Adult and Child Hold Each Others' Hands

Supporting the Developmental and Mental Health Outcomes for At-Risk Children

Adult and Child Hold Each Others' Hands

In this article, we interviewed Dr. Brenda Jones Harden about her research and its implications for future early childhood interventions.  

Could you tell me a little bit about your research and how it relates to child development?

My research focuses on the developmental and mental health outcomes of young children who are at environmental risk. Those risks include being reared in low-income backgrounds and the risks I call “poverty plus” - those to which children in poverty are more vulnerable, such as trauma, maltreatment, and foster care.

My team does a great deal of intervention research, including the evaluation of programs such as home visiting and early childhood education programs. We have implemented and evaluated evidence-based parenting interventions and early childhood mental health interventions. We know that interventions that work for older children may not necessarily work for younger children, so it is important to look at these interventions from a developmental standpoint.

What is something that people may be misinformed about?

Many people think that maltreating and other high-risk parents don’t care about their children, but it is often the case that even parents who maltreat their children truly do want to be good parents. We can use that desire to engage them in parenting interventions that improve their skills and facilitate their responsiveness to their children.  

People also assume that when families have some of these risk factors that children shouldn’t be with their parents. Instead of wanting to “save” children from these families, we should develop effective interventions that help the families be the best they can be. We can’t go in and find new families for all children who have these risk factors, so we should devise strategies that help children remain where they are AND receive better parenting. Of course, there are some situations in which, due to safety reasons, it is best for the child to be removed. However, there are also “grayer” areas in which we can help change parenting behaviors. Our goal is to change the parental trajectory, preferably before the child is even born, such that parents are able to provide the sustenance and nurturance that young children need to survive and thrive.

I try to bring the research to the people that need it, such as practitioners who are working with vulnerable families and children. There are multiple brief research-based interventions that improve parenting outcomes, parenting skills, and child outcomes - the problem is that research often doesn’t translate to practice, or if it does, it is not disseminated widely to the practice community.

Could you talk about some of the interventions that you’ve researched?

The most recent intervention that we examined was Attachment and Biobehavioral Catch-up (ABC). It is short-term, only about 10 sessions, skills-based, and very focused. Clinicians, who are called “parent coaches” in this intervention, provide “in-the-moment” commenting on observed parent behaviors, and have to focus on what those observations mean for development and long-term outcomes. Parent coaches can only address 3 target areas of behavior: "nurturance when children are distressed, following children’s lead when they are not distressed, and avoiding frightening and intrusive behaviors at all times." (Roben, Dozier, Caron, & Bernard, 2017). With my colleague Lisa Berlin, we were able to integrate ABC into Early Head Start programs. The results were positive, so we hope to use it in other areas and programs as well.

We recently completed evaluations of a rural home visiting program that focuses on literacy and pre-literacy skills and of a pre-K expansion program in Baltimore. Currently, we are evaluating a high quality comprehensive early care and quality education program in D.C., and an initiative to improve infant and toddler care in D.C. These interventions are considered primary prevention, and are therefore universally provided to low-income families and children. On the other hand, ABC (the intervention described in detail above) is considered secondary because it is designed for those who are already experiencing risk factors (e.g., compromised parenting). Our next step is to work on implementing and evaluating tertiary programs, those that would target people who already have been identified with a problem. An example of that would be an intervention to help reunite a family that has had a child removed and placed in foster care.  

Is there anything else that you’d like to tell us about your work?

I think it is important to note that I started this work as a clinician, which inspired my interest in these children and families. I consider myself a scientist-practitioner, so I am invested in using the research to inform practice. Thus, my main career goal is to use science to inform how people work with these children and families, and ultimately to inform the policies that undergird services for vulnerable children and families.



Roben, C., Dozier, M., Caron, E., & Bernard, K. (2017). Moving an evidence-based parenting program into the community. Child Development, 88(5), 1447-1452. doi:10.1111/cdev.1289

Dr. Brenda Jones Harden is a Faculty Associate with CECEI and a Professor in the Department of Human Development and Quantitative Methodology. Her projects with CECEI include Project CHATT, a parenting intervention to improve the language skills of young children from low-income families, and the evaluation of the Quality Improvement Network (QIN) initiative to enhance the quality of infant/toddler care in the District of Columbia. Dr. Jones Harden is also a member of the CECEI Executive Committee.

The Center for Early Childhood Education and Intervention conducts high quality research on early childhood education and early intervention programs. Visit our website to learn more. You can follow us on X at @CECEIatUMD.