Jessie Taft, “Relation of Personality Study to Child Placing,” 1919

Source: Courtesy of Roger Taft

Jessie Taft, Virginia Robinson, and their two adopted children, Everett and Martha, in Royal Arch, New Hampshire, 1923

There was a time, not very long ago, a time which continues into the present in many communities in this country, when the only problem of placing a friendless child was that of finding someone, anyone, to take it. Any town official or group of city fathers would be competent to decide that the Jones family, being respectable and God-fearing, were just the people to bring up Mary Brown and that Mary was a lucky girl to find such a home. Or, if there were an orphan asylum available, Mary’s fate would be settled even more simply.

Evolution of Standards in Child Care

Today our organized child-placing agencies look back upon such methods as upon the dark ages. They know that only the trained worker is competent to place a child, they recognize the necessity of family history if it can be obtained, of physical examination and correction of physical handicaps before placement. They stand for adequate investigation of the foster home and a supervision of the child in that home after placement. The most advanced of the child-caring agencies also undertake to deal with the question of possible mental defect by requiring mental tests for all children or for any who are in the least doubtful. . . .

We have gotten to the point of trying to know something about the dependent child’s heredity and we insist on a history and study of his physical condition as far as possible. Is it too much to ask, no matter how many children we have to place, that we know something intimate, personal and specific about the child himself? Is there any use in pretending to do intelligent child-placing unless we do know our children first? Surely, at best, the removal of any child from the family on which he has depended and by which he has been formed, into strange medium to which he must adapt as best he may, is the most experimental and delicate of tasks. Can we hope to approach anything like a scientific attitude towards child-placing while we remain in ignorance of the most important condition of the experiment, the personality of the child who is placed?

I am sure no one here would oppose such a proposition and yet I doubt whether many of us are taking any systematic steps to study the intellectual, emotional and instinctive make-up of the children we place. We would like to, but we think we haven’t time and we think it takes a psychologist or a psychiatrist. It does take time—but no more time than the unknown child consumes in the trial and error method of placing where success is more or less of an accident and may come only after many placements. Then there would be the tremendous saving of having one approach and one system for all kinds of children which would eliminate the need of special machinery except for the very abnormal child. . . .


Finally, to get the most out of such a study you need to set yourself certain tasks, you must aim to find out certain things about every child and then get it down in written form so that the record gives a vivid but accurate impression of the child as he appeared at that time. In the little day school organized on the play school plan which Seybert Institution operates for the purpose of making just such personality studies of the children in the Temporary Shelter in Philadelphia, the teachers are asked to keep in mind certain points in observing the children. Their general aim is to see how the child is using his troublesome behavior as a form of adjustment, to what he is adjusting by that means, and how he can be led to a more happy and successful method of adapting. The following outline is suggestive of what they try to discover.

1. Child’s adjustment to other people

In work

In play







Leader, etc.


Opposite sex




2. Child’s way of meeting a difficult or problematic situation.

In work

In play

In social relations


Giving up quickly




Change of Activity, etc.



3. What are his interests or aversions?

4. What can he do well? What does he do badly?

5. How does he work?
Book work, etc.
Organized Play

6. Can he learn? Does he follow directions?

7. Does he show any unusual or marked emotional re-actions and under what circumstances?

8. Has he any marked peculiarities of behavior, such as taking things, story-telling, any nervous habit, any sex habit? . . . .

The self is a very complex, elusive, changing phenomenon and we should approach it with an humble spirit, an open mind and a desire not so much to judge as to understand.


Source: Jessie Taft, “Relation of Personality Study to Child Placing” (paper presented at the National Conference of Social Work, 1919), 63-67.

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