The results of this study are either incredibly depressing or encouraging, depending on your perspective.
In 1972, over 1,000 children in Dunedin, New Zealand were evaluated. The scientists measured four risk factors thought to correlate with how these youngsters would develop into adulthood—socioeconomic deprivation, child maltreatment, intelligence, and self-control. The group was reevaluated 11 times over the next 35 years.
The children tested at age 3 who had the lowest “brain health” scores on those four indicators developed into adults with a variety of problems. Twenty-two percent of these high-risk children accounted for 81 percent of the criminal prosecutions, 78 percent of the prescription medication, 77 percent of fatherless child-rearing, 66 percent of welfare benefits, 54 percent of cigarette smoking, and 40 percent of obesity.
These results reaffirm what child development experts have been telling us for years. A child’s pathway to adulthood is significantly determined by what occurs in the first few years of life.
In a way, these results are disheartening. It’s discouraging to think that a child’s life is so severely affected by what happens during their first few years. However, with this knowledge comes the opportunity to focus interventions on the factors that we know have lifelong consequences.
The needs are greater than our resources, so here are my two suggested priorities.
1. End child maltreatment. We have to do more to keep our kids safe, particularly from their parents. In 2015, 683,000 children were victims of child maltreatment, with most of the cases being younger children who were neglected.
Our child protection agencies need more forceful judicial intervention, community resources, and adoptive homes. We all want to keep children with their biological parents, if possible. However, if parents fail to provide a safe home for kids, then we need to act more aggressively in making sure that our children’s safety and welfare are our highest priorities.
2. Identify and treat mental health problems at an earlier age. Children with self-control issues were identified by age 3. Let’s stop dismissing these problems as typical childhood behaviors. They’re not. They are often a symptom of problems that have a high likelihood of persisting throughout the lives of these children.
Parents and early childhood teachers need guidance in helping kids develop positive self-management strategies. Let’s get more kids involved in early childhood educational programs, with the active involvement of their parents in such services.
We know what to do. Let’s do what we know.