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January/February 2017Vol. 17, No. 10Child Development Science and Improving Child Welfare Outcomes

A new paper by the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University looks at how emerging insights from child development science can be used to improve outcomes for children and families in the child welfare system. The paper specifically focuses on strengthening parents' and caregivers' nurturing capabilities.

Child development science emphasizes the importance of cultivating consistent and nurturing relationships early in a child's life to build a safe and secure foundation for future development, finding that when these connections are absent, the child suffers negative consequences and is vulnerable to toxic stress. Early adverse childhood experiences have been associated with a host of debilitating emotional and behavioral health problems later in life. The Center on the Developing Child suggests that a greater understanding of this science by caseworkers, judges, court staff, birth parents, kinship caregivers, and foster parents can help reduce the shame and stigma experienced by many families in the child welfare system by viewing negative behaviors as a product of toxic stress.

With a primary focus on improving parental and caregiver capabilities, the October 2016 paper, Applying the Science of Child Development in Child Welfare Systems, identifies three major opportunities for drawing on child development knowledge to improve child welfare outcomes:

  • Reduce external sources of stress by helping to secure basic shelter, food, and organizational needs for children, parents, and caregivers in the child welfare system and by creating a supportive work environment for frontline staff and supervisors.
  • Develop responsive relationships by training caseworkers in the skills needed to build and nurture relationships; helping birth, foster, kin, and adoptive parents to become more responsive caregivers; identifying a family's most important relationships and finding ways to strengthen them; trying to reduce the number of placements for children and youth in foster care; encouraging positive relationships between birth and foster parents to help children in care feel more secure and supported; and helping to maintain important relationships after placement or permanency changes so children don't lose touch with a trusted adult.
  • Strengthen core life skills by helping children and adults to cultivate the essential life skills of self-regulation and executive functioning; supporting related skill-building, such as employment training; helping parents and caregivers to build on existing strengths; using positive feedback to reinforce progress in case goals; and using coaching to build the skills and mindset needed for a sustained behavior change.

The paper emphasizes the importance of addressing the needs of infants and young children, including access to medical care and developmental screenings.

Applying the Science of Child Development in Child Welfare Systems is available at


Related Item

The Center on the Developing Child and the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child developed the video Serve and Return Interaction Shapes Brain Circuitry, which explores how the interaction between children and significant adults in their lives helps shape children's developing brains. Access the video, part of a series on Three Core Concepts in Early Development, at