Effect of foster care on language learning: Findings from the Bucharest Early Intervention program
Post written by Jennifer Windsor, University of Minnesota, USA based on an article from the latest issue of Journal of Child Language
Many young children live in institutional and orphanage care across the world. Children’s language skills may be substantially affected if that care involves a very poor physical and social environment, although the adverse effects may be reduced when children move to a more enriched environment. One of the key questions has been how the age at which children are placed in a more nurturing environment after sub-optimal institutional care affects their short- and long-term language skills. The answer to this question has significant implications for understanding child development and also for framing early intervention services for young children.
The Bucharest Early Intervention Project is a randomized controlled study of the effects of high-quality foster care on the development of children who have experienced sub-optimal institutional care. The researchers previously have shown that children placed in foster care by age 2 years have substantially stronger preschool language outcomes than both children placed after age 2 and children who remain in institutional care. On the other hand, children placed in foster care by 15 months have language skills equivalent to children living in the same community who have never received institutional care.
This study reports on school-age language outcomes for the children, when they were 8 years of age and now living in a range of different care environments. One hundred and five children took part in the study, 54 originally assigned to foster care and 51 originally assigned to continued institutional care. Even though current placements varied, the effects of early institutional care were marked. Children originally in foster care had longer sentences and stronger sentence repetition and written word identification than the children who remained in institutional care during their early lives. Children placed in foster care by age 2 had significant advantages in vocabulary and word identification. As when they were preschoolers; children placed by 15 months had equivalent language skills to other typically developing children in their community. The study shows the continuing adverse effects of early poor institutional care on later language development. It also highlights the key importance of early placement in an enriched environment for robust language skills.