ACYF Framework for Social and Emotional Well-Being

There are various constructs, or frameworks, that have been designed to present, in an easily understood fashion, how both healthy and impaired functioning affects children across multiple domains of their lives and relates directly to how they interact with others and function on a daily basis.  Many of these frameworks describe "domains of functioning" that have some commonality or overlap with other constructs.

The framework developed by the Administration on Children, Youth, and Families (ACYF) focuses on social and emotional well-being.  The framework, which is adapted from the research of Lou, Anthony, Stone, Vu, & Austin (2008), establishes four well-being domains across which a child's functioning can be assessed, and provides for flexibility and refinement, depending on the age and developmental level of the child.  For instance, independent living skills are indicators of well-being only for older youth.  The framework’s purpose is to present a way for child welfare agencies to understand and promote well-being that is aligned with ACYF’s overall focus on system change, and, as such:

  • Engages in continuous quality improvement (CQI) of child/youth functioning
  • Takes a proactive approach to social and emotional needs
  • Uses developmentally specific interventions
  • Focuses on child and family outcomes
  • Promotes healthy relationships for children and youth

In their research, Lou et al. found that some of the existing well-being frameworks were either too focused on deficits or did not account for the child’s resilience or environmental supports.  ACYF’s framework addresses these concerns, incorporating two intermediate outcome domains, “environmental supports” and “personal characteristics,” into the overall framework to illustrate factors that may influence a child’s ability, positively or negatively, to cope with trauma.  Environmental supports include family income, family social capital, and community factors such as neighborhood.  Personal characteristics include the child's temperament, cognitive ability, identity development, and self-concept.  The various factors within these two intermediary domains are related to the child’s protective and coping factors.

Well-Being Domains

The four Well-Being Domains of the ACYF framework are:

  • Cognitive functioning, which includes competencies such as language development, approaches to learning, problem-solving skills, academic achievement, school engagement, and school attachment
  • Physical health and development, which incorporates the normative standards for growth and development, gross and fine motor skills, overall health, and risk-avoidance behavior related to health
  • Emotional/behavioral functioning, which includes competencies such as self-control, emotional management and expression, internalizing and externalizing behaviors, trauma symptoms, self-esteem, emotional intelligence, self-efficacy, motivation, prosocial behavior, positive outlook, and coping
  • Social functioning, which is defined by social competencies, attachment and caregiver relationships, social skills, and adaptive behavior

The components that make up these domains directly relate to how children live their day-to-day lives, or how they deal with frustrations, cope with tasks and responsibilities, and interact with others.  In addition, the ACYF framework assesses functioning across the domains according to the child’s age and developmental stage, as per these four stages:

  • Infancy (0-2)
  • Early childhood (3-5)
  • Middle childhood (6-12)
  • Adolescence (13-18)

Cognitive Functioning

The effects of maltreatment can linger long after the neglect or abuse occurs.  Because caregivers have such a critical role in fostering children’s cognitive development, the sensory deprivation caused by caregiver neglect appears to be particularly detrimental to the cognitive development of young children.  Many neglected infants and toddlers demonstrate delays in language development, as well as deficits in overall intellectual ability.

Research has consistently found that maltreatment increases the risk of low academic achievement and problematic school performance.  School performance is also significantly associated with a child's ability to regulate emotional responses and interact competently with peers and authority figures, abilities that are adversely affected by complex trauma.  This may be manifested in the child as over-reliance on teachers for completion of tasks, reluctance to try challenging or new tasks, and poor relationships with classmates.

In early elementary school, maltreated children may show short attention spans and an inability to concentrate and organize thoughts or conform to the structure of the school setting.  In middle school, children affected by complex trauma are more likely to face disciplinary actions.  By adolescence, maltreated children may show problems with abstract reasoning and problem solving.  Also, because of their ongoing behavioral issues, they may experience more frequent disciplinary action.  Consequently, they may disengage academically.

Physical Health and Development

Aside from the obvious effects of serious injuries, like broken bones or brain injuries, and possible resulting disabilities from physical abuse, the physical pain from other types of abuse will eventually pass.  However, maltreated children frequently experience additional kinds of physical issues, such as failure to thrive (delayed weight gain and growth) and even brain damage, stunted growth, and mental retardation from chronic malnutrition.  Because neglected and emotionally abused children must focus their mental energies on having their primary needs met, they cannot spend adequate time in motor activities and explorations.  Consequently, delays in their physical development are not uncommon.

report completed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services indicated that maltreated children from birth to 36 months are at substantial risk of experiencing developmental problems.  The level of risk for developmental delay remains high even years after the initial maltreatment.  Infants and toddlers who are neglected may exhibit poor muscle tone, delays in fine and gross motor skills, poor coordination and muscle control, and delays in reaching developmental milestones.  They may be difficult to soothe and may have small stature.  They may also be chronically ill; many have upper respiratory infections and digestive problems.

Trauma-affected children, particularly preschoolers, may also regress in their development and lose skills they had previously mastered.  For example, toilet-trained children may suddenly lose their ability to control their bladders and have to re-learn toileting control.  Maltreated children of school age may show general delays in physical development, with awkward gait and motor movement, poor coordination and muscle tone, speech and language difficulties, and low levels of strength as compared to their peers.  They may also lack the coordination and skills necessary for perceptual-motor activities, such as playground activities or sports.  As maltreated children enter their adolescent and teen years, they may begin to participate in risky behaviors such as smoking, promiscuous and/or unsafe sex, picking fights, and substance abuse, all of which may further affect their well-being.

The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE), an ongoing, decade-long collaboration between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente’s Department of Preventive Medicine, addresses the effects of childhood experiences on adult health.  Findings show that children who experienced adversity such as neglect, physical and sexual abuse, or exposure to domestic violence may likely have health problems in adulthood as a result.  The study states that there is “a powerful relationship between our emotional experiences as children and our physical and mental health as adults.”  In other words, the effects of childhood trauma and maltreatment that distort children's lives can last for a lifetime.

Behavioral/Emotional Functioning

Children affected by trauma may present a variety of emotional issues.  They may have experienced ongoing assault to their self-esteem from blaming or humiliating messages from a caregiver, or from lack of positive attention in a neglectful environment.  They may feel powerless, vulnerable, exploited, and unlovable.

Because capacities to safely express emotions and to regulate emotional experiences are linked, children exposed to complex trauma may show impairment in both of these skills due to neurological deficits and resort instead to maladaptive coping behaviors such as dissociation or emotional detachment to avoid further pain and anxiety.  Dissociation can occur to varying degrees; in its most intense form, children may emotionally separate from their bodies during a traumatic event and become unaware of their surroundings.  Following the trauma, memories of that experience may trigger the dissociative reaction.  Other maladaptive coping behaviors include avoidance, which is withdrawal from a stressor or situation, and substance use or abuse. 

Children exposed to trauma may also be “internally agitated" and display hyper-vigilance, an exaggerated startle response, a fast heart rate, and increased muscle tone.  They may also have great difficulty maintaining a state of internal calm.  Many traumatized children are diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which may bring with it any number of these effects as well as panic attacks.  Other common emotional and psychological effects of trauma are attention problems, bed-wetting, concentration problems, sexual reactivity, and acting out.  The traumatized child may suffer from insomnia, depression, eating disorders, inability to concentrate, and self-mutilation.  Additionally, a maltreated child may experience excessive loneliness, paranoia, lack of interest in daily activities, and poor relationships with others.

Because trauma-affected children may have multiple emotional issues and deficits, behavioral problems are not uncommon.  Children who have experienced trauma may react with apathy, defiance, aggression, cruelty, and even rage in their day-to-day lives; they may appear unreceptive to treatment and efforts to intervene, and may be difficult for caregivers and teachers to manage.  These children tend to have more placement changes in care, and caseworkers may be inclined to blame them for taxing caregivers to the point that the child's removal is requested.  Many maltreated children exhibit emotional problems to the extent that a mental health diagnosis is made.  Thus, it is critical that child welfare agencies screen for and assess trauma, and employ evidence-based, trauma-focused treatments for children in care.

Social Functioning

Social functioning is yet another aspect of a child’s life that may be negatively affected by maltreatment.  The ability to become emotionally attuned to others and regulate emotions, otherwise referred to as "social competence," encompasses the capability to take another person's perspective, share experiences and learn from them, and apply that learning to further interactions with others.  This ability to communicate and relate effectively to others is the building block for future interactions with people in all walks of life.

Because of their early negative experiences and possible alterations in neurological development, many maltreated children lack the capacity for basic trust in others and find it difficult to form appropriate friendships.  The traumatized child may feel inferior and incapable around other children and may be overwhelmed by peer expectations of academic, social, and athletic performance.  This can lead to the child becoming detached and withdrawn.  Trauma-affected children may also be impulsive, have emotional outbursts, and experience difficulty in deferring gratification.  Schoolmates may view them with dislike and derision, and they may become scapegoats among peers. 

Some maltreated children, particularly those who have experienced complex trauma, have difficulty learning basic social skills and may either over-comply with or defy authority figures.  They may also be extremely shy and passive or, on the other hand, may employ aggression to solve interpersonal issues.  In addition to their social awkwardness, trauma-affected children may have low self-esteem and be easily victimized by both peers and adults.  These social difficulties, if left untreated, may affect children throughout their adult lives.