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The determinants and influence of size on residential settings for children

Selma Chipenda-Dansokha

Scholars find that economic, ideological, and intellectual factors, rather than considerations about optimal child development have historically been the main determinants of the size of residential settings (Parker, 1988).

Economic considerations have resulted in the creation of both large and small institutions. On the one hand, public or semi-public agencies with access to funding and serving relatively large populations have tended to view large facilities, often built on inexpensive land and outside of urban centers, as the most cost effective way of using scarce resources. In contrast, many not-for-profit or voluntary initiatives operating with limited resources have tended to establish smaller facilities and to focus on special populations, often those neglected by the public sector. Many of the smaller not-for-profit initiatives could not be sustained over the long term and were taken over by larger organizations targeting broader client populations. Not until the middle of the twentieth century did policy makers and program directors begin to become concerned about institutional size. The focus followed concerns about the quality of care for children, the different needs of boys and girls, the plight of infants, and the poor living conditions in some of the large facilities. However, this concern was not long lived and, in England for example, the interest in size declined once residential nurseries, which had been highly criticized for their neglect of children, were abolished in the 1970s.

Ideological factors have also influenced the size of establishments. In nineteenth-century England for example, large institutions (such as ones with large chapels) were created to support certain ideological causes, often with the goal of recruitment or conversion. Also, tensions between religious sects sometimes led to efforts to increase visibility through the construction of large buildings or attempts to socialize children into specific ways of thinking or behaving. As religious or national ethos and ethnic homogeneity has declined in countries such as England, Hungary, and Israel, so has the size of living groups for children (Kashti & Arieli, 1986; Kashti, 1998). The goal of the placement and theories about the amount of care needed by children in different settings have also been a strong determinant of the size of the institutions and the sub-units within them (Tizard et al., 1975), and within sectors there is a reasonable amount of consistency in the size of facilities. In the United States and England for example, youth correction facilities, hospitals, and residential educational facilities tend to be larger than those caring for children with special educational, behavioral, or psychological needs.

These historical trends are strong, and organizations – once established – tend to maintain their relative size. For example, in a study of 150 boarding schools in England ranging in size from 60 to 1,400 students, Lambert, Millham and Bullock (1975) found no examples of plans to radically alter a school’s size and staff, and pupils were relatively unconcerned by the issue. Institutions may make some adjustments in response to changes in funding or ideology, but these changes tend to be minor or incremental, and the relative size of institutions across sectors (e.g., prisons compared to boarding schools, and mental health facilities compared to child welfare placements) has remained fairly consistent.

More recently, two schools of thought (one philosophical and the other psychological), have produced an intellectual justification for the current trend toward smaller living groups. The philosophical influence is the growing strength of individualism in Western societies and a move away from collective socialization and group indoctrination. This is manifest in an increasing sensitivity to the needs of individual children, the categories of need used to fashion plans for them, and the obligation to try to meet needs effectively. It is also apparent in changing societal goals for ‘needy’ children. For example, children’s services at one time were focused on encouraging religious belief or preparing for military or domestic work. Today, concerns revolve around providing safety, allowing self-expression, encouraging family links, and improving social adjustment.

The psychological justification has been fueled by evidence accumulated since the Second World War on the negative effects of separation of children from their birth families. Of all the factors discussed so far, this has arguably had the greatest impact on views about the size of living groups and residential placements for younger children. This subject is complex and deserves a summary in its own right and will not be fully explored here, but on the whole research points to the potentially damaging effects of extended separation from families on children, which diminish with age (Rutter, 1981).


Kashti, Y (1998) Boarding schools at the crossroads of change: The influence of residential education on national and societal development. New York: Haworth Press

Kashti, Y & Arieli, M. (1986) People in institutions: The Israeli scene. London: Freund

Lambert, R; Millham, S. & Bullock, R. (1975) The chance of a lifetime? A study of boarding education. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson

Parker, R. (1988). An historical background. In National Institute for Social Work, Residential Care: The research reviewed. London: HMSO pp.1-38

Rutter, M (1981) Maternal deprivation reassessed. New York: Penguin Books

Tizard, J.; Sinclair, I. & Clarke, R. (1975) Varieties of residential experience. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Chipenda-Dansokha, S. (2003). The determinants and influence of size on residential settings for children.
International Journal of Child and Family Welfare. Vol.6 No.3. pp. 67-68

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