Welcome to The Future of Children blog. In these blog posts, we highlight findings from our various volumes – making an effort to tie the research and policy recommendations to current affairs.

Please contribute your thoughts. We look forward to an interesting dialogue about the future of children and the various ways we can make that future promising and worthwhile.

Jonathan Wallace, Managing Editor

Higher Autism Rates: What Can Be done?

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The newest data on Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offer an alarming picture of childhood disability in America. Approximately 1 in 68 children who were 8 years old in the 11 participating states in 2010 were identified with ASD. This new estimate is more than twice as high as the earliest estimates from 2000 and 2002. The CDC states that "we don't know what is causing this increase. Some of it may be due to the way children are identified, diagnosed, and served in their local communities, but exactly how much is unknown."

People with ASD can have numerous strengths, but the challenges associated with ASD and other disabilities can be persistent and costly for individuals, families, and society. In the Future of Children issue on Children with Disabilities, Stabile and Allin calculated that the average annual cost (in 2011 dollars) to families of children with disabilities was approximately $10,800, and approximately $19,700 to social programs such as Medicaid and special education.

Even though there might be extra costs early on, Aron and Loprest note that early detection and intervention is crucial, and both sets of authors point out that early detection can provide long-term cost savings. However, some families are not screening their children due to barriers such as limited access and the belief that it's unnecessary. Stabile and Allin emphasize that mental health problems, as opposed to physical disabilities, appear to be particularly associated with negative effects on future wellbeing in adulthood.

Having previously practiced social work in a treatment program for adults with ASD, ADHD, and learning disabilities, I've seen first-hand the difficulties that such adults can experience. These include difficulty developing and maintaining relationships (especially romantic relationships), finding and keeping gainful employment, and having healthy self-esteem after years of being bullied by peers.

With the increased prevalence of ASD among children, policy makers should remember that this is not simply a childhood disability, but a lifelong disorder with potentially significant long-term costs and challenges. Clearly, we need more research to understand the causes of ASD, but the funding and evaluation of expensive interventions to prevent and reduce the negative aspects associated with ASD, and other disabilities, during childhood and early adulthood might be justified given the research found in this Future of Children issue.

Examining For-Profit Colleges

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My graduate school curriculum, in clinical social work, consistently emphasized "self-awareness," or being conscious of one's feelings, beliefs, biases, and overall state of being. I suppose a benefit of this training is that I've developed a habit of trying to recognize and challenge my own biases.

One bias I've had since childhood concerns the role of for-profit colleges. It likely originates from peers who made fun of certain teachers at our elementary school because they had attended for-profit universities. Back then, I thought they were institutions where students bought an easy low-quality degree. More recently, I've considered them overpriced, insufficiently regulated, and limited in educational effectiveness. Now an article by David J. Deming, Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz in the Postsecondary Education issue of the Future of Children that has given me a more nuanced view.

They explain that for-profit colleges have seen a large increase in enrollment during the past fifteen years. Possible explanations for this include overcrowding at community colleges, aggressive marketing strategies, a more career-oriented curriculum, and the ability to quickly expand program capacity for high-demand occupations. Importantly, they enroll a disproportionately high share of disadvantaged and minority students, and those who are less prepared for college.

To me, this doesn't sound too bad. It seems that they help meet the demand for higher education, especially among the disadvantaged, and might even be considered innovative. But there's more to the story.

Graduates of for-profit schools tend to have higher loan balances and default rates than comparable students at nonprofit schools, have lower earnings on average, are less likely to be employed six years after initial enrollment, and are less likely to believe their education was worth the cost. Additionally, a very high portion of for-profit revenue (sometimes close to 90%) is drawn from students' federal financial aid. Partially due to the high cost to taxpayers and students, the federal government recently proposed stricter "gainful employment" regulations that could put schools with poor outcomes at risk of losing federal aid eligibility. If the regulations are implemented, some schools will likely need to restructure their programing to stay in business.

Deming and colleagues come to several conclusions. First, for-profits schools seem necessary to help meet the growing demand for higher education. Second, for-profit colleges generally work best with short, well-defined programs that are occupation-oriented. Finally, since longer programs have the potential to amount to great costs to students, they  need to be well regulated. The authors recommend requiring counseling by an independent third party to ensure that prospective students understand financial aid packages and accompanying obligations, and to restrain aggressive and misleading recruitment practices.

Bias confirmed? Partially, since for-profit colleges tend to be more expensive and seem to need more regulation to help prevent negative outcomes. However, it was unfair of me to believe these were all low-quality degrees, especially given the strengths of for-profit education.

Who Needs Fathers?

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With many children being raised by single mothers today, are fathers becoming dispensable or non-essential? Is child rearing more about the quality of parenting than who provides it?

Not necessarily. In a systematic review of published research on the effects of fathers' absence on children, Future of Children Editor-in-Chief Sara McLanahan and colleagues found that the most rigorously designed studies find negative effects on child wellbeing. The strongest evidence relates to outcomes such as high school graduation, children's social-emotional adjustment, and mental health in adulthood.

But an important consideration is the nature of the parents' relationship. In the Fragile Families issue of Future of Children, Robert I. Lerman describes how the capacities and contributions of unwed fathers fall short of those of married fathers, but this varies by the kind of relationship the father has with the child's mother. Clearly, father-child relationships are crucial, but the quality and stability of these relationships are at risk in fragile families.

Phillip A. Cowan, Carolyn Pape Cowan, and Virginia Knox consider how to tailor existing couple-relationship and father-involvement interventions, which are traditionally intended for married couples, to the needs of unwed parents in fragile families. The authors emphasize that improving the parental relationship, regardless of whether the parents live together, will in turn have a positive effect on fathers' involvement.  Ultimately, improving the parental relationship might also be among the most promising mechanisms of promoting marriage, which in turn could be an important component of reducing family poverty and improving child wellbeing in fragile families. Fathers are needed, and some fathers could use a little help.

Future of Children will return to the topic of parental relationships and the science of marriage with a full issue dedicated to the subject in Fall 2015.

A Counterintuitive Approach to Reducing Poverty

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Can government successfully intervene to raise incomes and reduce poverty? It's a heated but critical question. While social welfare programs, such as SNAP (food stamps) and Medicaid, help lift low-income families out of poverty, in some cases they can produce a disincentive to make more money--known as the "cliff effect"--in which a modest increase in income could mean an equal or greater decrease in welfare benefit. In other words, some families could be worse off financially if they accept a small raise at work.

This is obviously problematic, but what is the solution?

Future of Children author Gordon L. Berlin suggests expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which was created to increase work incentives among the poor by reducing the federal taxes they owe and refunding any leftover tax credit through yearly tax returns. For those filing taxes this year, the maximum EITC for a family with three children is approximately $6,000, while those without children can receive a maximum of approximately $500. As President Obama acknowledged in his 2014 State of the Union Address, "few [policies] are more effective at reducing inequality and helping families pull themselves up through hard work ... but it doesn't do enough for single workers who don't have kids."

Berlin's policy recommendation addresses this concern. He argues for increasing the credit for all low-wage workers aged 21 to 54 who work full time--regardless of whether they have children or whether they are married, though the largest benefits would accrue to two-parent households in which both adults can work full-time. This policy would reduce poverty without distorting work incentives, as the earning supplement would progressively decrease with higher income. In effect, it could help transform a "cliff" into a steady slope of opportunity.

To learn more about this proposed policy, including how it could be paid for, see the Future of Children issue on The Next Generation of Anti-Poverty Strategies. We will return the topic of EITC expansion and how it can help children in our Spring 2014 Future of Children issue, "Helping Parents, Helping Children: Two-Generation Mechanisms."

Preventing Childhood Sexual Abuse

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Chances are that you or someone you know has been sexually abused. David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center, writes in the Future of Children that approximately 3% of children are likely victimized in a single year, and 25-40% of women and 8-13% of men report a history of sexual abuse. Many potentially negative consequences can result from this type of abuse; thus, prevention and treatment should be a matter of public policy.

What type of person sexually abuses a child? The answer might not be what you think. Finkelhor explains that only 14% of sexual abuse victims who come to law enforcement attention are victimized by a stranger, while 26% are victimized by a family member and 60% are abused by someone in the family's social network. And it's not just adults who perpetrate--about a third of abusers are juveniles. Also, only a small percentage of new offenders have a prior record. Luckily, many abusers are relatively low-risk for re-offending once caught.

Some of these figures might seem frightening to parents who feel a lack of control over their children's safety. However, parents can use proactive strategies to protect their children, and if abuse happens, it should be reported promptly (regardless of who the perpetrator is) and followed immediately by professional treatment for victims. Having practiced social work with youth offenders and victims and their families, I understand it can sometimes be difficult to take the matter outside the family, but it really is in everyone's best interest.

Policy makers have tried to alleviate the problem by focusing primarily on offender management (for example, registering sex offenders, conducting background employment checks, controlling where offenders can live, and imposing longer prison sentences) and school-based educational programs (for example, teaching children how to identify dangerous situations, refuse an abuser's approach, and summon help). Surprisingly, there is little evidence to suggest that offender management prevents sexual abuse, despite its popularity. In addition to more research into these practices, Finkelhor recommends using law enforcement resources to catch more undetected offenders and concentrating intensive management efforts on those at highest risk to re-offend. School-based programs, on the other hand, have been shown to achieve some of their goals, but studies are inconclusive about whether these programs actually reduce victimization. For more information on how to prevent child abuse, see the Future of Children issue on Preventing Child Maltreatment.

How Parents Can Reduce Children's Indirect Trauma from the News

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The Boston Marathon bombing, the Sandy Hook School shootings, the September 11 terrorist attacks. What thoughts and feelings come to mind at the mention of these events? That might depend on whether you were there, your personal connection to them, your age at the time, and your news media consumption during the tragedy.

I still remember my school day as an adolescent on September 11, watching non-stop news coverage, feeling despair, confusion, and deep concern for people I didn't even know. Later, these feelings were coupled with hope and inspiration as I heard of profound heroism, all coming together to instill a deeper sense of patriotism and humanity. Yet it was a difficult time that we all had difficulty processing.

News reports of research describe how media exposure during times like these can be linked to acute stress, and sometimes has long-term effects. As Barbara J. Wilson explains in the Future of Children, children might be especially vulnerable to this effect. Continuous coverage of child abductions, war, terrorism, and even natural disasters make it difficult to protect children from disturbing news stories. Children may experience fear, anxiety, and trauma. And parents may not recognize that the symptoms their children manifest--such as physical aches, loss of appetite, nightmares, or clingy or aggressive behavior--are connected to media exposure.

What can parents do?

It depends on the child's age, but all children benefit from limited media exposure and constructive conversations with a calm parent about what's going on. Parents can promote coping strategies, such as exercise, emotional expression, or special play to help deal with frightening images in the media. Older children can be taught that the news overemphasizes crime and violence, and many terrible events, such as child kidnappings, occur infrequently in the real world. For younger children, it might be best to provide physical comfort and turn off the device. Permitting children under the age of eight to see graphic images in the news, even when the TV is on in the background, may present challenges, since it's more difficult to explain these things to younger children. For more information, see the Future of Children issue on Children and Electronic Media.

Making Sense of International Comparisons of Students

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We are regularly exposed to news reports about the results of international tests, in which children's scores in the United States lag behind those of their peers in many other nations in math, reading, and science. The results spur public debate as to why the nation's educational system is "mediocre" or why test results could be meaningless altogether--for instance, China, with very high rankings, reports scores only from the wealthy cities of Shanghai and Hong Kong.

Is it even worth participating in these tests? What can they tell us, if anything, about America's educational system and how to make it better?

In the Future of Children, Daniel Koretz weighs in with some answers. He stresses that these tests do not provide unambiguous information about the effectiveness of American high schools compared to those of other nations. For example, participant countries vary by year, making it difficult to compare U.S. students with an international average, and the varying curriculums and complex sampling designs also pose problems.

Despite their many limitations, Koretz argues there is value in these tests. In using the results, we should consider multiple tests rather than a single source. We should ignore small differences between countries and consider comparing the U.S. to nations that are similar, such as Australia or Canada, or that are particularly high-achieving. Perhaps the most important benefit of testing is the numerous hypotheses that result about what impedes or improves student performance, which can then be tested and evaluated.

While there are certainly more important indicators of student success (e.g., graduation rates, college degrees), test scores offer useful information, which should be considered but not relied on solely. To learn more about how to make sense of test scores and how to improve the educational system, see the Future of Children issue on America's High Schools.

Panels on Military Families

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Since the release of the newest issue of the Future of Children, Military Children and Families, the Brookings Institution and the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University have each held panel discussions of the issue's findings and implications.

A chief focus for Brookings was the issue's accompanying policy brief, which examines the efficacy of prevention programs designed to help families with a service member who has served in a war zone, and offers recommendations on how these programs might be tested and improved. A panel of experts responded to the these recommendations and offered their own thoughts on how to help these families. Full audio and a transcript are available.

Princeton heard from Richard M. Lerner, who summarized the issue and gave recommendations on improving research and practice, and Kristina Callina, who talked about some of her own experiences growing up in a military family. These panelists' remarks are featured in a video. Additionally, not featured in the video, a panel of military couples discussed the challenges and opportunities their families face in areas such as deployment and frequent moves. Interestingly, confirming the findings of FOC authors Patricia Lester and Lieutenant Colonel E. Flake, the couples said that a particularly difficult time for them is when a deployment ends, because of the sudden change in routine and having an additional parent back in the household. Some of them find that a useful strategy is to immediately take a vacation in a neutral place to get back into the swing of things before returning to home life.

To learn more, see the Future of Children issue on Military Children and Families.

What We Can Learn From Military Families

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Future of Children author Ann S Masten writes that the lessons we can learn from military families can potentially help many families inside and outside the military. Military families face unique challenges, but they also share many challenges in common with other Americans, such as finding adequate child care, making ends meet, and educating and disciplining children. With these similarities, military families are uniquely positioned to participate in research that will contribute to basic knowledge about stress, competence, resilience, and child development. Specifically, longitudinal research (that is, research that follows people over time) and intervention research, such as randomized controlled trials, can help us understand how to promote positive adaptation in the context of moves, loss, separation, injury, disability, and other hardships Americans might face.

Furthermore, Anita Chandra and Andrew S. London note that future studies should begin following people before, during, and after military service, and include people who have not served at all. At the very least, military status should be flagged in studies to help researchers better account for military or veteran subpopulations.

What we learn from military families will benefit non-military families, and vice versa. It will be a win-win endeavor. To learn more, see the Future of Children issue on Military Children and Families.

An Invisible Division

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One of the largest subcultures in America is also one of the least visible. Military children and families are everywhere--not just on or near installations. To illustrate, only a handful of counties across the continental United States had not sent Guard and Reserve members to Iraq or Afghanistan by 2011. Even though these families are everywhere, they often do not stand out. Military children do not wear uniforms. We need to develop a community-based model, to increase resilience and minimize health risks among military children.

In the Future of Children, Harold Kudler and Colonel Rebecca I. Porter (U.S. Army) explain that communities of care "extend the responsibility for developing [an] environment of respect and positive expectations from the clinic to the community." With a shortage of mental health professionals, especially in rural areas, it is imperative to intervene at the community level. In order to make communities of care happen, the first step is identification--every clinical program should routinely ask everyone who enters its system, "Have you or has someone close to you served in the military?", and all clinical staff should be taught about military culture and deployment mental health. A next step is to flag military family status in education, employment, and medical records so that it is not overlooked and tailored support can be offered across time. Also, health-care programs and insurance companies could offer incentives to providers to take military history as a way to improve health outcomes and perhaps reduce costs through better treatment. Additionally, clinical programs competent in working with military families should register their names and basic information in the National Resource Directory to help increase accessibility to community resources.

As Kudler and Porter note, perhaps "the secret of creating communities of care for military children is creating communities that care about military children." To learn more see the Future of Children issue on Military Children and Families.

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