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Analysis of Child Development Research Essay

The purpose of the study was to compare the outcomes of youth in long-term foster care with a group of children who entered into foster care and were subsequently adopted before reaching the age of 7 (Vinnerljung & Hjern 2011). Previous research conducted by Bohman and Sigvardsson found that at the age of 15, foster children who had been adopted performed as well in school as their peers who had never entered foster care. Children who were still in foster care had poorer grades and more behavioral problems. This gave the first implication that differences in child rearing environments are a strong factor in the positive or negative development of a child. The study consisted of a sample of 3,951 Swedish children born between 1972 and 1981. Each child entered care before the age of 7, and they were tested periodically until age 26. Of these children, 899 were adopted before the age of 7, and 3,062 grew up in foster care for more than 12 years (before aging out of the program at the age of 18).

Adopted children spent an average of 1.6 years in foster care before adoption, while long-term foster care children spent an average of 16 years in care. The control group consisted of (consensus) data collected from 900,418 children who were never adopted or in foster care. These groups were adjusted for confounding variables, such as parental mental health problems and substance abuse before and/or after birth, as well as for age at entry into care. The outcomes were measured by an intelligence test that consisted of four subtests: logical, spatial, verbal, and technical capabilities. The scores ranged from 1-9, with 5 being average and a higher score indicating a higher cognitive competence.

Both experimental groups had weaker outcomes compared to the control population, but foster children measured lower than adopted children in school performance, educational achievement, self-support capability, and cognitive competence. Children who were adopted at ages 4-6 showed improvements in cognitive ability over time, and by their late teens typically scored closely to their non-adopted or fostered peers. Negative outcomes were found to be far more likely for those in long-term foster care, regardless of gender, while adopted children had more favorable outcomes for school performance, cognitive test scores, educational achievement, and reliance on public welfare.

Foster children had, on average, lower grades and cognitive abilities. Half of fostered boys had very low or incomplete grades from primary school, compared to 1/3 of adopted boys and 1/5 of the control population boys. For girls, the data was 1/3, 1/6, and 1/12. Attrition rates for grades at the age of 16 were the following: 13.4% for long-term foster care children, 4.3% for adopted children, and 2.4% for non-fostered or adopted children. By the age of 25, around 30% of fostered boys and 25% of fostered girls had only received a primary education. This is three times that of the control population, and twice that of the adoptees. Similarly, more fostered children were dependent on welfare at age 25 than children of the control group or adopted children.

PAPER TWO: Developmental outcomes after five years for foster children returned home, remaining in care, or adopted Similar to the first, this study compared the developmental outcomes of children who entered into foster care as infants and either returned home, were adopted, or remained in foster care long-term. The first years of a child’s life are critical for proper development, particularly because younger children are more easily influenced and have the highest levels of brain plasticity (Llyod & Barth, 2011). Furthermore, previous research has suggested that young children in foster care are at a developmental risk compared to their peers. It is possible, then, that either reunification or adoption might alleviate these risks.

The sample consisted of 353 children who were initially tested at 13 months, then again at 18, 36, and 66 months. The assessments were conducted with the child and the child’s current caregiver (whether that be biological parent, adoptive parent, or foster parent). The child’s status at 66 months determined their group designation of adopted, reunited/in-home, or fostered. All of the sampled children had to have at least one allegation of maltreatment. Maltreatment was divided into type (physical, emotional, neglect), to adjust for confounding factors. Many different tests were used to assess cognitive and behavioral delays in the children.

These included: the Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scales Screener (which screens for problems in adaptive behavior and daily living skills), the Pre-school Language Skills (which assess developmental domain of language), the Kaufman Brief Intelligence Test (which assess cognitive development in children over 4 years), the Woodcock-Johnson III tests of achievement (which assess educational outcomes of children at least 5 years old), and the Child Behavior Checklists (which assess behavior problems in children ages 2 and older).

Far fewer children in the adopted group were classified at high developmental risk. This group also scored significantly higher on cognitive stimulation and caregiver responsiveness. The foster care group had the lowest means in cognitive and language skills, but the highest scores in adaptive behavior. On these measures, adopted children and children who were returned to their homes scored relatively close to one another. There were no significant differences among groups in different poverty rates.

In conclusion, reunification and adoption generally led to more positive outcomes, while long-term foster care typically resulted in poor developmental outcomes. These findings further suggest that adoptive placement specifically leads to improved social competence, language skills, and reading skills, but lower adaptive behavior development, while reunification mainly leads to better language development, math skills, and reading skills.

PAPER THREE: Developmental, Cognitive, and Neuropsychological Functioning in Preschool-aged Foster Children: Associations with Prior Maltreatment and Placement History This study differs slightly from the first two by investigating the physical and cognitive developmental differences between foster children and children living with their biological parents. Typically, younger foster children display higher rates of developmental and mental health problems, which are often associated with maltreatment, multiple placements in foster care, and younger age at initial placement (Pears & Fisher, 2004). However, the majority of children receiving social and mental health services are over the age of 6, despite the fact that most children in foster care are between the ages of 2-5 years. Likewise, studies show that around 60% of the preschoolers entering foster care receive no treatment for developmental delays.

The sample consists of two groups of children: the first consisting of 99 3-6 year old foster children, and the second of 54 non-maltreated, same-age, comparable SES children living with their biological families. There were no major differences in mean child age, gender, or ethnicity between the two groups. Height, weight, and head circumference were used to measure physical growth over time. Neuropsychological function was tested with the Developmental Neuropsychological Assessment, which includes 11 subscales in five domains: visuospatial processing (visual and spatial information processing), memory and learning, sensorimotor function, language, and attention/executive function.

Cognitive function was measured with the Weschler Preschool and Primary Scales of Intelligence-Revise. Auditory comprehension and expressive communication were measured with the Preschool Language Scale-Third Edition. Executive function was further measured with two different tasks: the stroop task, where, when a card with a sun on it is held up, the child must say day, and when a card with a moon on it is help up, the child must say night; and the card sort task, where the child must first sort cards according to the shape on the card, and then according to the color of the shape on the card.

Height for age was positively associated with memory and language in both groups, although the correlation was slightly stronger in the foster group. Foster children were, in general, shorter and lighter, and had smaller head circumferences than same-aged children in the control group. Children in the control group scored higher than foster children in visuospatial functioning, language, and general cognitive functioning. There was a moderately positive correlation between the age at which a child was first placed into foster care and the child’s executive function. Children placed in foster care before the age of 2 scored significantly lower on visuospatial processing, and children with more than the average number of placements had lower scores on executive functioning.


All three of the studies show that children placed in long-term foster care typically have more developmental delays and behavioral issues than children who are adopted, reunited with their biological families, or never enter foster care in the first place.

A general conclusion can be made in that foster children need higher quality care and support from their foster parents, caseworkers, and doctors. The negative educational trends found by Vinnerljung and Hjern (2011) suggest that foster children received less satisfactory support in their schoolwork than adopted children. Foster parents and caseworkers could benefit from lessons in how to interpret a child’s behavior, nurture the child, and create a supportive learning environment for the child. This is especially important for younger children. Limited caseloads for social workers would allow for workers to concentrate on children and spend more time ensuring that they are receiving proper care.

It is also clear that foster children would benefit from more early intervention services. Early development, as discussed by Lloyd and Barth (2011), is rapid and easily influenced by environment and quality of caregivers. Intervention services could prevent developmental delays, and lessen preexisting ones. Currently, resources within the system are limited, and largely consumed by older foster children. This is assumed to be because as children age, they become a larger threat to themselves (by displaying instances of self harm, suicide, increased violence, etc.), and thus, are referred to mental health specialists.

However, most of these behaviors stem from existing conditions present at a younger age, and would be more easily controlled if addressed at the younger age. It would then also be important that these children receive consistent, satisfactory health care. Screenings for developmental delays and other behavioral problems would increase the ability to catch these problems early on, and treat them when the child is still young, and potentially easier to help. As well, because foster children are constantly changing homes, it would be important to maintain records of these screenings, so that the information is always readily available to caregivers, caseworkers, and doctors. This will ensure that the child is always receiving appropriate care.

All three studies show the negative association between long-term foster care and a child’s development, even with skilled caregivers and placement stability. Working toward the preservation of families and the avoidance of placement in foster care may benefit the child developmentally. If necessary, the child may be removed from the home for a period of time, but there should be increased efforts made to reunite child and parent. Increased programing for parents (rehab programs, teaching about early childhood development, etc.) could increase such potential.

Llyod, C., & Barth, R. (2011). Developmental outcomes after five years for foster children returned home, remaining in care, or adopted. Children and Youth Services Review, 33(8), 1383-1391. doi:10.1016/j.childyouth.2011.04.008

Pears, K. & Fisher, P. (2004). Developmental, cognitive, and neuropsychological functioning in preschool-aged foster children: Associations with prior maltreatment and placement history. Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, 26(2), 112-122. Vinnerljung, B., & Hjern, A. (2011). Cognitive, educational and self support outcomes of long- term foster care versus adoption: A Swedish national cohort study. Children and Youth Services Review, 33(10), 1902-1910. doi:10.1016/j.childyouth.2011.05.016

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