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Study reveals costly adult life-course outcomes predicted as young as age 3

Posted by Kerrie Gottliebsen | 14/12/16

Tweddle CEO Ms Jacquie O Brien has responded to the latest Dunedin Study results which demonstrated that adult outcomes can be predicted by as young as three years of age.

The Dunedin Study, a longitudinal research study initiated 43 years ago in New Zealand, has shown that 20% of the population use the majority of public services, indicating long-term importance of early years investment for disadvantaged children.

The study is following every one of the 1,037 babies born in the city of Dunedin between April 1972 and March 1973 for their entire lives, monitoring their health and development, genes, growth, physical well-being, their psychology, their emotional ups and downs, criminal convictions, successes and failures.

“The study has revealed that ‘high social cost’ adults can be predicted from as young as three years of age which has huge economic implications for state and federal governments” Ms O’Brien said.

Around 95% of the children were followed up until the age of 38, when data was collected from personal interviews and a host of national administrative databases, allowing the team to explore connections between factors in childhood and a host of outcomes in adulthood.  

The findings reflect worldwide research around achievement gaps and how these open up in the critical first 1000 days of life, between conception and age 2.

According to Nobel Laureate Professor James Heckman, the basic skills needed for success are formed before children enter school. Investing early helps to prevent the achievement gap, and investing in disadvantaged children provides the greatest returns.

Research also shows that poverty diminishes brain growth. Early stress and lack of positive early experiences means poverty gets under the skin, undermining development in key brain regions for school readiness and academic success.

By age 2, children in the lowest socio-economic group are behind their peers in measures of cognitive, language and social-emotional development.

The Dunedin Study has found that at 38 years of age just 22% of the group accounted for 81% of its criminal convictions, 78% of pharmaceutical prescriptions, 66% of welfare recipients, 40% of excess obese kilograms, as well as more than half of cigarettes smoked and nights spent in hospital. While the study was based on children in New Zealand, the findings are likely to apply in other developed countries.

It was possible to predict which of the children were most likely to grow up to become part of this high cost segment of society from measures of their socioeconomic background, experience of maltreatment, IQ and self-control, which were taken repeatedly from birth to age 11.

The team also discovered that a rating of “brain health”, based on the combined results from a 45 minute-long assessment of motor skills, understanding of language, social behaviour and IQ at three years of age, was almost as accurate a predictive tool.

Avshalom Caspi, another author of the research, from Duke University said that about 80% of the time, they can accurately predict which group pre-schoolers will end up in.

According to a seminal 1995 study by Betty Hart and Todd Risley, 3-year-olds whose parents are professionals have vocabularies that are 50 percent larger than those of children from working-class families, and twice as large as children whose families receive welfare.

Jacquie O’Brien said the findings reinforce that education starts from birth and that helping vulnerable parents is the key to changing outcomes. “Early Parenting organisations such as Tweddle’s change the life trajectory of families by educating parents of babies and toddlers” she said.

“Our programs show vulnerable mums and dads that they can improve their child’s life chances by providing positive day to day interactions as well as security and nurture. These skills will help parents strengthen and buffer their child’s mental health for life and improve educational outcomes”. 

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