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The Harvard Family Research Project separated from the Harvard Graduate School of Education to become the Global Family Research Project as of January 1, 2017. It is no longer affiliated with Harvard University.

Terms of Use ▼

Julie Boatright Wilson
Harry Kahn Senior Lecturer in Social Policy
Kennedy School of Government
Harvard University

Course Objectives

With the implementation of welfare reform, government's increasing reliance on block grants rather than categorical funding, increasing devolution of responsibility for service delivery to the state and local level, increasing use of contracted services, and growing budget shortfalls at all levels of government, the social safety net in the United States is undergoing rapid transformation. How well the emerging “system” will protect children and support families is unknown. This course is designed to examine current and proposed child and family policies. Specifically, the goals of the course are to enhance students' understanding of (a) the basics of child and family development and the complex nature of childhood risk and resilience; (b) current policies and safety net programs, particularly in the areas of child protection and family strengthening, their evolution over time, and their strengths and weaknesses; and (c) recent reform efforts and new directions in policy.


There are no prerequisites to this course. Because it is designed to provide an overview of the major issues and policy options in the field rather than an in-depth examination of one or two issues, it is appropriate for students with a wide range of backgrounds and experiences. Mid-career students, as well as those in the 2-year programs, are encouraged to consider the course.

Course Outline

The course begins with an introduction to child and adolescent development and the implication of our current understanding of child development for program design and implementation. We will pay particular attention to measuring program effectiveness and exploring issues of taking model programs to scale. We will then examine commonly identified risk factors—poverty, single-parenthood, race and ethnicity, community characteristics—to explore what they explain and don't explain about childhood vulnerability and family well-being. Students will be encouraged to distinguish between risk factors that impact large populations of children and the many factors that shape an individual child's vulnerability and coping capacities.

The course will also examine the history of social welfare policies and programs in this country in an effort to understand how politics, culture, and our understanding of child development influenced policy at various points in our history and how current policies and programs carry this history with them. In addition, students will study recent reform efforts and current innovations, focusing on their observed or anticipated impact on child and family well-being. In discussing these changing programs and policies, we will look closely at how they influence a family's capacity to care for itself and a community's capacity to support children and families.

Class Meetings

This course will meet Tuesdays and Thursdays from 8:40–10am. Class sessions will include lectures, discussions, and debates. One additional session will be scheduled in mid-October to view a 90-minute video. Optional sessions may be held on occasion to meet with academics conducting research and practitioners working on projects or in innovative programs relevant to the topics discussed in class.

Text and Readings

Students should purchase or be certain to have access to:

Davies, D. (1999). Child development: A practitioner's guide. London: The Guilford Press.

Copies are available at the Harvard Coop. All other required readings, with the exception of those with web addresses, will be included in a photocopy package or, if copyright fees are too great, on reserve in the library. Students will be expected to have access to the Internet for some required reading and are encouraged to surf the Web for other relevant materials. At the suggestion of a student group, all readings with websites will be on reserve in the library.

Specific Requirements

Students will be expected to complete three types of assignments.

Comments on Assigned Readings

For most classes, I have sought to pick out two to four articles or book chapters that seem particularly helpful in thinking about the issue at hand. I have tried not to make the reading too demanding. It is absolutely essential that students read the assignments in advance of class.

One of your assignments is to comment on these readings before class. I ask that prior to class you post on our class website a very brief—no longer than 150 words—communication regarding the readings. In particular, I ask that you tell us what you took to be the most important insights from the readings, where you might disagree with the authors, and what issues you would particularly like to discuss in class. Occasionally I may post specific questions for you to answer. There are 24 classes, excluding the first class. I will expect students to provide these emails for at least 19 of these classes. Comments on assignments for Tuesday's classes are due by 5pm the Monday before class. Comments on assignments for Thursday's classes are due by 5pm the Wednesday before class. Comments should be posted on the class website and I encourage you to build on one another's comments.

Required Memo

Each student will be required to complete an assignment for the March 16th class. The specifics of the assignment will be provided later, but the topic will address the role of government in promoting marriage.

Additional Memos

Each student will complete two additional short papers (memos or op eds) over the course of the semester. Each of these should be no more than 500 words. You will have six potential topics and dates and may select the assignments based on the topics that interest you or the dates that best fit your schedule.

Final Paper

Each student will be required to write a policy paper that analyzes a specific proposal or policy option. These papers may be either individual or small group projects. Individually authored papers should be no more than 15 pages in length; group papers will be longer. Papers will be due May 14th at 5pm. More specific information on paper topics will be available on the course webpage.

Class Participation

Study questions will be provided electronically for all classes and class discussions will rely heavily on the ideas and insights that students bring to class. Therefore, it is crucial that students come to class fully prepared to discuss the assigned materials.

Students will be evaluated on their use of the readings in class discussion and their ability to move the conversation forward. Participation that indicates lack of awareness of the assigned material will not be viewed positively. Likewise, comments that do not move the discussion forward will not be viewed positively.

Our class sessions will probe a number of complex, sensitive topics. Some students may feel uncomfortable joining some discussions in class. Sometimes, as a class, we find we do not have enough time in the class session to cover all the ideas and topics students want to discuss. In addition, many students report that some of their most creative ideas and most important insights come after they have had an opportunity to reflect on the classroom comments of their fellow students. At the suggestion of students, we will use our class webpage to provide an opportunity for continuing our discussion online after class. After-class electronic entries will be considered to be part of your classroom participation.

Determination of Grade

Your grade for the course will be determined as follows:

Pre-class comments on readings – 20%
In-class and post-class comments on readings – 10%
Required memo – 15%
Short memos – 20% (10% each)
Final paper – 35%

Class Schedule

Class 1, February 5th – What Do We Mean by “At Risk”? What Are the Risks We Worry About?

Davies, D. (1999). Child development (chapter 2, pp. 45–83). (For an example of a child at risk, you may want to read chapter 3, pp. 84–107.)
Parker, S., et al. (1998). Double jeopardy: The impact of poverty on early childhood development. The Pediatric Clinics of North America, 35(6), 1227–1240.
Weissbourd, R. (1996) The vulnerable child: What really hurts America's children and what we can do about it (pp. 3–6, 31–45). Addison-Wesley.

Class 2, February 10th – The Argument for Early Intervention: Attachment Theory

Child Development – introduction and chapter 1, pp. 3–44.
Karen, R. (1990, February). Becoming attached. The Atlantic Monthly, pp. 35–70.
Black, J. (1998). How a child builds its brain: Some lessons from animal studies of neural plasticity. Preventive Medicine, 27(2), 168–171.
Kaufman, J., & Charney, D. (2001). Effects of early stress on brain structure and function: Implications for understanding the relationship between child maltreatment and depression. Development and Psychopathology, 13(3), 451–471.

Class 3, February 12th – Stages of Development: Infancy

Child Development – introduction to Part 2 and chapters 4 and 5, pp. 111–168.
Schorr, L. B. (1988). The nurse comes to visit in Elmira. In Within our reach: Breaking the cycle of disadvantage (pp. 169–175). New York: Anchor Press Doubleday.

Class 4, February 17th – Can We Intervene Early?: Evaluations of Prenatal and Infant Home Visiting Programs

Olds, D. (1999). Home visiting: Recent program evaluations. The Future of Children, 9(1). (Note: it is useful to read the chapters in the order below, not consecutively.)

Home for Little Wanderers. (2002). Are we helping? How do we know? Conference proceedings from the first annual national symposium of the Boston Children's Institute of the Home For Little Wanderers. Available at

Class 5, February 19th – Stages of Development: Toddlerhood

Child Development – chapters 6 and 7, pp. 170–224.
Vandall, D. L., & Wolfe, B. (2000). Child care quality: Does it matter and does it need to be improved? Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Available at (Read the introduction. If you are particularly interested in this topic, you may want to read more).
Campbell, N. D., et al. (2000). Be all that we can be: Lessons from the military for improving our nation's child care system. Washington, DC: National Women's Law Center. Available at (You may skim much of this report, but pay particular attention to pp. 9–26).
For some background on military families, see Military Family Resource Center. (2002). Profile of the military community: 2001 demographic report. Arlington, VA: Author. (Particularly Section 3: Active Military Families).
An extensive and useful set of references if you have interests in doing more reading on child care issues can be found at

Class 6, February 24th – Stages of Development: Preschool

Child Development – chapters 8 and 9, pp. 227–292.
Schorr, L. B. (1988). Head start today. In Within our reach: Breaking the cycle of disadvantage (pp. 197–200). New York: Anchor.
Karoly, L. A. (1998). Investing in our children: What we know and don't know about the costs and benefits of early childhood interventions (pp. 37–44). Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation. Available at
Child Trends. (2000). School readiness: Helping communities get children ready for school and schools ready for children. Available at
Haskins, R., & Sawhill, I. (2003). The future of Head Start (Policy Brief, Welfare Reform and Beyond, # 27). Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution. Available at
If you want more information on Head Start or want to review the research about Head Start, go to

Class 7, Feb 26th – Stages of Development: Middle Childhood

Child Development – chapters 10 and 11, pp. 293–365.
Kalt, J. P., Besaw, A., Lee, A., Sethi, J., Wilson, J. B., & Zemler, M. (2003). The context and meaning of family strengthening in Indian America: A report to the Annie E. Casey Foundation (pp. 19–55). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development. (Pay particular attention to pp. 41–55, and Case Study 2: Whirling Thunder Wellness Program, Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska).

Class 8, March 2nd – Stages of Development: Adolescence

Feldman, S. S., & Elliot, G. R. (1990). Peer groups and peer cultures. In At the threshold: The developing adolescent (chapter 7, pp. 171–196). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Child Trends. (2003). 2003 facts at a glance. Washington, DC: Author. Available at
Ryan, S., Manlove, J., & Franzetta, K. The first time: Characteristics of teens' first sexual relationships. Available at
Hotz, V. J., McElroy, S. W., & Sanders, S. G. (1997). The impacts of teenage childbearing on the mothers and the consequences of those impacts for government. In R. Maynard (Ed.), Kids having kids: Economic costs and social consequences of teen pregnancy (pp. 55–94). Washington, DC: The Urban Institute.
Sawhill, I. (2001). What can be done to reduce teen pregnancy and out-of-wedlock births? Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution. Available at
Wertheimer, R., & Moore, K. A. (2000). State policy initiatives for reducing teen and adult non-marital childbearing: Family planning to family caps. Washington, DC: Urban Institute. Available at

Class 9, March 4th – Poverty as a Risk Factor: How Does Poverty Affect Short- and Long-Term Outcomes for Children?

Burtless, G., & Smeeding, T. (2001). The level, trend, and composition of poverty. In Danziger & Haveman (Eds.), Understanding poverty (pp. 27–36). New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Corcoran, M. (2001). Mobility, persistence, and the consequences of poverty for children: Child and adult outcomes. In Danziger & Haveman (Eds.), Understanding poverty (pp. 127–140). New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
McLoyd, V. C. (1998). Socioeconomic disadvantage and child development. American Psychologist, 53, 185–204.
Brooks-Gunn, J., & Duncan, G. J. (1997). The effects of poverty on children. The future of children: Children and poverty, 7(2), 55–71. Available at

Class 10, March 9th – Single-Parenthood as a Risk Factor

Cancian, M., & Reed, D. (2001). Changes in family structure: Implications for poverty and related policy. In Danziger & Haveman (Eds.), Understanding poverty (pp. 69–96). New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Hetherington, E. M., et al. (1989). Marital transitions. American Psychologist, 44(2), 303–312.
McLanahan, S. (1997). Parent absence or poverty: Which matters more? In Duncan & Brooks-Gunn (Eds.), Consequences of growing up poor (chapter 3, pp. 35–48). New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Class 11, March 11th – Fathers and Fatherhood

National Center on Fathers and Families. (1990). The fathering indicators framework: A tool for quantitative and qualitative analysis. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania. Available at
Edin, K., Nelson, T. J., & Paranal, R. (2001). Fatherhood and incarceration as potential turning points in the criminal careers of unskilled men (Institute for Policy Research Working Paper). Boston, MA: Northwestern University. Available at
National Center for Children in Poverty, Columbia University. (1999). Map and track: State initiatives to encourage responsible fatherhood. New York: Author. Available at

Class 12, March 16th – Marriage as a Policy Option: Can the Government Be Neutral About Marriage

Gardiner, K. N., Fishman, M. E., Nikolov, P., Glosser, A., & Laud, S. (2002). State policies to promote marriage: Final report. Washington, DC: Department of Health and Human Services. Available at
Acs, G., & Nelson, S. (2002). The kids are alright? Children's well-being and the rise in cohabitation (New Federalism, Series B, No. B-48). Washington, DC: The Urban Institute.
Institute for Research on Poverty. (2002). Expectations about marriage among unmarried parents: New evidence from the Fragile Families Study. Focus, 22(2), 13–18.
Myers, S. L. (2003, September 12). Returning from Iraq war not so simple for soldiers. The New York Times, pp. 1, A-12.
Mincy, R. B., & Huang, C-C. (2002). The “M” word: The rise and fall of interracial coalitions on fathers and welfare reform. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, Center for Research on Child Wellbeing. Available at

Class 13, March 18th – Race and Ethnicity as Risk Factors

McBride, J. Black power (chapter 4, pp. 21–36). The color of water: A black man's tribute to his white mother.
Steele, C. M. (1999, August). Thin ice: “Stereotype threat” and black college students. The Atlantic Monthly, pp. 44–47.
Suarez-Orozco, M. (2000). Everything you ever wanted to know about assimilation but were afraid to ask. Daedalus: Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 129(4), 1–30.

Class 14, March 23rd – Ethnicity and Culture: What Do We Mean by Cultural Competence in Service Delivery?

Small, M., & Newman, K. (2001). Urban poverty after “The Truly Disadvantaged”: The rediscovery of the family, the neighborhood, and culture. Annual Review of Sociology, 27, 23–45.

Class 15, March 25th – Neighborhood as a Risk Factor

Furstenberg, F. (1993). How families manage risk and opportunity in dangerous neighborhoods. In W. J. Wilson (Ed.), Sociology in the public agenda (pp. 231–258). Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.
Gephart, M. A. (1997). Neighborhoods and communities as contexts for development. In J. Brooks-Gunn, G. J. Duncan, & J. L. Aber (Eds.), Neighborhood poverty: Context and consequences for children (vol. 1, pp. 1–43). New York: Russell Sage.
Epstein, H. (2003, October 12). Enough to make you sick?: Something is killing America's urban poor. New York Times Magazine. Available at

Class 16, April 8th – Rethinking Resiliency: What Are the Points of Leverage for Public Policy?

Egeland, B., & Carlson, E. (1993). Resilience as process. Development and Psychopathology, 5(4), 517–528.
Zimmerman, M. A., & Arunkumar, R. (1994). Resiliency research: Implications for schools and policy. Social Policy Report: Society for Research in Child Development, 13(4), 1–17.
Williams, N. R., Lindsey, E. W., Kurtz, P. D., & Jarvis, S. (2001). From trauma to resiliency: Lessons from former runaway and homeless youth. Journal of Youth Studies, 4(2), 232–253.

Class 17, April 8th – The Origins of Social Welfare in America

Katz, M. B. (1996). In the shadow of the poorhouse: A social history of welfare in America, Part II: Building the semi-welfare state. (Read chapter 5, Saving Children, pp. 117–150 and chapter 9, The War on Poverty and the Expansion of Social Welfare, pp. 259–281.)

Class 18, April 13th – The New Landscape of Income Support and Its Impact on Children

Morris, P. A., Huston, A. C., Duncan, G. J., Crosby, D. A., & Bos, J. M. (2001). How welfare and work policies affect children: A synthesis of research. New York: MDRC. Available at
Gennetia, L. A., Dundan, G. J., Knox, V. W., Vargas, W. G., Clark-Kauffman, E., & London, A. S. (2002). How welfare and work policies for parents affect adolescents: A synthesis of research. New York: MDRC. Available at
Weissbourd, R. (2002). Why our efforts to help children fail. In Are we helping? How do we know? Conference proceedings for the first annual national symposium of the Boston Children's Institute of the Home For Little Wanderers. Boston: The Home for Little Wanderers. Available at

Class 19, April 15th – Child Protective Services

Pecora, P., Whittaker, J., & Maluccio, A. (2000). The child welfare challenge (pp. 128–170). New York: Aldine de Gruyter.
Newberger, E. (1983). The helping hand strikes again: Unintended consequences of child abuse reporting. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 12(3), pp. 307–311.
Wilson, J. (1994). Reports and investigations of alleged child abuse and neglect: Excerpts from one month of reports at one local agency (working manuscript, pp. 1–33).

Class 20, April 20th – Family Preservation and Permanency Planning: What Are the Best Interests of the Child?

Gelles, R. (1999). Family preservation and child maltreatment. In R. B. McKenzie (Ed.), Rethinking orphanages for the 21st century (pp. 47–62). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Weisman, M. (1994, July). When parents are not in the best interest of the child. Atlantic Monthly, pp. 43–63.
Summary of the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 (P.L. 105-89), Child Welfare League of America. Available at

Class 21, April 22nd – Permanency Planning: Adoption

Wen, P. (2003, August 24). Barbara's story: A mother, her sons, and a choice: State child welfare agency pressures woman to decide her future as a mother. Boston Globe. Available at

Class 22, April 27th – Measuring Outcomes: Contracting for Services

Schorr, L. (1997). A new focus on results. In Common purpose: Strengthening families and neighborhoods to rebuild America (chapter 4, pp 115–139). New York: Anchor Books.
Brown, B., & Corbett, T. (1997). Social indicators and public policy in the age of devolution (Special report No. 71, Parts III and IV, pp.13–42). Madison, WI: Institute for Research on Poverty and School of Social Work. Available at
Behn, R., & Kant, P. (1999). Strategies for avoiding the pitfalls of performance contracting. Public Productivity and Management Review, 22(4), 470–489.

Class 23, May 4th – Going to Scale: Cuyahoga County Early Childhood Initiative

Center on Urban Poverty and Social Change. (2003). Cuyahoga County Early Childhood Initiative Evaluation: Phase 1 final report. Cleveland, OH: Author. Available at

  • Executive Summary (skim)
  • Chapter 1: Introduction: Developing a Comprehensive Community Initiative on Early Childhood
  • Chapter 2: Early Childhood Social and Health Indicators in Cuyahoga County
  • Chapter 3: The Scope and Reach of ECI: Coverage and Connections of ECI Programs
  • Chapter 8: Systems and Policy Change
  • We will divide the remaining chapters among the class, since this is a long report

Class 24, April 29th – Community-Based Initiatives

Thompson, R. (1995). Preventing child maltreatment through social support: A critical analysis. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. (Chapter 2, The Natural Networks of Social Support, and chapter 3, What Is Social Support: Unpacking a Well-Known Concept, pp. 24–65.)
Kubisch, A. C., et al. Voices from the field II: Reflections on comprehensive community change. Washington, DC: The Aspen Institute. Available at

Class 25, May 6th – Who Advocates for Children?

National Center for Children in Poverty. (2003). Strategic communications: A key to improving the lives of children and families. News and Issues, 13(1). Available at

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