Child-centred, family/whānau-focused

Putting children at the centre of everything we do.

What is a child-centred, family-focused approach?

“Being child-centred is about elevating the status of children’s interests, rights, and views in the work of your organisation” – Office of the Children’s Commissioner, Being child-centred (external link)

It involves considering the impact of decisions and processes on children, and seeking their input when appropriate to inform your work. A core part of being child-centred is ensuring children have a say in decisions that affect them.

To be child-centred, you need to make sure your organisation’s decisions do not harm children, and in fact, should support them to thrive. To achieve this, you need to embed processes that support child-centred thinking in your organisation.

Organisations responsible for children’s care and protection would be expected to give the interests and wellbeing of children paramount consideration in their decisions.

This way of working recognises the unique nature of children’s needs and the urgency of response that is required to prevent harm occurring.

Why is it important?

Children have rights and needs.

We take a child-centred approach because the very nature of children makes them a uniquely vulnerable population group. Their early experiences are determined by others and have a lasting impact on how their brains actually develop as well as their physiological and psychological wellbeing now and in the future. By taking a child-centred approach we ensure that children’s needs and wellbeing are paramount within the context of their families/whānau and wider community. We are also acknowledging that children have their own rights as individuals that are not contingent on their family.

Investment in the health and wellbeing of children is the most important investment for our future as a nation and a shared responsibility of everyone.

There is a lot of evidence to support a child-centred way of working to achieve outcomes for children. Taking a more child-centred approach has benefits for your organisation, for children themselves, and for the wider community.

The government has a responsibility to promote child wellbeing, growth and development, as a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCROC). (external link)

Being child-centred is important because children are affected directly, and indirectly, by practically all policy decisions, and yet children can’t influence them through traditional channels.

Why engage with children?

Children are a core part of society - making up a quarter of New Zealand’s population.

They are dependent and major users of many services, but often have little say in the design and delivery of services that affect them. Often well-meaning decisions can have unintended negative impacts on children because their needs and opinions have not been actively considered.

The Office of the Children’s Commissioner’s website contains information on how to engage with children, and ideas on how you can use their views and voices in your work.

What does it look like in practice?

A child centred, family/whānau focused approach places the child at the centre in the context of their parents, family and whānau and wider community. It recognises the unique nature of children’s needs and the urgency of response that is required to prevent harm occurring.

A child centred, family/whānau focused approach includes a:

  • primary focus on children’s physical, emotional, cognitive and socio/cultural needs, taking account of their views on themselves, their lives, their future, their family and whānau and community
  • developmental perspective using age-appropriate engagement and communication, assessment and actions within each child’s family and whānau cultural context
  • focus on family and whānau as the child’s primary support system, and work in partnership, where appropriate, at all points of contact with services
  • focus on community network of support in understanding the importance of connections between children, their family and whānau and their community
  • focus on children’s rights, advocating to maintain a safe environment and provide active support to children and their families
  • appropriate opportunities to participate
  • commitment to urgency when responding to children’s needs and persistence to achieve outcomes.

Read the paper from the Office of the Children's Commissioner on  Being child-centred (October 2015) (external link)

Example of child-centred practice:

A clinic based in a hospital provides services to children and adults, including children with intellectual disabilities. These children struggle with verbal communication and can become uneasy or even aggressive in new surroundings, such as a hospital. This makes visits to the clinic difficult, and can deter parents them from taking their children to the service. This means the children miss out and their needs are not being met.

The clinic talked with teachers and parents to better understand why visits to the clinic were challenging for these children. The clinic took a child-centred approach by looking at how it can improve their processes to enable these children to come to the clinic. They then connected with the children’s school and takes steps to make their service more child-friendly, such as:

  • Running the clinic at a different location on some days when seeing children.
  • Closing the clinic to the public one day a week to focus on the children.
  • Decorating the clinic in a more child-friendly manner.

The clinic takes these steps to familiarise the children with the clinic to make them more comfortable:

  • Transporting children to and from the clinic a number of times before they need to leave the vehicle.
  • Letting children watch the other children receive the service (if appropriate).
  • Putting up pictures of the clinic within the school.

By working closely and sharing information with the school, such as the school roll, the clinic can identify children who require the service or have never been to the clinic.

This approach not only supports the children to receive the services they need but also supports the parents and the school. These children are now better supported to receive services from the clinic, which benefits from increased clients.

What do I need to consider when implementing a child-centred approach?

It is essential to this approach to respect and understand the individuality of every child and their circumstances. We need to look at the impacts of different ways of working on different groups of children, for example, children with disabilities, age groups, ethnicities and socio-economic status.

We need to challenge the traditional design, delivery of services and process to ensure they are focused on addressing the needs of children. This puts the focus on achieving better outcomes for children rather than supporting an organisation’s administrative functions:

  • Provide environments and communities that promote safety, security and optimal health for children and their families
  • Provide developmentally supportive service environments  - including accommodation, facilities and equipment
  • Provide service models that deliver co-ordinate support and are less intrusive on child and family functioning

Many organisations are focused on providing services to adults. In many instances those services will impact on the quality of a child’s life experience, for example Corrections, who may have prisoners with children. The organisation should be clear around the tension between recognising and responding to the needs of an adult and what that means for a child.

Some organisations are required under the Vulnerable Children Act 2014 to have child protection policies. (external link)

How do I support my staff to be child-centred?

It requires specialty knowledge and skills, integrated working across sectors and taking the time to work together to work in a child-centred way. These things are essential to making a real difference for the child, their family and whānau.

There are a number of tangible things that managers can do to support their staff, including:

  • promote to staff the organisation’s child protection policy (external link)
  • identify gaps in staff knowledge about what contributes to children’s wellbeing and how to effectively work with children and their family/whānau and other practitioners and address these skill gaps in a personal development plan
  • be clear about the intended outcomes
  • support staff to become familiar with research that helps us to understand children and their needs so that we can work in their best interests. Have a look at publications from the Office of the Children’s Commissioner (external link) and SuPERU (external link) to read the latest research.
  • put in place effective supervision.


How do Children’s Teams put children at the centre?

Our approach is to put the child’s wellbeing first. Children’s Teams put children at the centre by:

  • prioritising the child’s needs
  • placing the child’s rights at the forefront of decision making
  • recognise children require speciality workforce competencies
  • assigning a lead worker as key contact  for the child and their family/whānau to co-ordinate support
  • providing appropriate opportunities for a child to participate in the informing and decision making processes
  • assessing a child’s wellbeing in context of their developmental needs, parenting capacity and family and environmental factors
  • developing and implementing a personalised plan for the child, family and whānau
  • provide expert governance, operational and  clinical oversight to ensure intensive, timely and effective response
  • measuring the results achieved for each child.

Read more about How Children's Teams work

What resources can help me make my organisation/practice more child-centred and family-focused?

The Office of the Children’s Commissioner’s website also contains a lot of helpful information about child-centred practice.