A new study led by MCRI — and published in a leading paediatric journal— shows that children’s exposure to socioeconomic disadvantage during the first 1000 days of life can cause a legacy of impacts on learning. Children who were exposed to early life socioeconomic disadvantage were more likely to struggle with academic performance at school irrespective of whether they were still experiencing disadvantage at school age.
Learning is an active process that starts from birth. Strong foundations in the early years help to ensure that children arrive at school ready to get the most out of every learning opportunity. However one in five Australian children begin school developmentally vulnerable and behind their peers.
Evidence shows that this gap is likely to grow as children progress through school. It is estimated that by Year 9, the top 10 per cent of students are likely to be about 8 years ahead of the bottom 10 per cent of students.
Insights from the new study
The study found a link between children’s exposure to socioeconomic disadvantage in the early years and greater academic challenges by school age compared to their more advantaged peers.
It also found that children who were exposed to socioeconomic disadvantage during the early years were more likely to experience greater academic challenges regardless of whether they were still exposed to disadvantage at school age.
The study shows that inequities—the unfair and potentially preventable differences we see in children’s outcomes—can stem from early childhood and track forward to school age, leaving a legacy of impacts on learning.
These results add to the body of research showing how crucial early environments and experiences are for optimising children’s learning and life opportunities.
How can we help children thrive at school?
The findings from this study raise the question, is waiting until school age to try and reduce inequities in children’s learning waiting too long?
While school-based interventions are important, it is extremely challenging for schools to redress the learning gaps that stem from exposure to socioeconomic disadvantage in the early years on their own.
To help children to flourish at school and realise their full potential, we need to invest in a preventative model that reduces children’s exposure to socioeconomic disadvantage in the first 1000 days.
The evidence suggests what happens in the first 1000 days of a child’s life from conception to age two has lifelong effects. Supporting children at any age can be beneficial, although the first 1000 days provides the first and best opportunity to prevent disadvantage and optimise lifelong wellbeing.
Government policies and changes to our systems can ensure that fewer children experience disadvantage, while programs like nurse home visiting can help to reduce the impact of disadvantage on children’s health, wellbeing and development.
MCRI researchers are continuing to explore the best opportunities across the health and education systems to optimise children’s wellbeing and help all children to get the most out of learning.