Since the pioneering work of Emmy Werner (1977, 1982, 1992, 2001),Michael Rutter (1985), and other researchers, children who fared well despite adversity have intrigued early childhood professionals. These children have been characterized as “resilient,” referring to their capacity to achieve positive outcomes despite stress and adversity. For example, in her classic study of Hawaiian children, Emmy Werner found that one third of the children characterized by age two as high risk, due to the presence of four or more significant risk factors (e.g., perinatal complications, chronic poverty, and parental alcoholism), did not experience negative life outcomes. These children, who have been studied for more than 50 years, became loving, caring, responsible adults. Some children have also proved resilient in the face of other severe stressors such as war and natural disasters, high-crime neighborhoods, parental mental illness, and even child abuse and neglect (see Masten, Best & Garmezy, 1991 for a review).
As more was learned about these resilient children, certain characteristics began to be identified that seemed to result in resilience. These characteristics are referred to as “protective factors” and have been defined as, “individual and environmental characteristics that are thought to moderate or buffer the negative effects of stress and result in more positive behavioral and psychological outcomes in at-risk children than would have been possible in their absence” (Masten & Garmezy, 1985). Essentially, protective factors offset or balance the effects of risk and adversity. Children who possess these protective factors tend to have positive outcomes despite stress and are often characterized as “resilient.” Children whose protective factors are lacking or underdeveloped are more likely to develop emotional and behavioral problems under similar risk conditions and are often described as “vulnerable.”
Garmezy (1985) has suggested that protective factors can be divided into three categories: 1) a supportive family environment, 2) external support systems (e.g., quality child care programs), and 3) dispositional attributes of the child. The last category refers to characteristics of the child and includes constructs such as temperament, intelligence, personality, and behavioral traits. In relationship to the DECA-I/T, dispositional attributes are referred to as “within-child” characteristics. Interventions premised on strengthening protective factors in young children have shown promise in reducing the subsequent occurrence of negative outcomes, such as severe emotional and behavioral disorders. Typical interventions include providing children with the opportunity to establish relationships with supportive, caring adults; developing parent training programs that offer family-centered support and strategies to promote resilience (Rak & Patterson, 1996); and teaching caregivers to encourage the development of independence, self-esteem, and self-efficacy in young children (Brooks, 1994).
The development, refinement, and replication of effective early care and education programs for enhancing protective factors, as well as the expansion of the knowledge base related to the interaction of risk and resiliency in child development had been limited by the lack of a well-developed, empirically sound and widely available measure of within child protective factors until the publication of the Devereux Early Childhood Assessment (DECA) (LeBuffe & Naglieri, 1999). The DECA, which has been widely adopted in preschool programs, provides a norm referenced, standardized measure of within child protective factors in children ages two through five. However, to date no adequate measure of child behaviors related to resiliency for infants or toddlers exists.
This inhibits early care and education professionals from building programmatic supports within the care setting to nurture protective factors for all children. In addition to hindering program development, the lack of such an instrument has made it difficult to reliably identify individual infants and toddlers who may have “low” protective factors and, therefore, are at increased risk of developing social, emotional, and behavioral disorders. Identifying these children is particularly important, in that they might benefit most from resiliency-enhancing interventions. Over the past decade, the Devereux Foundation has found a way to address these needs.