Risk factors for educational outcomes of children in care

To tackle a social problem we need to know the underlying risk and protective factors of that problem. My PhD research looks at the risk and protective factors for the educational outcomes of children in care. I am carrying out two systematic reviews of research:

Is being in care a risk or protective factor for educational outcomes? Findings

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

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

Aoife O’Higgins


Risk and Protective Factors
Risk factor
s 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. Retrieved from http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=1885202&tool=pmcentrez&rendertype=abstract

Systematic Review: Is being in care a risk or protective factor for educational outcomes?

The answer is more complex than a straightforward yes or no. It very much depends on what we mean by ‘being in care’, whether we’re comparing groups of children to each other and how, and what research design is being used to answer the question.

The main findings indicate that there is scant 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 largely influenced 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?

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

I found very few relevant articles initially. Few researchers used the framework of ‘risk and protective factors’.  Instead these ideas were conceptualised as ‘barriers’, challenges’ or ‘opportunities’.
My systematic review was amended to reflect that and aimed to identify all the factors associated with educational outcomes of children in care.

This review found that male gender, older age, minority ethnicity and special educational needs predicted poorer educational outcomes. On placement stability, placement type (foster care versus kinship care), school changes and a range of other factors, evidence was mixed. Carers appear to play an important role in promoting educational success, as suggested by qualitative research, and associated variables may act as protective factors.

This review is being submitted to peer reviewed journals.

Investigating the role of carers in promoting educational success

The second stage of my research aims to explore these questions below and understand how a variety of placement related factors work together – or not – to predict educational outcomes for young people in care.

  • What do carers do to promote educational success?
  • Do parenting practices and quality of their relationships with young people affect educational outcomes?
  • What role do the attitudes, aspirations and behaviours or carers and young people play in predicting educational outcomes?

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 2841 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 (currently anticipated for September 2015). 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

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