This blog post was contributed by Manuela Pessanha (ESE-Instituto Politécnico do Porto)

“Children are a people and they live in a foreign land”] (Beppe Wolgers, 1956)

During the first years of life, children are fully dependent on adults that take care of them and are responsible for satisfying their needs. If the satisfaction of these needs is compromised, children may face some risk in their developmental process.

We all use the term “children at risk” very frequently, but what does it mean? In this post, I will address the evolution of the concept of “children at risk” and how we can protect them from some risks.


Risky children or children at risk? Evolution of the concept

In general, “children at risk” refers to children who, due to the presence of mild biological, social or psychological changes, may experience situations that compromise their development [1, p.40].

Moving away from approaches in which the concept of children at risk was based on biological risk factors, the interest in the effects of life contexts on child development became obvious, particularly when those contexts seem to put him/her in a disadvantaged situation [2]. Therefore, the concept of “children at risk” that considered risk as an individual trait and the existence of a cause-effect relation between the early biological events and later developmental outcomes, evolved into a concept of “children at risk” that includes the person and his/her context or ecology in the developmental process.


Children do not “live in a foreign land”: the sociocultural risk  

Child environment includes immediate forces, as family or school, and less immediate influences, as laws and institutions, according to the ecological approach [3]. Developmental risks may be related to direct threats or to the lack of opportunities. The sociocultural risk may  have effects in all children’s life contexts, and there are characteristics in the immediate context, such as family size (single parent or large households), or in the distal context, such as low educational level and parent’s low professional status, as well as low income, that might impoverish the quality of children’s experiences [4]. Furthermore, it has been highlighted that some fundamental aspects of brain architecture begin to be shaped by experience before and shortly after birth, settling before the child enters school [5].

Some studies have shown that the accumulation and persistence of risk factors in family context (e.g., parents’ low educational level and unemployment, poverty) may have negative effects on children’s development [4], with a higher probability that they show difficulties throughout their development, especially in the absence of a compensatory effect of other educational contexts [6].

It has also been highlighted that in families facing multiple risk factors, parents are less likely to interact warmly and responsively with their children, showing higher levels of negative affect and higher inconsistency in their educative practices [7], what has been considered a predictor of children’s later development outcomes [8].


Children at sociocultural risk: how to protect them?

During childhood, the quality of out-of-home educational contexts (day care, preschool) is essential for all children attending them, and it is a protective factor for those who, coming from socially disadvantaged or less stimulating family contexts, are at risk of developmental delay [2].

However, only high-quality contexts may have positive effects on children’s development at social, cognitive and language levels, and in their later academic performance [9], exerting the referred protective effect in the case of children in socially disadvantaged contexts [2].

But, what does educational context quality mean? Help us further discuss this topic on the comment section!



[1] Bairrão, J. (1994). A perspectiva ecológica na avaliação de crianças com necessidades e suas famílias: O caso da Intervenção Precoce. [The ecological approach in the evaluation of children with special needs and their families: The Early Intervention case]. Inovação, 7, 37-48.

[2] Pessanha, M., Cadima, J., Nunes, C. Novais, I., & Alves, M. J. (2009). Risco sociocultural e intervenção na comunidade. [Sociocultural risk and community intervention] In G. Portugal (Ed.), Ideias, projectos e inovação no mundo das infâncias: O percurso e a presença de Joaquim Bairrão (pp. 77-91). Aveiro: Universidade de Aveiro.

[3] Garbarino, J., & Ganzel, B. (2000). The human ecology of early risk. In J.P. Shonkoff, & S.J. Meisels (Eds), Handbook of early childhood intervention (2nd ed., pp. 76-93). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[4] Cadima, J., Peixoto, C., & Leal, T. (2009). Factores de risco: A multiplicidade das variáveis contextuais no desenvolvimento das crianças. [Risk factors: The multiplicity of contextual variables in children’s development]. Psicologia. Contextos Educativos e Desenvolvimento: Visão e obra de Joaquim Bairrão, XXIII (2), 175-192.

[5] Shonkoff, J. P., & Bales, S. N. (2011). Science does not speak for itself: Translating child development research for the public and its policymakers. Child Development, 82(1), 17-32. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2010.01538.x

[6] Burchinal, M. R., Roberts, J. E., Hooper, S., & Zeisel, S. A. (2000). Cumulative risk and early cognitive development: A comparison of statistical risk models. Developmental Psychology, 36(6), 793-807.

[7] Lengua, L., Kiff, C., Moran, L., Zalewsky, M., Thompson, S., Cortes, R., & Ruberry, E. (2014). Parenting mediates the effects of income and cumulative risk on the development of effortful control. Social Development, 23, 631–649. doi: 10.1111/sode.12071

[8] Pianta, R., & Rimm-Kaufman, S. (2006). The social ecology of the transition to school: Classrooms, families, and children. In K. McCartney & D. Phillips (Eds.), The handbook of early childhood development (pp. 490-507). Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing.

[9] Pinto, A. I., Pessanha, M., & Aguiar, C. (2013). Effects of home environment and center-based child care quality on children’s language, communication, and literacy outcomes. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 28, 94-101. doi: 10.1016/j.ecresq.2012.07.001

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Walk the line: Children-at-risk and how to protect them?

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