How can we turn what we know about child development into tangible services and supports for the most vulnerable children?
We know that interactions with adults shape children’s neurological and behavioral development, and that long-term hardship can negate the core skills adults need to succeed as caregivers. We’re understanding more and more how these two concepts interact: A stable, supportive relationship with an adult can be the key to a child's health and resilience, despite adversity; conversely, when a caregiver doesn’t have the capacity to provide that support, the child can face severe mental and physical consequences.
Now, a new report from the Center on the Developing Child (CDC) at Harvard University brings all this together to offer operational guidance for social workers, educators, and other caregivers — helping them use the science of child development as a framework for providing the support and services children need in the moment and the tools for continued success.
The report makes three broad recommendations for child welfare systems: that they work to reduce external sources of stress for clients and workers alike, strengthen the core life skills of children and adults, and help develop responsive relationships.
Stress is a “defining feature” for those involved in child welfare systems. Circumstances that necessitate assistance — poverty, neglect, abuse — are by nature stressful, and they often go hand in hand with other stressors, such as systemic racism, uncertain immigration status, unaccepted sexual orientation, and mental health problems. Just dealing with child welfare, with its threat of breaking up families, is stressful. Over time, a build-up of such toxic stress can compromise executive function and self-regulation skills for both children and adults.
To help reduce stress for children and families, child welfare systems can:
Strengthen Core Life Skills
Along with reducing the factors that can inhibit executive function and self-regulation skills, child welfare services can intentionally develop core life skills, like the ability to plan ahead, manage appropriate responses, and adjust to changes. These skills are what children and families need to make responsible decisions.
To help strengthen core life skills, child welfare systems can:
Develop Responsive Relationships
Healthy relationships are key to success. For children, they help stimulate brain development and serve as protection from toxic experiences; for adults, they provide the emotional and practical support needed to navigate challenging situations.
To build and support strong responsive relationships, child welfare systems can:
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