Investment in child development at an early stage leaves an important positive legacy

High quality preschool can be particularly important for children from poor families

A preschool in Clondalkin, Dublin. “By investing in early childhood we will be developing healthier, happier and more productive adults for all our tomorrows”. Photograph: Alan Betson

A preschool in Clondalkin, Dublin. “By investing in early childhood we will be developing healthier, happier and more productive adults for all our tomorrows”. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

Over the past seven years researchers from the ESRI and Trinity College Dublin have been following almost 20,000 children as they grow and develop. The study is called “Growing Up in Ireland” (GUI) and is Government-funded. The data is providing important insights into the factors that promote healthy, happy child development and educational success.

The new analysis shows, conclusively, that a child’s environment in the first three years of life is crucial. It leaves an indelible mark, affecting the risk of obesity, level of educational development and psychological well-being. The GUI research adds to a growing international evidence base that shows children’s early life environments determine not only their physical health, but may also contribute to childhood and adult criminality, educational failure, family breakdown and mental health. ]

Further evidence is provided by recent findings from the Irish Longitudinal Study of Ageing (TILDA), that the risk of a number of diseases among adults over the age of 50 was linked to their experience of childhood adversity.

Foundations
It will come as no surprise to most people that the foundations of all aspects of human development – physical, psychological, social and emotional – are laid down in early childhood. What might be news is that infancy and childhood are often a “critical period”, after which remedial treatment can be less effective and increasingly expensive.

In the words of a recent UK report: “If people keep falling off a cliff, don’t worry about where you put the ambulance at the bottom. Build a fence at the top and stop them falling off in the first place”.

What policy implications do these results have? Each year Ireland spends millions of euro dealing with the health and social consequences of child deprivation. We should invest instead in early childhood, during the ‘critical period’ of early life before age three.

New evidence from the UK shows that high quality preschool is beneficial for all children, but is especially important for deprived children. It acts to ‘innoculate’ them against poor circumstances later in childhood.

As recent events have highlighted, our model of preschool provision needs to change from one of child-minding to one of high quality and better funded preschool education.

Public health nurse
Studies show that families who get regular visits from a public health nurse from before the birth of their child enjoy better child health, development and behaviour for up to two decades afterwards, compared with families who don’t.

The public health nurse system in Ireland is poorly funded, yet expansion of the service would be a relatively cheap and efficient way to get concrete improvements in child outcomes in both the short and long-term. Regular public health nurse visits would benefit all sections of Irish society, but targeting deprived areas initially would be a more effective use of scarce resources.

With a tight national budget we need to think carefully about investing for the future. Our prosperity depends on having an educated, creative and competitive workforce. By investing in early childhood we will be developing healthier, happier and more productive adults for all our tomorrows – and saving money in the process. Can we afford not to?


Prof Richard Layte is a researcher at the ESRI. He will speak at a conference today on the long-term effects of childhood adversity on later health and well-being.

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