her perspective and expertise to the issue and help develop a consensual solution.

Another essential part of the team meetings is fostering a collegial spirit. We use these occasions to celebrate holidays, birthdays, and other significant events. Weekly meetings have also been a safe place for professional and paraprofessional staff to express frustrations and disappointments. Since work with at-risk families can be emotionally draining, it's critical to develop an atmosphere where emotions, including hostile or negative feelings, can be expressed without reprisal.

The collegial discussion format encouraged flexibility and creativity among staff, but also made it difficult to monitor and address all project activities within limited meeting times.

Inservice Training

The empowerment model requires a broader range of inservice training topics than the expert model since staff members are constantly expanding and experimenting with new ideas and approaches to problems. Training must also focus on critical thinking and problem-solving skills as well as content knowledge. To supplement the training provided by Extension professional staff, family advocates are encouraged to identify inservice opportunities through other organizations. In addition, the project provides financial support for community members to attend training sessions along with paraprofessionals, thus enhancing citizens' abilities to address their own concerns. Using outside training resources has enriched the Family Ties program with new ideas. It has also sometimes exposed the parprofessional staff to information inconsistent with the goals and philosophy of the project. However, providing family advocates with thorough training in the project and helping them critically evaluate new information through the weekly meetings minimized the risk that inaccurate or inappropriate information would be used in the program.

With the empowerment model, paraprofessionals in the Family Ties program began displaying the initiative and critical thinking skills typical of professionals. It's therefore essential that paraprofessionals be encouraged to continue their formal education and be able to access a career ladder permitting them to move upward in the organization.


In addressing issues faced by families at risk, an empowerment model, as illustrated by the Family Ties project, provides an important alternative to the expert model. By fostering a collegial group through which family and community issues can be addressed, the empowerment model provides a means of addressing the powerlessness and hopelessness experienced by many families. Evaluation studies are needed to determine the effectiveness of this model and its effects on clients. The challenge to Extension is to explore this model and others in an effort to identify effective ways of providing outreach services to families at risk in the coming century.


1. The following were members of the Family Ties Project Team: Luisita Collazo, Trudy Hall, Nore Hare, Jessica Hill, Robert Hughes, Jr., Nidia Pulido, Gladys Quinones, Mamie Shorter, Audrey Smith, and Christine M. Todd. This program was funded in part by the Kellogg Foundation.

2. Center for the Study of Social Policy, Kids Count Data Book (Washington, D.C.: 1250 Eye Street, NW, 1992) and J. G. Dryfoos, Adolescents at Risk (New York: Oxford, 1990).

3. A. Pearl and F. Reissman, New Careers for the Poor (New York: Free Press, 1965).

4. J. A. Hattie, C. F. Sharpley, and H. J. Rogers, "Comparative Effectiveness of Professional and Paraprofessional Helpers," Psychological Bulletin, VC (No. 3, 1984), 534-41.

5. P. Brickman and others, "Models of Helping and Coping," American Psychologist, XXXVII (No. 4, 1982), 368-84.

6. These comments refer primarily to Extension programs targeted to at-risk audiences. We acknowledge that not all Extension programs are based on the expert model and that Extension programming compared with that of many other organizations is more likely to be based on aspects of the empowerment model. However, there are many instances in which Extension programming is described in the language of empowerment, but in actual practice is more like the expert model.

7. E. J. Langer, Mindfulness (Reading, Massachusetts: Addison- Wesley, 1989).

8. There are important similarities between this model and some approaches to community development. For an overview of this work, see J. A. Christenson and J. W. Robinson, Jr., eds., Community Development in Perspective (Ames: Iowa State University, 1989).

9. Brickman and others, "Models of Helping and Coping."

10. C. Jencks and P. E. Peterson, eds., The Urban Underclass (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1991).

For further information, contact Robert Hughes, Jr.: Associate Professor and Extension Specialist, Family Relations, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Internet address: hughesr.idea.ag.uluc.edu