How the Science of Child Development Can be Leveraged to Strengthen the Child Welfare System

Blog Post
Nov. 17, 2016

A surge of research on early brain development in recent years has led to a deeper appreciation of the important roles both genetics and the environment play in how humans develop. Further, this research has led to a deeper understanding of the conditions that influence whether a child gets off to a promising or challenging start in life. But how can research on brain development be used to improve the child welfare system?

The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University has some ideas. The Center’s recent report Applying the Science of Child Development to Child Welfare Systems, puts an emphasis on learning and improvement, challenging its readers to think about how best to build a universal understanding of responsive caregiving. As science continues to provide updates on how to best support children's development, it is crucial that those who make, or seek to affect, public policy update and improve public policies to reflect these new insights. By better aligning child welfare and other family policies with the latest developmental science, policymakers can help ensure that children receive the supports they need to thrive.

Background on the Science

While brains are built over time, from the time of conception to age three, development proceeds at a pace exceeding that of any subsequent stage of life. In fact, a child’s brain doubles in size in the first year, and by age three it reaches 80 percent of its adult volume. In these early years, a child’s brain is forming 700 new neural connections every second. After this period of rapid proliferation, these circuits are either reinforced or “pruned” due to lack of use, depending on the child’s experiences.

Adults play an integral role in shaping children’s experiences during this time. Early development is fueled by reciprocal caregiver-child interactions, known as “serve-and-return” interactions, through which babies’ neural pathways are strengthened.  Without responsive interactions, the architecture of the child’s developing brain may weaken, with lifelong consequences on their learning, behavior, and health.

Stressful experiences early in life, such as abuse, neglect, and poverty, disrupt the process of development. If children live in a chaotic or threatening world, for example, their brains may become hyperalert for danger or not fully develop. A neglected child doesn’t experience enough of the reciprocal caregiver-child interactions that are necessary to build sturdy brain architecture. These adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, can lead to subsequent cognitive delays, impairments in executive functioning, and increase the risk of health problems.

The brain’s capability to learn from experience is greatest in early life and decreases with age. This means that during the early period of development, the brain is most vulnerable to harm but also most capable of recovery. As children age and brain circuits stabilize, they become increasingly difficult to change. Thus, early intervention is the best bet for improving the odds for children who experience hardships early in life. Research shows that positive experiences, responsive relationships with adults, and adaptive skills, such as the ability to adapt to changing circumstances, can all work to counterbalance the consequences of adversity, by helping to build the foundations of resilience.

Lead author Steven D. Cohen also discusses the importance of acquiring and building upon the core capacities of executive function (including the ability to retain and use new information and to problem solve) and self-regulation (the ability to draw on the right skills at the right time and resist inappropriate responses). The foundation of these skills are formed in early childhood and continue to develop into adulthood. These skills are critical to the success of  anyone involved in the child welfare system, whether they be parents, workers, or children themselves.

(For a deeper look into science brain development click here and to understand what this means for what educators and other adults working with young children need to know and be able to do check out the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council’s Transforming the Workforce report).  

Using the Science to Improve Policy and Practice

In addition to explaining the research on brain development, the report sets out five organizing principles for how child welfare systems can apply scientific findings to both policy and practice. This principles include:

  1. Use Science to Open Up New Ways of Thinking and Acting: The report states that, “science is best positioned as a guide to informed action.”  Understanding how and why experiences affect the developing brain can open up new ways of examining and explaining what we all encounter everyday in life and work. Understanding this science, for example, might help reduce shame and stigma involved in the child welfare system, such as the belief that the parents and youth involved are to blame for their circumstances.
  2. Reduce External Sources of Stress: Stress can be a fact of life for almost everyone involved with the child welfare system. The report suggests that child welfare systems work with other systems to reduce the daily environmental stressors that families and staff may face. This can be done, for example, by the child welfare system working to meet the basic needs of parents and children, such as insufficient food or unsafe housing conditions, as well as by providing supports needed by their staff.
  3. Develop Responsive Relationships: Healthy relationships are crucial to children’s development. These relationships can help stimulate brain development and provide buffering protection that can keep challenging experiences from producing toxic stress effects. Under this principle, one suggestion includes helping to maintain important relationships such as those between the birth and foster parents to help enrich children’s healthy development.
  4. Strengthen Core Life Skills: As described above, scientists have identified self-regulation and executive function as two foundational skills that adults need both to parent effectively and to earn a living, and that children need to develop as they move toward adulthood. To strengthen these core life skills, child welfare systems should focus on helping people develop and practice these skills. For example, the authors suggest exploring approaches specifically designed to target elements of executive function and self-regulation, such as teaching individuals to identify personal goals and make realistic plans.
  5. Attend to the Distinctive Needs of Infants and Young Children: Because early childhood is the time during which the brain develops most rapidly, the report suggests that child welfare policy and practice recognize the specific needs of infants and toddlers and create the foundation for lifelong health and learning. With the importance of early relationships in mind, they suggest that child welfare systems promote “strong, secure, responsive” connections between foster parents and babies and that infants and young children have access to high-quality medical care.

What happens early in a child’s life matters for their lifetime. This improved understanding of early childhood development offers a powerful opportunity to strengthen the child welfare system and in turn improve the well-being and life prospects of vulnerable children. It is also important that this knowledge extend beyond child welfare to other policies impacting young children. For instance, the importance of early childhood experiences and positive relationships with caregivers highlights the importance of expanding coverage of the Family and Medical Leave Act to all working parents and providing high-quality childcare options that foster positive early childhood development. The Family-Centered Social Policy Initiative at New America is working to re-imagine social policy for the 21st century so that outdated policies better serve the needs of families -- listening to the most up to date research is one way to start ensuring that policies are effective in meeting families’ needs.