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Loving Care Vital for Mental Health of Children in Institutions

Loving Care Vital for Mental Health of Children in Institutions

Young children living in institutions are far more likely to thrive emotionally and face fewer mental health problems when they are placed in the care of nurturing individuals, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Education’s Office of Child Development.

The findings show that institutionalized infants and toddlers who remain in daily contact with responsive and warm professionals display better physical, cognitive, and social development. Once placed with families, these nurtured children tend to be less aggressive and defiant with fewer externalizing behaviors.

“This research shows that the characteristics of typical family life are important contributors to the development of infants and toddlers, even when implemented in an institution,” said Christina J. Groark, lead researcher and a co-director of Pittsburgh’s Office of Child Development.

“The quality and consistency of early caregiver-child interactions appear to be the most important elements of childcare, regardless of whether the children live in an institution or a family.”

Previous research has shown that infants and toddlers who are placed in traditional institutions for extended periods are more likely to exhibit internalizing and externalizing behavioral problems even after being placed into families for some years. However, the new study sought to determine whether positive relationship experiences in these institutions would be associated with improvements in their behavior after transitioning into family care.

“Unfortunately, many children around the world are reared in a regimented fashion by a large number of individuals who provide only the basics of care and support in a businesslike fashion with very little else — no response to crying, no conversation, no play, no hugs,” said Robert B. McCall, one of the study’s lead researchers and a co-director of Pitt’s Office of Child Development.

“The typical neglectful institutional method minimizes sensitive and responsive caregiver-child relationships and produces chronic stress, which leads to higher rates of deficient development and behavioral patterns.”

“Conversely, improved caregiver-child interactions and relationships might be expected to minimize such adverse outcomes, leading to happier and more well adjusted children. We believe these findings are potentially significant to professionals seeking to improve alternative care facilities and train their staff to care for the children in their care.”

The study, conducted with Russian colleagues, observed the children, facilities, and personnel of three separate institutions — also known as Russian Baby Homes — in St. Petersburg, Russian Federation.

Researchers tracked 135 children who had spent at least three months in one of the three institutions. Participating children left the institutions to live with families either during the study or up to six years later and resided in those families for at least one year. The children ranged in age between 18 months and ten years.

For the study, one Baby Home was allowed to conduct business practices as usual — representative of the status quo – -while the other two homes were asked to install specific childcare interventions.

Staff members within the second facility were instructed to interact with the children as if they were their own, expressing warm, caring, and sensitive mannerisms.

The third Baby Home was asked to implement the same parent-like mannerism intervention as well as a series of caregiver-child policy changes. These changes involved reducing the number of different caregivers the child experienced regularly so that the same one or two professionals consistently played a role in the child’s daily life.

In other words, the policy changes implemented in the second and third facilities were designed to mimic parent-child relations as much as possible; in addition, the third Baby Home was made even more “family-like” in operation.

Once the children were placed in domestic families, researchers found that the parents of children from the intervention-implemented institutions rated them as being less indiscriminately friendly with strangers. These children also exhibited less aggressive behavior, especially when compared to children who had experienced more time in the status quo group home.

Source: University of Pittsburgh

Loving Care Vital for Mental Health of Children in Institutions

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2018). Loving Care Vital for Mental Health of Children in Institutions. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 28, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 9 Oct 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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