Dr. Werner is best known in the field of child development for her leadership of a forty year longitudinal study of 698 infants on the Hawaiian island of Kauai—the island's entire birth cohort for the year 1955. The study supported the conventional wisdom that many children exposed to reproductive and environmental risk factors (for instance, premature birth coupled with an unstable household and a mentally ill mother) go on to experience more problems with delinquency, mental and physical health and family stability than children exposed to fewer such risk factors. However, among Werner's most significant findings was that one third of all high-risk children displayed resilience and developed into caring, competent and confident adults despite their problematic development histories. She and her fellow researchers identified a number of protective factors in the lives of these resilient individuals which helped to balance out risk factors at critical periods in their development. Among these factors were a strong bond with a nonparent caretaker (such as an aunt, babysitter, or teacher) and involvement in a church or community group like the YMCA. She received numerous national and international awards.
Her book Through the Eyes of Innocents tells the stories of children caught up in World War II in their own words.