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2000 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 1, No. 3
Spring 1996

Helping At-Risk Children Beat the Odds

A social work professor once said that one of the major tasks for social workers was to build up defenses against the depression that inevitably comes when working with children and families in trouble.

The Children of Kauai: Resiliency and Recovery in Adolescence and Adulthood, by Emmy Werner, is a wonderful foundation for a defense against despair, for it provides a hopeful view of the futures of children at risk. It also speaks to ways child welfare workers can promote resiliency in the children with whom they work.

The Roots of Resilience

Children of Kauai provides an update on a group of children that have been followed since 1955 and discusses the resilience the researchers found in these children. Some history about the study is needed to understand the whole picture.

In 1955, an interdisciplinary group went to the Island of Kauai, at that time a United States territory, to ask every pregnant woman to be a part of a longitudinal study of how events during pregnancy and different child-rearing conditions affected a child's later life. Local community leaders and helping professionals were enlisted to help gain cooperation from the families. Approximately 2,000 children were in the final sample. Most families living in Kauai at that time were semi- or unskilled laborers without high school diplomas. During the course of the research, children were divided into two groups: "high risk" and "low risk" children. High risk children had been born into poverty, were the products of more troubled pregnancies, or lived in troubled families. Low risk children were healthier, more affluent, and came from more stable family situations.

Originally the researchers focused on factors that made children vulnerable. They were not surprised to note that two-thirds of the high risk children developed learning or behavioral difficulties by the time they were ten years old. In particular, children with four or more risk factors prior to the age of two years were much more likely to be having problems in school at age ten.

What did surprise the researchers is that while two-thirs of the high risk children developed problems in their teens, one third did not. Instead these high risk children grew into competent adults who were able to sustain employment and relationships.

Even more striking, researchers found that most of the high risk children who had trouble during their high school years with delinquency, early child-bearing, or mental health problems had found a way out of their difficulties by the time they reached their thirties.

To understand this, the research team returned to their data to look for common threads that could explain why some high-risk children "made it" while others did not.

Five general categories of protective factors emerged:

1. Temperament

Individuals who were easygoing babies tended to elicit support from both parents and other adults who could provide mentorship for them. This temperament seemed to persist throughout life, allowing children to continually elicit help from others.

2. Values

Optimism and faith that it was possible to overcome difficult circumstances, as well as the ability to focus on doing the best they could with the skills they had, seemed to carry these high risk youths through difficult times.

3. Caregiving styles from parents.

Not surprisingly, parenting that fostered self-esteem, a higher level of maternal education, and a home with rules and structure appeared to be protective.

4. Strong surrogate parents

These adults provided hope for the future (perhaps when parents could not). They included relatives, church members, and youth leaders.

5. "Second chances"

These opportunities, which occurred at different points in life, provided high risk youth with avenues out of troubled lives. Community colleges and the military were both avenues youth used to make needed life changes. Meeting an unusually supportive friend or an accepting spouse also seemed to make a difference.

These themes support the idea that opportunities for change and growth are present throughout the life-span. These opportunities can come from informal mechanisms like neighbors, friends, and extended family members or from more "socially constructed" places like the military, churches, or schools.

Other links that predicted successful outcomes among the high-risk youth included successful reading skill by grade four, taking pleasure in a hobby, taking on responsibilities such as part-time jobs or caring for younger siblings, and finally, having a chance to give to others in their communities and families.

The author notes that the single most important factor, however, was having "at least one person in their lives who accepted them unconditionally, regardless of temperamental idiosyncrasies, physical attractiveness, or intelligence."

How do these findings relate to child welfare? For one thing, they provide assurance that there are many ways for people to rebound from childhood difficulties.

In terms of child welfare services, the results speak to the need for permanency so that children can find the relationships that will nurture their growth. They show the need for early attention to learning problems--specifically reading troubles, as this skill was highly predictive of later functioning.

Nurturing a child's faith and providing them with an opportunity to give to others are both areas where child welfare workers can have an impact.

But perhaps the most important message of the study is best stated by the author:

"The most precious lesson that we choose to learn from this study is Hope; a hope reinforced by reports from a handful of other long-term studies which have identified similar protective buffers and mechanisms that operated in the lives of vulnerable youths who succeeded against the odds."


Werner, E. (1992). The children of Kauai: Resiliency and recovery in adolescence and adulthood. Journal of Adolescent Health, (13(, 262-268.

1996 Jordan Institute for Families