Advancing Child Protection through Respecting Children's Rights: A Shifting Emphasis for School Psychology

By Fiorvanti, Christina M.; Brassard, Marla R. | School Psychology Review, December 2014 | Go to article overview

Advancing Child Protection through Respecting Children's Rights: A Shifting Emphasis for School Psychology


Fiorvanti, Christina M., Brassard, Marla R., School Psychology Review


International approaches to child protection are undergoing a major paradigm shift from protecting children from immediate harm, typically after the fact, with narrowly focused interventions that have the potential to do more harm than good (e.g., Lawrence, Carlson, & Egeland, 2006; Melton, 2005), to promoting children's short- and long-term holistic well-being through universal prevention and policy initiatives. "A child rights-based approach to child caregiving and protection requires a paradigm shift towards respecting and promoting the human dignity and the physical and psychological integrity of children as rights-bearing individuals rather than perceiving them primarily as 'victims'" (United Nations [UN] General Assembly, 2011, p. 3; this citation refers to General Comment 13 on Article 19, hereafter referred to as "General Comment 13"). Current practice has sought to mitigate the impact of violence and abuse by intervening quickly and appropriately after the fact. The new mission is to prevent the violence before it occurs through valuing all children and promoting their full development by educating individuals, teaching skills, monitoring progress, and delivering effective support services.

Much of the impetus for this change has come from international children's rights organizations, including the National Association of School Psychologists and Division 16 of the American Psychological Association, and the nearly worldwide adoption of the legally binding human rights treaty the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UN General Assembly, 1989; hereafter referred to as "the Convention"). The Convention asserts children's rights to survival, dignity, well-being, health, and development.

Concurrently, other influential groups (e.g., Institute of Medicine of the National Academies and the American Psychological Association) are advocating for a similar paradigm shift, arising out of the recognition that a broad conceptualization of child protection as proactive and preventive is the only viable approach for promoting positive child development. This recognition is driven by the impressive amount of evidence indicating that the biopsychosocial contexts in which children develop have a powerful impact on psychological and health outcomes throughout the life span.

A major report by the U.S. Institute of Medicine (National Research Council & Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, 2009) documented the overwhelming evidence that psychological and behavioral problems co-occur and stem largely from the same preventable conditions, including (a) aversive social conditions, particularly all forms of parental abuse and other hostile interpersonal interactions, such as exposure to marital discord, peer victimization, and harsh school discipline; (b) biological toxic conditions, such as lead exposure, alcohol use during pregnancy, and poor nutrition; and (c) poverty (Biglan, Flay, Embry, & Sandler, 2012). A number of longitudinal studies have found a graded relationship between similar preventable negative experiences in childhood and poor mental and physical health (including heart disease, depression, obesity, cancer, and chronic lung disease), as well as level of functioning in adulthood (e.g., Caspi, Harrington, Moffitt, Milne, & Poulton, 2006; Felitti et al., 1998; Horwitz, Widom, McLaughlin, & White, 2001; Kessler, Davis, & Kendler, 1997; Schilling, Aseltine, & Gore, 2007).

Children exposed to toxic stressors such as child maltreatment, a mentally ill or substance-abusing parent, or domestic violence have altered brain development, including neuroendocrine and immune functioning implicated in impaired ability to learn, as well as adult chronic diseases (see Jaffee & Christian, 2014, for a recent review). Animal and human studies are rapidly identifying the mechanisms through which childhood experiences become biologically embedded, including evidence from neuroscience, epigenetics, molecular biology, and genomics (Shonkoff & Fisher, 2013). …

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