Risk factors for educational outcomes of children in care

To tackle a social problem, we need to know the underlying risk and protective factors. My PhD research looks at the risk and protective factors for the educational outcomes of children in care.

I have completed two systematic reviews of research:

What is the relationship between being in care and educational outcomes?  (full download available)

What are the factors associated with educational attainment of children in foster or kinship care? (academic journal article)

I am also investigating the role of carers in promoting educational success.

Aoife O’Higgins

What are risk and protective factors?

Risk factors are characteristics of children or their families or environments, which make it more likely that a bad outcome will occur. Poverty is a major risk factor for poor educational outcomes for example.

The presence of promotive factors result in good outcomes of all children, whereas we refer to protective factors if these lead to a positive outcome in the presence of adversity. For example, strong friendships are likely to promote positive outcomes for all (or most) teenagers; in this case strong friendships are a promotive factor. For children who have experienced some kind of traumatic event, strong friendships may not have the same effect, so while they may be promotive they are not protective. If a well trained and supportive carer is able to buffer the effects of maltreatment, the presence of that carer may be a protective factor against the effects of maltreatment.

Researchers use many different terms to describe these phenomena. For further details, see Luthar, S. S., Cicchetti, D., & Becker, B. (2000). The construct of resilience: a critical evaluation and guidelines for future work. Child Development, 71(3), 543–62.

What is the relationship between being in care and educational outcomes? Systematic Review

‘Being in care’ is a diverse experience and children in care are a heterogeneous population. What research methodologies should we use understand the relationship between being in care and educational outcomes? This review considers these issues before trying to answer the main question. 

The main findings from Study 1 indicate that there is little evidence to suggest that the care system has a negative effect on educational outcomes. Rather, poor educational outcomes for many young people in care are probably caused by difficult pre-care experiences (maltreatment, persistent poverty). The review also asks whether enough is being done to support educational success for these young people.


Download full report – What is the relationship between being in care and the educational outcomes of children? (pdf)

What are the risk and protective factors for the educational outcomes of children in care? Systematic Review

This paper (Study 2) presents the findings of a systematic review of the factors associated with educational outcomes for children in foster and kinship care. It aims to inform the literature on risk and protective factors and inform the development of future interventions.

Eight major databases and websites were searched between 1990 and 2016 using a combination of mesh terms. Studies were included if they tested the statistical association between any variable and educational outcomes for school age children in foster or kinship care in high-income countries. Children in other placement types were excluded. Titles and abstracts were screened for 7135 studies identified through searches. Full texts were obtained for 298 and 39 were retained for inclusion.

Over 70 factors were identified. For the purposes of the narrative synthesis, factors were categorised into spheres of influence adapted from Bronfennbrenner’s (1979) ecological framework. The findings reveal significant heterogeneity. Male gender, ethnic minority status and special educational needs were consistent predictors of poor educational outcomes, while carers’ and young people’s aspirations appeared to predict greater success. The findings are discussed with implications for future research and practice.

What are the factors associated with educational achievement for children in foster care or kinship care? A systematic review, Children & Youth Services Review, vol 79 August 2017 (198-220)

Investigating the role of carers in promoting educational success

Findings from Study 2 suggest carers play an important role in supporting the educational outcomes for children in care. Study 3 explores this further by analysing a large dataset of children in care for four years continuously. It asks the following questions:

  • What do foster carers do to support the school performance of the children they support?
  • How does school performance of children and young people in care develop over time and what predicts its course?
  • What is the direction of prediction between carer and young people aspirations and school performance?

I am working on data kindly shared by Ontario Children’s Aid Societies and the Centre for Research on Educational and Community Studies (CRECS) at the University of Ottawa. The sample includes 654 teenagers in care between 2010 and 2013 in the Canadian province of Ontario.

This research aims to understand the mechanisms at play in placements and to identify factors which promote educational success in order to inform existing or future interventions for carers.

I hope to work with foster carers to explore the findings in more depth when these become available. If you are interested in this work, please get in touch with me!

Blog Posts

Systematic review of factors associated with education of children in care

What’s in a Name?

Education of children in care, Who is to Blame?