Parents have the biggest influence over their child’s language and emotional development

How is it that in a country as prosperous as Australia, one in five children are developmentally at risk by the time they start school?

What’s more, the problem is twice as great for disadvantaged groups.

Children from disadvantaged backgrounds have a greater risk of poor health, social, emotional, cognitive and language problems that affect their educational progress, literacy, numeracy, and long-term social skills, employment prospects, health, adjustment and criminality.

This can have lifelong impact – the 2012 OECD report reveals that 20% of Australians do not have good basic literacy skills.

There are two aspects of the child’s early environment that can be changed and which shape a child’s long-term outcomes:

  • The extent to which families offer children a nurturing environment that provides learning opportunities.
  • The early childhood education and care that children may receive out of the home.

What parents do is more important than who parents are

Longitudinal studies have shown that getting learning help at home and going to preschool has a positive impact on literacy and numeracy development in early primary school.

A study involving 4000 children in the UK found parents who provided learning support at home had a positive impact on their child’s cognitive, language and socio-emotional development, regardless of the parent’s class or educational background.

This can be anything from reading to the child, library visits, singing songs, reading poems or nursery rhymes.

The powerful influence of the early home learning environment was apparent in the preschool period, and when children started school, and continued right through to the end of school.

Improving the home learning environment

When looking at children who performed well against the odds, case studies revealed that some disadvantaged families provided a very good early home learning environment and this was a critical factor in their child’s later success.

Closing the gap in educational attainment between children from affluent and disadvantaged homes is increasingly seen as a major societal goal.

Improving the home learning environment of socially and financially disadvantaged children would be a worthwhile focus for policy to boost children’s development in the early years, so as to support their later academic and social achievement through their lives.

The UK longitudinal studies also found that, two to three years of high-quality early years education can provide up to eight months of developmental advantage at the start of school in literacy compared to children who enter school with no preschool experience, with similar effects on other cognitive and social outcomes.

The quality of the early childhood education and care was linked to staff training and qualifications, and higher quality was related to better outcomes for children.

Where to now?

Australia currently provides 600 hours over the year – or around 15 hours a week – in early education provision for four year olds.

It should be a policy priority to extend this to three year olds. This would bring Australia more in line with those countries, such as the UK, taking active policy steps to planning for long-term economic development through optimising the skills of their populations.

Australia has a good early years quality framework, but this can be built on by improving the competence of the early years workforce through in-service professional development and further recruitment of more qualified staff.

Australia could look to emulate the best in the world through enhanced provision for the 40% most disadvantaged children and through integrating all services, health, family support, childcare and early education, to optimise the efficiency of services for young children and their families.

Such changes would bring immediate benefits in wellbeing and long-term economic benefits from a population fully equipped to deal with the challenges of a changing world.

Edward Melhuish, Visiting professor at the University of Wollongong; Professor of Human Development, University of Oxford

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Edward Melhuish

My research interests are in understanding social and communicative development from birth to adulthood including environmental influences through the use of longitudinal studies. Other interests include: Early childhood education and care (ECEC) Parenting Child poverty and disadvantage the linking of child development and social policy My work has been concerned with using theoretically driven research to address applied issues and policy questions to produce improvements in development and well-being. This has included topics such as: the development of pre-term babies the children of psychiatrically disturbed parents social, linguistic and cognitive development emergent literacy Early childhood education and care (ECEC) and the evaluation of policy initiatives Collaboration Such work regularly involves collaboration with social, biological and medical scientists in studying child development and the influence of experience. Most of my research projects have been multi-disciplinary. I have previously collaborated in research projects in 12 countries on behalf of the European Commission, and I am currently involved in collaborative work with researchers in several European countries, USA and Australia. Current research Current work involves evaluating interventions such as early childhood education and care (ECEC), parental support, early intervention strategies etc., and derives from theoretical work on the importance of particular environmental input affecting children’s development, and the results are influencing policy. This work involves using randomised control trials (RCTs), quasi-experimental methods, and qualitative research. I have been involved in longitudinal studies of family and pre-school factors affecting child development in England (EPPE) and Northern Ireland (EPPNI). I am currently involved in similar longitudinal research in several countries. Also I am the director of the Study of Early Education and Development that involves a longitudinal study of over 5000 children. National Evaluation of Sure Start I have been director of the National Evaluation of Sure Start (NESS). Sure Start is an early intervention programme targeting disadvantaged young children and their families. The evaluation examines under what conditions Sure Start programmes are affecting children, families and communities. This work involved an investigation of over 20,000 children and families and a longitudinal follow-up of 8,000 children in poor communities. Other projects In addition I have worked with local, national and international governmental organisations to use developmental research to inform public policy to improve the lives of families and young children. I am a member of a Child Well-being working group of WHO, and the Human Capital and Economic Opportunity Working Group Early Childhood Interventions Group. I have undertaken research for the Medical Research Council, Economics and Social Research Council, Save the Children Fund, DCSF, DoH and several other government and voluntary sector agencies Policy Impact My research in the 1980s influenced the 1989 Children Act, and later research has influenced the 2005 Children Act, 2006 Childcare Bill and policy on childcare, early education, child poverty and parental support in the UK and other countries. For example my projects have contributed to the formulation of social policy, such as the universal provision of a pre-school place for all 3 & 4 year-olds, the establishment of 3500 Children’s Centres, the government’s Every Child Matters and 10-Year Childcare strategies. From 2013 the UK government rolled out free part-time early education to all of the 40% most disadvantaged children in the country from age 2 upwards, and this decision was heavily influenced by my projects in collaboration with other researchers.

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