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Theses Doctoral

On Becoming a Foster Child: An Ethological Study of the Behaviors of Children

Sperr, Inez Lorraine

A short-term longitudinal study was undertaken to explore the process of settling-in to foster home care as reflected in the patterned sequences in the behaviors of 29 children. The 16 boys and 13 girls, ranging in age from two to 15 years, were received into the care of six voluntary agencies serving New York City in 1971. The sampling plan included only children who were experiencing their first formal placement and who were received directly into foster care without an interim period in congregate care facilities.

Foster mothers, the principal respondents, were considered participant-observers. Data consisted of their detailed descriptions of the way the children behaved in a wide variety of everyday situations during the first 24 hours of placement and thereafter at two-week intervals from the second to the eighth week, and their responses to the child behavior characteristics schedule and to a list of symptoms of physical and behavioral disturbances. In addition, the behaviors of the children were observed in the foster home at the time of the first and the final interviews, and the social workers reported their observations. Background data were gathered from agency case records. Initial and final interviews were conducted by telephone. Initial interviews were made as soon after placement as feasible.

In the analysis of the data each child's temperament or behavioral style was identified according to nine formal categories of behavioral reactivity: activity level, approach-withdrawal tendencies, mood, intensity, adaptability, response threshold, distractibility, attention span - persistence, and rhythmicity, The process of adjustment posited by the crisis concept, the prevalence of symptoms of physical and behavioral disturbance, the foster mothers' interpretations of the children's behaviors and their assessments of both the seriousness of the children's problems and the ease or difficulty of rearing the children were examined in relation to temperament.

The findings highlight the individuality of the behavioral response patterns of the children and the complexity of the process of adjustment to foster care. All children exhibited behaviors characteristic of some or all of the four phases of adjustment posited by the crisis concept (pre-protest, protest, despair, detachment) and the phases appeared to be sequential, but there was great variation among the children in the duration of each of the phases and in the intensity with which each was expressed. No two children had identical patterns of temperament. Findings suggest that the children at risk of failure of the placement included those who exhibited various combinations of negative mood, intensity of response, irregularity in habits or bodily functions, persistence and non-distractibility, slow adaptation to changes in the environment, and a tendency to withdraw from anything new. There appeared to be a tendency to interpret their behaviors as manifestations of stubbornness and defiance, emotional problems, or learning problems rather than as expression of behavioral style. Findings suggest, also, that the tendency of older children to delay engaging the process of adjustment might place them at risk. When there was a long delay between the event of placement and the appearance of behaviors characteristic of the protest phase of adjustment the behaviors tended to be interpreted as manifestations of breakdown in the relationship between child and foster family rather than as expression of the process of adjustment.

Crisis formulations concerning adaptation to environmental change, and temperament or behavioral style appear to be concepts potentially useful to social work practice in child placement. Implications of an ethological approach to the study of the behaviors of foster children were discussed.


More About This Work

Academic Units
Social Work
Thesis Advisors
Fanshel, David
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 4, 2015