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Early help and early intervention

Last updated: 19 Dec 2023

What is early help and what is early intervention?

Early help and early intervention are forms of support aimed at improving outcomes for children or preventing escalating need or risk. Because of this they are also sometimes referred to as prevention or preventative services.

These services are part of a “continuum of support” and provide help to families who do not, or no longer, meet the threshold for a statutory intervention. 1

Early help and early intervention services can be provided at any stage in a child or young person's life, from the early years right through to adolescence. Services can be delivered to parents, children, or whole families. 

The importance of helping families early is highlighted in national safeguarding guidance across the UK. However, the form services take varies between local areas, depending on local provision.

Is there a difference between the terms?

The terms early help and early intervention are often used interchangeably by practitioners. However, many policymakers and researchers make a distinction between the two (Frost, Abbott and Race, 20152 and Plimmer and Poortvliet, 2012). 3

The term early help, most commonly used in England, often covers universal services aimed at improving outcomes for all children, such as:

  • children’s centres
  • open access youth services
  • health visiting.

Early intervention is often used to talk more specifically about targeted and intensive services addressing individual risks and protective factors, such as:

  • behaviour change programmes
  • relationship support for parents
  • mentoring schemes for young people.

> Read our Why language matters blog on the term ‘early help’

Why are early help and early intervention important?

Providing timely support is vital. Identifying and addressing a child or family's needs early on can increase protective factors that positively influence a child’s wellbeing, and decrease risk factors that may be impacting a child’s life negatively.

Research4,5 suggests that early help and intervention can:

  • protect children from harm
  • reduce the need for a referral to child protection services
  • improve children's long-term outcomes
  • improve children’s home and family life
  • support children to develop strengths and skills to prepare them for adult life.



Research in Practice (RiP) (2022) What is early help?: concepts, policy directions and multi-agency perspectives. Manchester: Ofsted. [Accessed 16/08/2023].
Frost, N., Abbott, S. and Race, T (2015) Family support: prevention, early intervention and early help. Cambridge: Polity Press
Plimmer, D. and Poortvliet, M. van (2012) Prevention and early intervention: scoping study for the Big Lottery Fund. [ [Accessed 09/06/2023].
Haynes, A. et al (2015) Thriving communities: a framework for preventing and intervening early in child neglect. London: NSPCC.
Early Intervention Foundation (EIF) (2021) About early intervention: why it matters. [Accessed 09/06/2023].

Identifying a child or young person who may benefit from early help

Some groups of children may be more likely to need early help than their peers.1,7 These include children who:

  • have special educational needs
  • are disabled
  • are young carers
  • are showing signs of being encouraged into anti-social or criminal behaviour
  • experience difficulties at home, such as domestic abuse, parental substance abuse or parental mental health problems
  • are at risk of being affected by organised crime and county lines
  • are in care, leaving care or preparing to leave care
  • have poor attendance at, or are excluded from, school
  • are young parents (or about to become young parents)
  • are experiencing housing issues
  • misuse drugs or alcohol
  • are viewing harmful online content or experiencing inappropriate or unsafe online relationships
  • are being bullied or bullying others
  • have poor general health
  • have mental health issues

> Find out more about children and families at risk

> Find out more about the signs a child may be experiencing abuse and neglect

Research2 also suggests that some children are less likely than others to receive the early help or early intervention that they need. These include: 

  • Black and mixed heritage boys
  • babies born into care
  • adolescents in care proceedings
  • children with mental health needs.

> Find out more about recognising and responding to child mental health

> Find out more about safeguarding children who come from Black, Asian and minoritised ethnic communities


Department for Education (DfE) (2023) Working together to safeguard children 2023: a guide to multi-agency working to help, protect and promote the welfare of children. [Accessed 15/12/2023].
Research in Practice (RiP) (2022) What is early help?: concepts, policy directions and multi-agency perspectives. Manchester: Ofsted. [Accessed 16/08/2023].
Research in Practice (RiP) (2022) What is early help?: concepts, policy directions and multi-agency perspectives. Manchester: Ofsted. [Accessed 16/08/2023].

Providing support to children and families

If you think a child, young person or a family might benefit from extra support, you should record any concerns and speak to your nominated child protection lead.

Your nominated child protection lead will use their knowledge of local services and liaise with professional colleagues to identify potential sources of support. If they think a child may be at risk of abuse or neglect, they should follow your organisation's child protection procedures immediately.

You can also contact the NSPCC Helpline on 0808 800 5000 or by emailing Our child protection specialists will talk through your concerns and give you expert advice. 

Working with the child and their family

If your nominated child protection lead believes that early help or early intervention is the most appropriate form of support, they will discuss options with the child and their family. They may ask you to be involved.

> Find out more about our designated and lead officer training courses

Accessing universal services

Many children and families will benefit most from national or local universal services available without a referral from a professional.

While a child’s health visitor, GP or school nurse is often the first point of contact for early support, there are many other services that a family can access directly themselves.

The local authority and local hubs such as children’s centres, the local family support hub in Northern Ireland and family information service in Wales, can advise families on locally available services. They can also refer families on to services providing more targeted support.

Although universal services don’t require a referral, people may still face barriers accessing them. It’s important for professionals to listen to children and families and support them to access the services they need.

> Find out more about helping families access services

Assessing the need for more targeted support

In some cases, your nominated child protection lead may conclude that children and families would benefit from more co-ordinated or targeted support. This may result in a professional conducting an assessment of needs, which should be undertaken with the consent of, and in collaboration with, the child and their family. 

In England, the local early help assessment process is set out by the local safeguarding partners. The process should include the appointment of a lead practitioner for each case (such as a GP, family support worker, school nurse, teacher, health visitor, and/or special educational needs co-ordinator).1

In Northern Ireland, any concerned professional can use the Understanding the Needs of Children in Northern Ireland (UNOCINI) framework to help identify the strengths and needs of the children and families they work with.2 

In Scotland, Getting it Right for Every Child (GIRFEC) guidance suggests that a key professional, sometimes referred to as a ‘named person’, be made responsible for recognising each child in Scotland’s wellbeing needs.3 This named person service is non-statutory, and it’s up to each local council and health board to decide if they want to offer it, and parents to decide if they want to use it. The named person, or a professional working closely with the child and family, can use the tools within the GIRFEC National Practice Model to assess needs and identify potential sources of support.

In Wales, Families First guidance states that any concerned professional can refer families for an assessment through the Joint Assessment Framework for Families (JAFF). This framework is part of Wales’s Families First programme and is used to help local agencies work together to identify a family’s needs and determine the best way to meet them. 4

Following an assessment, a decision will be made about how best to support the family.


Department for Education (DfE) (2023) Working together to safeguard children 2023: a guide to multi-agency working to help, protect and promote the welfare of children. [Accessed 15/12/2023].
Department of Health (2011) Understanding the needs of children in Northern Ireland (UNOCINI) guidance. [Accessed 16/01/2022].
Scottish Government (2022) Getting it right for every child (GIRFEC): practice guidance 2 – role of the named person. [Accessed 16/01/2023].
Welsh Government (2017) Families First programme guidance. [Accessed 09/06/2023].


Guidance across the UK highlights the importance of providing help to children and families as soon as it is needed.

Each nation of the UK has safeguarding and child protection guidance which states that organisations should identify and support children and families who would benefit from early help or early intervention.

The actual form services take varies depending on local provision.

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