From Research to Action

How child welfare systems can use the science of child development to promote positive development

January 24, 2017
From Research to Action

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.

Science-Backed Recommendations

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.

Reduce Stress

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:

  • Work with other services to ensure that basic needs, such as housing, food, and household supplies, are met.
  • Streamline processes, coordinate services, provide routine reminders, and reduce the frequency through which services need to be authorized.
  • Provide well-regulated environments that build a sense of calm and control. For example, social workers can present clear options, timelines for services, and rubrics for success.
  • Support front-line staff, whose work requires them to be observant, attentive, and action-oriented in highly stressful situations. Create a work environment that ensures manageable caseloads, easy access to supplies, and regular opportunities to relieve stress.

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:

  • Prioritize approaches that focus on skill-building. For instance, rather than asking parents to comply with requests, ask what they hope to gain from a specific program, or how they can transfer new skills to other areas.
  • Use approaches that explicitly target executive function and self-regulation skills. For instance, teach children and adults to refocus their attention away from negative surroundings, or to recognize and interrupt unplanned responses.
  • Support skill-building in areas other than parenting, such as employment training. Strong core skills in any area can still assist adults in providing and caring for their children.
  • Provide services with clear, explicit, incremental steps, and offer consistent feedback. For children and adults, following these plans can help develop executive function skills and can afford frequent opportunities for success, which reinforces positive habits.
  • Consider using “coaching models,” which explore a person’s goals and motivations and helps them build the mindset to sustain behavioral changes and remain hopeful.

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:

  • Provide trainings and suggestions for parents to develop positive caregiving skills.
  • Identify clients’ existing important relationships, and leverage those to create future successes.
  • Strive to minimize the number of placements children experience in foster care. When a child’s placement does change, try to sustain important relationships, whether it’s between a child and foster or birth parent or between siblings.
  • Whenever feasible, promote positive relationships between foster and birth parents. These connections are often tenuous, but constructive partnerships can offer the stable caregiving that children need.
  • Select caseworkers and educators who will treat clients respectfully. Offer professional development on managing race and class differences, and model positive interactions in the workplace.

Additional Resources

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Usable Knowledge is a trusted source of insight into what works in education — translating new research into easy-to-use stories and strategies for teachers, parents, K-12 leaders, higher ed professionals, and policymakers. Usable Knowledge is produced at the Harvard Graduate School of Education by Bari Walsh (senior editor) and Leah Shafer (staff writer). Contact us at uknow@gse.harvard.edu.