Building Co-Regulation Capacity to Support Positive Development for Youth with Foster Care Experience

Publication Date: August 27, 2021
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Research Questions

  1. What developmental skills and competencies are addressed in the literature in relation to co-regulation?
  2. How is co-regulation addressed in research and practice with regard to our theoretical model?
  3. In what contexts is co-regulation being applied and by whom?

This report builds from a body of work that describes how self-regulation can be applied as a framework for promoting health and well-being for youth through ’co-regulation’, which includes Caring, Consistent, & Responsive Relationships; Co-Creation of Supportive Environments; and Intentional and Developmentally-Informed Day-to-Day Interactions. It specifically addresses previously identified research gaps including a lack of effective self-regulation interventions for adolescents, particularly for youth who have experienced an accumulation of acute and chronic stressors.

Older youth in or transitioning out of foster care often experience significant challenges to self-regulation that can make it more difficult to successfully transition to adulthood. Institutional challenges within the child welfare system such as placement instability can also make it difficult to support youths’ positive development. Co-regulation approaches are aligned with current efforts within the child welfare system to support older youth such as normalcy, prudent parenting, and relational permanency as well as trauma-informed care (TIC). However, in order to fully identify opportunities for building co-regulation for youth in foster care, a comprehensive review of the literature is needed.


This project aimed to:

  • provide a foundational resource that summarizes the state of the field;
  • identify a research agenda to address any gaps;
  • and apply what is learned to practice within the child welfare system for older youth in foster care.

The intended audience for this report is researchers interested in child welfare and application of self-regulation approaches to practices and programs as well as federal staff and administrators responsible for generating and applying knowledge to enhance federally-funded programs for older youth in foster care. This report serves as the source documentation for other resources and materials that will be most useful for policymakers, practitioners, and administrators and directors of child welfare programs and other programs serving youth in foster care, including a planned series of tip sheets.

Key Findings and Highlights

  • The published literature relevant to co-regulation for older youth in foster care is emerging, and what is known is primarily based on descriptive work.
  • The co-regulation literature clearly recognizes and values relationships for supporting positive youth development. It also indicates that caring and consistent adults and peers in many different roles can provide co-regulation support, and that co-regulation does not require a therapeutic context or a specific program.
  • There are many gaps in the literature, including:
    • Limited focus on co-creating supportive environments and on using intentional, developmentally informed day-to-day interactions to promote self-regulation skills.
    • Little existing literature and programs integrate co-regulation approaches for youth of color and special populations (e.g., youth who are parents, LGBTQ youth, youth with disabilities) and how co-regulation approaches may need to be tailored for these groups. 
  • Existing programs provide additional insight into approaches for building the capacity of adults serving in a co-regulator role that were not found in the literature.


This project includes four components that are described in separate chapters in this report:

  • Theoretical foundation: We first applied our theoretical model of co-regulation to older youth in or transitioning out of foster care and identified challenges and opportunities to address within this context based on the current literature and expert consultation.

  • Scoping review: We conducted a scoping review of the co-regulation literature for youth aged 14-24 years with foster care experience. Similar to a systematic review, a scoping review utilizes comprehensive and structured search and extraction to capture and synthesize relevant information in a reproducible manner. Using four databases, we identified 46 articles for synthesis that addressed our research questions. We then applied a deductively derived coding system with consensus review that identified co-regulation domains and approaches as well as application context and roles. We reviewed preliminary results with a group of academic and practice-based consultants to contextualize findings. Finally, we summarized and charted data in a manner that describes this topic area.

  • Targeted program scan: We conducted a targeted program scan to address specific areas identified as gaps in the published literature. We reviewed programs from seven evidence-based clearinghouses. We identified those consistent with co-regulation and qualitatively summarized new information, including additional practice elements and approaches for building co-regulation capacity in caring adults.

  • Integration of findings: Following the program scan, results were integrated with the scoping review to generate key findings, identify a future research agenda, and make recommendations for practice.


Strengthen co-regulation practices within the child welfare system by:

  • Encouraging programs, administrators, and practitioners who work with older youth in foster care to further implement all core components of co-regulation by: 1) increasing the intentionality of adult relationships with youth; 2) working collaboratively with youth to create supportive environments and routines; and 3) promoting skills and competencies within day-to-day interactions and through opportunities for normalcy.
  • Integrating principles of co-regulation practice into existing programs serving older youth in foster care, especially those supporting employment, career readiness, and healthy relationships.

  • Providing training for staff and care providers in a variety of roles around co-regulation.

Strengthen evidence on co-regulation for older youth in foster care by:

  • Addressing specific gaps in the literature, including: 1) co-regulation needs of special populations such as youth with disabilities, youth who identify as LGBTQ, and youth who are parents, as well as youth of color who are significantly overrepresented in the child welfare system; 2) how peer support can be leveraged to promote co-regulation; and 3) opportunities for co-regulation supports within the context of employment/career readiness programs as well as healthy relationship programs.
  • Conducting rigorous evaluation of specific co-regulation training strategies, practices, and programs including outcomes related to physiological stress reactivity and risk behaviors.

Incorporating youth voice and practice-based knowledge to enhance intervention approaches.


Murray, Desiree W., Rackers, Hannah S., Sepulveda, Kristin, and Malm, Karin (2021). Building Co-Regulation Capacity to Support Positive Development for Youth with Foster Care Experience, OPRE Report #2021-129, Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.


The act of managing cognition and emotion to enable goal-directed actions, such as organizing behavior, controlling impulses, and solving problems constructively.
The supportive process by which caring adults and peers promote positive youth development through Caring, Consistent, & Responsive Relationships; the Co-Creation of Supportive Environments; and Intentional and Developmentally-Informed Day-to-Day Interactions.
Scoping review:
A type of research synthesis that aims to address broad questions about key concepts and characteristics of a defined area of literature and identifies types of evidence or knowledge gaps across studies with a range of designs and methods to inform practice, policymaking, and research.
Program scan:
A review of existing programs and practices conducted with the aim of filling gaps in peer reviewed research.