Center for the Study of
Culture, Health, and Human Development
at the
University of Connecticut


The Family Development Credential Program's Empirical Foundations

The Cornell Family Development Credential system emerged from the landmark cross-cultural Comparative Ecology of Human Development study (Cochran & Henderson, 1986). In this study, known  as "Family Matters", Cornell Professors Dr. Urie Bronfenbrenner, Dr. Moncrieff Cochran, Dr. William Cross, Jr. and research statistician Charles R. Henderson, Jr. studied the intersections between families and communities that led Bronfenbrenner (1979) to refine his then- emerging theory of the "ecology of human development", which he described as lying "at a point of convergence among the disciplines of the biological, psychological, and social sciences as they bear on the evolution of the individual in society."

The "Family Matters" study showed how children and parents develop in relation with families, neighbors, relatives, schools and workplaces, and influences of society. When Bronfenbrenner talked about "the ecology of human development" he was referring to settings where people live, work, study, play and interact with other people, as well as the indirect influences of society like public policy that makes it hard for families to afford good child care or health care. Bronfenbrenner developed the scientific terms micro-system, macro-system, meso-system, and exo-system to describe the expanding circles in which people live and grow.

Through his observations within the Family Matters study, Co-Principal Investigator and Project Director Professor Moncrieff Cochran described the developmental stages of an "empowerment process" involving individuals with "progressively more distant environmental systems." He wrote,

We propose that positive changes in self-perception (Stage I) permit the alteration of relations with members of the household or immediate family (Stage II), which is followed by the establishment and maintenance of new relations with more distant relatives and friends (Stage III). Stage IV is seen as information gathering related to broader community involvement, followed in Stage V by change-oriented community action." [1]

In other words, as people change the way they look at themselves, their relationships with themselves, immediate family, and extended family and friends change. They gather information about how they might improve their own situation as well as that of their community, and often ultimately get involved in making a difference. The cornerstone of the empowerment approach is that empowerment is not something anyone can do for someone else, nor can it be forced. Empowerment happens when people set their own goals. The role of helping systems, whether family, friends, or agencies, is to support that goal not to set it for the person.

From 1981-93 Forest translated Family Matters research into curricula which Cornell Cooperative Extension and other public agencies used to infuse these concepts into their work with families. In 1994 the New York State's Council on Children and Families recognized the importance of Bronfenbrenner's, Cochran's, and Forest's work to the state's family policy. The New York State Council on Children and Families convened a Commissioners Work from major state family-serving agencies, to consider ways to reorient the state's family policy toward the strengths-based partnership approach. This group sought Cornell's expertise. The interagency Family Development Credential (FDC) was developed, to teach front-line family workers how to apply the strengths approach in the state's work with families and communities. Beginning in 1994 New York State Department of State provided funding and policy support to Cornell to develop the interagency Family Development Credential (FDC) system. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation provided additional support to infuse the FDC into existing New York State systems and community colleges, as well as establishing mechanisms to help other states launch similar systems. Within one year two other states (North Carolina and California) had launched affiliate FDC systems with Cornell's help. Gradually the Cornell FDC program consulted with additional states to establish their own Cornell-affiliated systems.

The addition of the outermost circle in Forest's Family Circles model incorporates Bronfenbrenner's conceptual evolution of human development from an "ecological" to a "bioecological" model (Bronfenbrenner, 2001). Having observed Bronfenbrenner's own joyful interaction with the natural environment over the two and a half decades they worked together, and his passionately protective, socially engaged interaction with the ecosystem forces that often attempt to put business interests ahead of the needs of growing humans as well as the natural environment that contains them, Forest asked him, as they walked together across the Cornell campus beneath vibrant autumnal colors after he had retired, whether this omission of the encompassing natural environment from his nested systems theory was intentional. His explanation was that this omission reflected the lens created by his intimate relationship with nature, which had caused him to "not see the forest for the trees" (Bronfenbrenner, 2001).


Bronfenbrenner, U. (2001). The theory of human development. In N. J. Smelser  & P. B. Baltes (Eds.), International encyclopedia of the social and behavioral sciences (Vol. 10, pp. 6963-6970). New York: Elsevier.

Bronfenbrenner, Urie. (2001). Ithaca, NY: Personal communication with C. Forest, September 2001.

Bronfenbrenner, Urie. (1979). The ecology of human development: Experiments by nature and design. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bronfenbrenner, Urie, & Evans, G. W. (2000). Developmental science in the 21st century: Emerging questions, theoretical models, research designs and empirical findings. Social Development, 9, 115-125.

Cochran, M., & Henderson, C.R., Jr. (1986). Family matters: Evaluation of the parental empowerment program: Summary of a final report to the national institute of education. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Department of Human Development.

Dean, C. (1996, updated 2003). Empowerment Skills for Family Workers. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Family Development Press.

Forest, C, & Palmer-House, K. (2003). Empowerment Skills for Family Workers. Ithaca, NY: Family Development Press.

Garbarino, J. (1999). Raising Children in a Socially Toxic Environment (San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass, 1999).