Key messages

  • Developing a clear policy and associated procedures will help facilitate and maintain a commitment to child and family partnerships.
  • Involve child and family partners as early as possible in activities.
  • Be transparent about the limits of the partnership role.
  • Be aware of your duty of care and legal safeguards.
  • Start small with what you can and grow from there.
  • Remuneration and reimbursement are an important part of acknowledging the unique contribution children and families offer.
  • There are different approaches to child and family partnership engagement and all are valuable and worth pursuing. Honour the process you choose and strive to correctly label the approach you undertake.

Why include children and families as partners?

There are two main reasons for undertaking child and family partnerships:

  • To undertake the process based on the moral value of inclusion (intrinsic value).
  • To enhance the quality of an organisations’ outcomes (instrumental value) (Tyndale, Amos & Price-Robertson, 2020).

In the case of Emerging Minds, our role is to support practitioners and organisations to respond to the mental health needs of children. We have found that collaborating with people who have lived experience of service provision is a vital part of this work. It has been essential for our organisation to develop authentic partnerships with child and family partners, in ways which allow them to share their unique stories and contribute to the work that we do.

The primary motivation of our child and family partners is to help other families, in the hope that other people will have better experiences than they did. The stories of hope, strength and adversity that our child and family partners share with us bring an irreplaceable richness to our work. Along with other key stakeholders, and research evidence, child and family partnerships ensure integrity, engagement and accessibility in the work that we do.

Given the contribution child and family partners make to Emerging Minds, we are committed to including them in our processes so that they can see how their input directly benefits our work.

A commitment to authentic collaboration is crucial in any work with child and family partners. This authentic collaboration is key to achieving the maximum benefit for the work that your organisation does. Throughout this toolkit, we will provide you with a series of hints and reflections to work towards authentic collaboration with child and family partners which can be tailored to the context of your work.

As with staff, child and family partners will differ in the knowledge, skills and experience they bring to the task. They may or may not be feeling apprehensive about doing this work. Therefore, understanding child and family partners and their unique contribution and needs within each context is important.


Why have a ‘child and family partnerships’ policy?

Developing a clear policy and associated procedures will help facilitate and maintain a commitment to child and family partnerships at an organisational and individual level. It will help you to ensure the wellbeing and support of child and family partners, and will enhance the benefits for your work. A child and family partnerships policy helps you to assess the risks and put plans in place for effective and authentic collaboration.

To support your policy, consider developing a framework that outlines your commitment, ethics and strategies for child and family partnerships. Frameworks are organisation-specific, though you may find it helpful to read Emerging Minds’ framework as an example.


Involving child and family partners as early as possible

Many organisations seek feedback from children and families when it comes time to review resources, services, projects or processes. While this can be a reasonable first start in involving people with lived experience, it is also important to ensure that their involvement is as meaningful as possible. This will usually mean involving them as early as possible.

Seeking the involvement of children and families in the development of your foundational child and family partnerships policy document is a great way to set a culture of authentic collaboration.

“While children and families may not necessarily have capacity to be involved in the entire process, they should be involved at the beginning and at key phases along the way. There’s nothing worse than a whole policy being designed and then being asked for feedback.”

– Youth partner

Be transparent about the limits of the partnership role

While some processes and practices may be open to change after collaboration with child and family partners, there will be others that are non-negotiable. Child and family partners will understand this, providing you are upfront from the beginning about their possible scope of influence.

Consider taking some time to discuss these points with your colleagues so that you can be open and honest with child and family partners about the meaning and purpose of the engagement, and also the breadth of their influence. In this way, everybody involved will know what the goal is and have no false expectations. People will begin their partnership understanding the contribution they can make and the value and purpose of this contribution.

“The things that have kept me involved for so long now are a sense of meaning in the work and a trust in the organisation that the work that we do is going to be used. It is going to be heard and understood, so it is not just a case of people going through the motions of best practice around child and family partnerships. It is actually work that will be translated into some change.”

– Child and family partner

Duty of care

Organisations have a duty of care to support the wellbeing of child and family partners. Staff should plan to eliminate, minimise and respond to risks. While some staff may be confident in this planning, others may hold concerns about their lack of experience or fear of doing harm, which may lead them to avoid this important work.

Some of Emerging Minds’ long-term child and family partners offered the following advice regarding duty of care and risks:

  • Getting to know the child and family partner will enable conversations to be had which mitigate risk or discomfort.
  • A mindful approach to the work is important, including picking up early on any distress being experienced and offering suitable support.
  • Mistakes will be made as staff learn how to use this approach, but these mistakes are generally manageable within a relationship-based approach which pays attention to how the partner is ‘travelling’ with the work, shows respect, uses clear and helpful communication, and offers suitable support when needed.
  • Staff can offer partners the ‘dignity of risk’ by taking the steps to engage them in this work, and to believe in their strengths and resilience in the face of adversity.
  • Trauma-informed practice and culturally affirmative practices help reduce the likelihood of harm and optimise the benefits of the exchange.
  • This work offers benefits not only for project outcomes but for child and family partners themselves – feeling like they are contributing their ‘hard won’ knowledge and skills to improve services and products, and being able to strengthen their positive narratives about themselves and their lives.

The benefits generally outweigh the risks and costs. Policies and procedures, a robust framework, and access to supportive managers can reduce risks and optimise gains within an authentic collaboration approach.


Legal safeguards

To help prevent any legal difficulties within this work, ensure your organisation:

  • develops a policy or engagement strategy which complies with any regulations for child and family partners stipulated within funding and contractual requirements
  • aligns your child and family partnerships work with relevant legislation regarding the safety and protection of children and vulnerable people
  • considers insurance and protection measures for your child and family partners, as well as the organisation and its staff.

Start with what you can

There is much to be learned from developing relationships with children and families that are respectful, authentic and collaborative. However, these relationships need careful planning and organisational support.

The first step is to develop a clear intent and purpose of engagement. Wherever possible, this development should involve child and family partners.

“Organisations can build their capacity to develop and implement effective child and family partnership strategies. This is a process that is ongoing, with outcomes that will be achieved over time. Start now with what you can. Start small if necessary and grow from there.”

– Emerging Minds staff member

When working in this space, it is helpful to understand that both child and family partners and staff have their own unique experiences of adversity and resilience. This helps to avoid a dichotomous view of ‘them and us.’

When child and family partners first arrive at your organisation, they may feel very conscious of the power imbalance. This may be particularly challenging if they have had negative experiences with professionals in the past.

Explicit plans are needed to create a respectful culture of collaboration from the very first meeting. This involves developing introductory messages and information to provide to child and family partners.

“There are challenging and negative aspects of being involved in an organisation.

There is still a predominance of the voices of professional expertise that inform and drive just about every initiative that takes place, and so coming in from a child and family perspective, you are always coming into a space where you need to reframe. Where you need to correct. Where you need to challenge people.

We often don’t have the words for that, and we often don’t have the processes to achieve that. And so, it can be a very challenging experience at times.”

– Child and family partner

Remember, you will not always get it right, but from mistakes come learnings and opportunities to enhance your child and family partnerships. Be realistic: this work takes time and resources. Start small with what you can. Don’t give up.


Considerations for organisational leaders

Organisational leaders play an important role in this work and can foster an authentic enthusiasm for child and family partnerships within the organisation. Some ideas for organisational leaders to reflect on include:

  • Get clear about why you want to involve child and family partners. What is it about your organisation that you would like to improve? Why is the input of people with lived experience important for you? How does it fit with your organisation’s values and principles?
  • Find champions within your organisation. Who are the staff members who really believe in this work and who will create a way forward for child and family partners?
  • How prepared is your organisation to make changes based on feedback from child and family partners? If there is a commitment to genuine listening, how will your staff be receptive to feedback, and strive for continual improvement?
  • You may consider appointing a family partner to your board of directors or other strategic committees. It is often desirable to have at least two partners in such groups, so that they are able to support to each other.
  • Consider how your organisation can stand behind its commitment to child and family partnerships when challenges arise. This requires a commitment from staff at all levels to learn from challenges, be receptive to feedback, and strive for continual improvement.
  • You may also consider creating a position dedicated to the development, implementation and review of child and family partnerships. This skilled role can be seen as an investment in the organisation’s future.

If this is something you’d like to pursue, you may consider using these role descriptions as a guide to develop your own:

  • Develop and monitor appropriate policies and procedures to support the engagement of children and families from a range of backgrounds and areas (depending on your organisation’s target populations and location).
  • Actively assist in incorporating child and family partnerships into the development and implementation of projects, processes, services, and other outcomes.
  • Lead and maintain strong, collaborative and meaningful relationships with children and families to enhance existing activities and the development of new initiatives.
  • Use information gathered through child and family partnerships to proactively identify and address emerging issues that may impact on the organisation’s objectives.
  • Support the implementation of a proactive approach and culture of continuous review and improvement to planning, policies, services and programs as they relate to child and family partnerships.
  • Ensure the quality of child and family partnership approaches is continually evaluated and improved by developing a culture of risk awareness and responsiveness.
  • Ensure evolving principles and practices relating to child and family partnerships are included to facilitate continuous improvement.

“Child and family partnerships are important because the work that we do tangibly affects the lives of children and families.

We have the potential to have a very positive, or very negative, impact on people’s lives.

It’s our responsibility to make sure that we are doing the very best that we can, and that means listening to the voices of children and families.

If we don’t ask them; if we don’t listen deeply, without judgment; if we don’t work with them and alongside them; if we don’t truly partner with children and families, then we’re missing a really important piece of a big jigsaw puzzle.

It’s a puzzle that also includes research and practice wisdom, but if we don’t include the wisdom of children and families from their lived experiences, then we’re never going to be able to reach our full potential.”

– Emerging Minds staff member

Beyond tokenism

Remuneration and reimbursement are an important part of acknowledging the individual strengths and unique expertise of children and families. Offering remuneration helps to show respect for participants’ time, knowledge and their impact on your organisation. Many people may also not be in a financial position to participate without financial remuneration.

“We do get remunerated, and I think that’s important because the work that we’re doing is equally as important that the work that anyone is doing in this field.”

– Child and family partner

We recommend seeking legal and financial advice to inform your organisation’s remuneration policy, as there may be implications for both your partners and your organisation (e.g. remuneration paid could effect a partner’s Centrelink payments, or your organisation may be required to hold Statement by a supplier forms for each payee). This template will help you to develop your own ‘request for remuneration’ form.

“I feel super honoured that I am able to do what I do with my sharing, and being given money for that is really important because I’ve taken time off work and I’ve volunteered a lot when I was a full-time student, so it just helped because I was choosing to do this instead of something else.

I think if the funding is there then definitely do pay your partners. And if there’s not much money, even a gift card, or the idea of going out to dinner afterwards, all of these things just say ‘we really appreciate the time that you’ve put into this and we want to honour what you’ve shared’, particularly if it’s something that is quite personal.

It says ‘we value you enough to spend money on you’. It’s about being able to say ‘actually we really do respect and want to thank you for what you’ve done’, and I think that’s really important.”

– Youth partner

If you are unable to provide remuneration, consider other ways of recognising children and families’ contributions and letting them know how valuable they are. Providing a certificate of participation or supporting them to include their involvement with your organisation in their resume, are examples of supportive recognition. You may also be able to support them to develop new skills.

“I remember my kids got a gift card each at one stage, for maybe $20 or $30, something like that, and that was just really exciting for them. And I think as a parent, when your kids get something, it probably brings you more joy than if you got something for yourself.

At one stage, a billycart arrived as well at our place. One of the local men’s sheds had built a billycart, and the organisation had gotten hold of that. It arrived in a box, and this beautiful red billycart, we were able to build and pull the kids around on that.

So that’s a really cool [example] because there’s value in that. But it’s value beyond just remuneration. It means that I’ve gotten to build a billycart for the kids, or at least assemble it. And then I’ve gotten to drag them around on the street, with them having a great time.

I guess all of us can maybe remember back to times when we were kids and we got in a billycart and Dad pushed us around. That creates memories. How do you put a value on that? So, there are other ways to be able to remunerate and recognise people for their work as well.”

– Child and family partner

When can child and family partners be involved?

Where purposeful and appropriate, consider how children and families may be invited to contribute to activities across all areas of your organisation. Some key activities that may benefit from child and family partnerships include:

  • defining, conceptualising and planning processes
  • governance structures including boards, advisory groups, and steering committees that drive strategy and resourcing directions
  • corporate services, including human resources (HR) and communications
  • policy and procedure development
  • designing and producing resources, services, professional development, or research
  • delivering and implementing resources, services, professional development, or research
  • assessing, reviewing, and evaluating resources, services, professional development, or research.

“Child and family partnerships mean, to me, the difference between reality and rhetoric around working with people with lived experience.”

– Child and family partner

Menu of participation

The diagram below includes four broad ways of considering child and family partnership engagement within your project or organisation. This continuum approach looks at lower to higher levels of child and family partner involvement and influence. Using this model, staff consider, select and tailor approaches according to their specific activity or project needs. The approach may depend on a range of factors including the task or activity, timelines, resources, and the skills of staff coordinating the project.

A consultation approach involves intentionally seeking out the perspectives and views of child and family partners and considering them in decisions about product or activity content, format and processes.

Consultations can be held for any of the activities involved, including planning, design and development, review, communications and marketing, and implementation and dissemination. A consultation approach may involve, for example, seeking partner feedback on a draft product prior to its finalisation and implementation. It may also involve discussing and having a dialogue around an issue or project, with the final decision usually being made by the organisation.

A collaboration approach is more involved and may include, for example, seeking partner input and feedback regarding project or process conceptualisation, planning, design and development, and finalisation. Child and family partners usually participate from the beginning of the process. There is more equality and shared decision-making in a collaborative approach.

A co-design process is based on the understanding that from the very start, people with lived experience play an equal role in decisions regarding the conceptualisation, design and development of projects or processes. Partners may also be engaged in other aspects of co-production, such as co-delivery and co-evaluation.

Co-design builds on engagement processes such as social democracy and community development where all critical stakeholders, from professional experts to end users, are encouraged to participate and are respected as equal partners sharing expertise in the design of services and products (NSW Council of Social Services, 2017).

A partner-led approach refers to partners being empowered to lead projects across all stages and act as the ultimate decision-makers for all aspects of the project. The organisation’s staff play a coordination role. Partner-led approaches are likely to be uncommon within most organisations.

All of the above approaches are valuable and worth pursuing. They can be respectful, safe and empowering for child and family partners and can contribute significantly to your work.

It is important to honour the process you choose and strive to correctly label the approach you are undertaking. For example, in many spaces there can be confusion between consultation and co-design. For more on this issue, see Consultation or Co-design?.

“I think having people come on board to help develop a resource or service and make it legitimate and authentic is really important.

I think there’s lots of information that gets produced and it kind of misses the mark and part of that is because they haven’t actually talked to the people they’re trying to target, or they haven’t talked to the people who have had those experiences. They kind of fill in some of the gaps themselves and as somebody who has lived through adversity, I can see those gaps and I know when something is not quite hitting the mark.

So for me, partnerships are really important because I know that there are going to be other people who are in those experiences, seeing those things and going, ‘yeah there’s something not quite right, there’s something missing from it’.

I think it’s also really important because it validates the experiences that we have and it says, ‘yes this wasn’t the best thing to have happened, but let’s look at how we can make that a positive and make these experiences have less of an impact on somebody else in the future’.”

– Youth partner

Approaches to facilitate involvement

This work may be done using a combination of approaches, including face-to-face meetings and workshops, surveys, discussion forums, one-on-one interviews, online meetings, phone calls, emails, and so on.

The task to be undertaken will help determine the approaches used. A mix of approaches will usually be useful, as in this way you can give people options and mitigate some of the barriers for their involvement. For example, some people thrive using email as a primary method of communication, while others prefer phone calls. Discuss the range of options with child and family partners at an early stage.

It is important to remember that children and families may have different levels of literacy or computer skills and may not feel confident asking for help. It is essential that you can offer different options without being asked. It is also important to use simple language that is easy to understand, avoiding jargon wherever possible. The Australian Government’s Digital Plain Language Guide could be a good start.

“Some people I always email, others I might email and then they’ll call me to discuss it. Some I’ll email and then send them a text to let them know, and then they’ll text or call me back to chat to me about it. For other people I use a combination of email and phone calls.

Some people will only feel confident responding to individual emails sent to them, not group emails. Some are really good at engaging with surveys. Some people thrive in face-to-face settings but don’t have the capacity to keep in touch much in between. With some people I play phone tag for weeks.

All of these methods of communication are important and have equal value, just as all of our family partners are important and have equal value.”

– Emerging Minds staff member

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