Social-Ecological Model

About Prevention logoThe factors that precipitate and influence child maltreatment do not exist in isolation, but are interrelated. A widely utilized framework within the field of child maltreatment prevention is the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's Social-Ecological Model[1]. This model serves as a tool to conceptualize the complex interplay between individual, relationship, community, and societal factors and how these factors individually and collectively increase risk or serve to prevent child maltreatment. In order to effectively address child maltreatment, multiple efforts, which focus both within and across levels, need to be implemented. 

social ecological model image 

While it is possible to represent these levels as distinct, they do, in fact, have overlapping aspects. For example, a child's interaction with an individual teacher may fit in the "relationship" level, where the influence of a child's school would fit in the "community" level.     


The first level includes the personal history, biological and social characteristics of the individual child or the individual parent or risk factors which increase the likelihood that child maltreatment could occur. An individual risk factor could be the young age of the child or the fact that the parent is in their teen years. Prevention strategies at this level are often designed to promote changes in attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that ultimately prevent abuse and neglect such as helping parents to have accurate development expectations for their child. The Period of Purple Crying is a Wisconsin Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Board supported program designed to help parents of new babies understand a developmental stage that is not widely understood by providing parents with valuable information on the normal crying curve and the dangers of shaking a baby.


The second level comprises close relationships and social circles which may either increase or reduce the risk of child maltreatment. Examples might include a child who has a parent who is perpetrating domestic violence, a parent experiencing social isolation, or a child who has a strong supportive relationship with an adult other than a parent. Prevention efforts at this level focus on issues like fostering social connections, increasing communication skills, and promoting healthy parenting. The Prevention Board promotes high quality parent education by supporting the implementation of three evidence-based programs, Triple P, Nurturing Parenting, and Effective Black Parenting Program, through its Parent Education for Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Grants.


The third level consists of the settings where families live and work such as schools, workplaces, neighborhoods, child care centers, or faith communities. Influences that impact child maltreatment within community settings include such factors as poverty, safety, quality of schools, and availability of basic resources like food, housing and medical care. Prevention work at this level often targets the social and physical climate with efforts such as helping families to find housing, reducing poverty, or teaching families how to safeguard their children as a means of child maltreatment prevention. The Prevention Board and partners initiated Project GAIN (Getting Access to Income Now), an effort designed to assist families at risk for child maltreatment in accessing economic resources, reducing financial stressors, and increasing income stability for the children and adults in the home.


The fourth level encompasses the influence of various institutions on child maltreatment prevention as well as the societal understandings and conceptualizations that create an environment where conditions that support child maltreatment are accepted or inhibited. One aspect of this level consists of how laws, policies, and resource allocation affect child maltreatment prevention where a prevention strategy could consist of advocating for child maltreatment prevention funding within the state legislature. Social norms and public awareness campaigns are examples of prevention strategies which target social and cultural understandings. Through the efforts of the Prevention Board, the Bringing Protective Factors to Life in Your Work training will be provided across the state to build public awareness of the importance of a strength-based approach to support positive parenting and to promote protective factors among parents, primary caregivers and children so that young people have the opportunity to grow up in safe, stable, and nurturing environments. 

A systems approach to child maltreatment prevention involves supporting an array of efforts that target aspects of each of the different social-ecological levels that affect children. Collaborative effort between service sectors is a vital aspect of the work that the Prevention Board supports. Only by integrating efforts and services between programs, organizations, and institutions is it possible to create the continuum of resources that can address the differing needs within and across social-ecological levels. A significant aspect of this integration is the push to design shared data collection systems in an effort to enhance quality control of programming, advance program effectiveness, and increase the capacity for data sharing.