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FAN tool developed by Erikson's Fussy Baby Network becomes a national model

A wide range of professionals who work with children and families have a new tool for their often-challenging work: the FAN.

The FAN approach, a communication tool for professionals working with families, was originally developed by Erikson professor Linda Gilkerson and her Fussy Baby Network team as part of their work to support parents dealing with challenging infant behaviors, such as crying, difficulty sleeping, and feeding.

Over the last 10 years, the FAN has become a national model for family engagement and reflective practice, and is being adapted to more settings serving children, ranging from early childhood mental health consultation systems to pediatrician training.

A national model

For Gilkerson, this is a natural extension of the work she began when she founded the Fussy Baby Network at Erikson in 2003.

“I see so many people using themselves in incredibly effective ways,” she says. “Home visitors, pediatric residents, and any professional working with young children can do amazing things in very challenging situations. The FAN helps them to stay steady and centered when it’s really difficult.”

The FAN (which stands for “Facilitating Attuned INteractions”) illustrates core processes in one word: Feeling, Calming, Thinking, Doing, and Reflecting. Each process is centered on parents’ urgent concern and is designed to support them in the moment.

Using the model, trained practitioners can observe parents and determine where they are on the FAN spectrum and what they most need, from listening with acceptance to capacity building. The FAN approach also helps practitioners be mindful of their own responses in the moment.

“When you focus on what’s important to the parent, you can organize your work around that,” says Gilkerson. “If a parent’s upset or withdrawn, and you realize you’ve lost them, you know to pause, pull back, and think about what’s happening for the parent and how you can reconnect.”

She continues, “The FAN also interrupts the automatic response of feeling you need to fix a situation right now, like a parent needing bus money, and helps you build the parent’s capacity.”

Healthy families in Illinois and nationwide

One key adaptation of the FAN approach is for home visitors—trained specialists who visit families’ homes to provide information and support during pregnancy and early childhood.

Over the past three years, Erikson’s Fussy Baby Network has partnered with the Illinois Governor’s Office of Early Childhood and with Healthy Families Illinois to develop and implement FAN training for Healthy Families’ home visiting staff across the state. Healthy Families is the largest evidence-based home visiting program in the country, serving families with children up to five years old.

More recently, the Fussy Baby Network received a $2.2 million grant as part of Illinois’ competitive Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting program funded through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. This will enable the Fussy Baby Network to continue its FAN training in 25 agencies statewide that work with Healthy Families Illinois, with a goal for FAN training to be available to all 6,000 Healthy Families America home visitors nationally by 2017.

The grant also supports the expansion of the model to two more Illinois home visiting programs: Early Head Start and Parents as Teachers.

Meeting parents where they are

The FAN training with Healthy Family Illinois is designed to promote mindfulness and self-awareness in home visitors.

At first, home visitors struggled implementing the FAN model, says Kate Whitaker, national director of training and professional development at Healthy Families America. “Reflecting on the work was somewhat new to our staff. With the support of the Fussy Baby staff, our home visitors became more reflective and more comfortable being present for families and attuned to their needs.”

Whitaker says many staff members have shared how much they value the approach, as it helps them to see things from a parent’s perspective and to see “the baby the parent sees.” The home visitors also report being less stressed, as they can be more effective with the guidance of the FAN approach.

Listening and empowering

In Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood — a community considered to be one of Chicago’s toughest — home visitors are using the FAN model to change lives.

“The young mothers we work with tend to have several different challenges that can cause our visitors to just want to go in and fix it for them,” says Tajuana Rice, the Healthy Families supervisor at Family Focus Englewood.

One Family Focus home visitor was working with a mother in an unhealthy relationship where she faced domestic violence. “Our visitor worked a long time trying to figure out how this mother could get out of this violent relationship,” Rice says. But that wasn’t actually addressing the mother’s needs. After stepping back with the help of the FAN, the visitor learned more about the mother’s perspective, including that the mother had lost her own father, and placed high value on her son having a dad. However, the mother didn’t know how to balance the danger of her relationship with the value of a father. “We had jumped right over that,” says Rice.

Once the visitor understood the mom’s viewpoint and was not focused on ending the mother’s relationship, the visitor was able to help the mother determine how to keep her son safe while providing for his needs. According to Rice, “She just wanted someone to hear her first before giving her a solution.”

“The FAN training has allowed us to engage better with our families that we work with. We’ve learned how to take a little more time to listen and be reflective, and to then move at the pace the family wants to work,” Rice says. “With the FAN, we are helping our moms build up their confidence and have stronger relationships with their children.”

From doctors to social workers

Erikson is finding the FAN approach effective in other programs.

The Fussy Baby Network is collaborating with medical faculty to train pediatric fellows at the University of Chicago and residents at the University of Illinois at Chicago in using the FAN to strengthen their communication with families. Wisconsin’s Home Visiting Professional Development System is now infusing the FAN into its statewide professional development program to provide home visitors, supervisors, and consultants with a new framework for family engagement.

Gilkerson is also collaborating with Loyola University Chicago’s School of Social Work to develop FAN training for youth mentoring programs. The training will help increase the attunement of mentors to the youth they support and sustain their relationships over time.

“There’s real power in being on the same page with the person you’re serving,” says Gilkerson. “When people feel truly understood, their own capacity is released. And that’s what the FAN helps professionals do.”

mother and father with infant

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