Early Intervention

My last blog focused on the urgent need for young people to become problem solvers for the future – and the need for all young people to become more aware of the social and racial issues that too often prevent fairness and equality of opportunity for all. Today’s blog is inspired by an article (Jenni Russell, Times, 24.9.20) with the disturbing heading: ‘Thugs of the future can be spotted aged three’: a little far-fetched perhaps – but the word ‘thugs’ makes its point. The focus of Russell’s article is a New Zealand study of one thousand children, from birth into their thirties, that has recently become a book ‘Origins of You’, co-authored by Jay Belsky.

The book is a multi-faceted exploration of what makes us who we become. Russell reports that 10% of children from the study were described as ‘under-controlled’ – demonstrating at the age of three such traits as – irritability, impulsiveness, distraction and lack of concentration. By the age of 18, this ‘uncontrolled’ group were exhibiting signs of aggression, combative tendencies and hostility to others. By the age of 26, half of this particular group had become persistent offenders, responsible for much of the crime in their area. In their thirties, this uncontrolled group were more likely to be poorer, drug takers, or to be generally ageing faster than others in the same study group. In short: having discounted the effects of IQ and social class – a clever child born into a wealthy family, who scored low on self-control was likely to be less happy and less successful as an adult. An interesting study, isn’t it?

The overall message is clear – but we do not need any study to tell us that the early developmental years of childhood form the strong foundations of adulthood. Surely this is common sense. The problem is that what is done in schools to attempt to redirect the behaviours of difficult children, is often much too late to have any long term effect: trying to turn teenagers around, for example by placing them into Pupil Referral Units, was never wholly successful in reintegrating those young people back into ordinary schools. This research therefore reminds us that early intervention is the only key that works!

Linking the effects of this study to the current eruptions of racism and social unrest, it is surely all the more important for such issues to be tackled early. In Britain the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) of education caters for children up to the age of five – to the end of the Reception year – after which they begin more formal schooling, following the National Curriculum.

The EYFS is the first stage of communal learning, during which children are introduced to their peers, some of whom may be quite different from themselves – in skin colour, ways of behaving, speed of learning and language. We know that incidents of bullying, for example, are rife during later schooling, especially for children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND). The SEND educational system is in a mess. Nor are Black and Asian children always given the support they need to reach their potential. It’s not simply a question of equality – but of equity. The former attempts to treat every child the same, regardless of different needs. The latter addresses individual needs to enable all children to achieve the same (more on this in a later blog).

The EYFS is an opportunity, a valuable one, to instil in every child the positive values they need for life. It is at this early stage, that children must learn how to handle diversity and difference through respect and tolerance. After all, if it does not happen at this young age, it is highly unlikely to happen later.

It is at the EYFS that children ‘learn how to learn’. I am not talking here about the essential skills of language or numeracy – but those skills that underpin all learning: good listening, patience, focus and concentration, as well as tolerance and social sensitivity. These qualities form the foundations of the house of learning. If this study is significant, then the patterns of a child’s responses to learning and ‘being’ socially become established within the first 1000 and 2000 days of life: during those essential EYFS years.

The message of early intervention is far from new but this research reinforces what educators have long recognised: that negative behaviours must be dealt with early because they are not mere phases that children grow out of: those behaviours, it seems, become all the more dangerous over time. Only by early intervention can we redirect children’s responses in positive ways: towards respect, kindness, care and compassion.

The effects could be far reaching: if society wants to stamp out prejudice in the form of racism, sexism, as well as other ugly human character traits, it makes sense to start with the young – for a greater chance of success. Society benefits!

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