Bald statistics, such as those derived from research by the Millennium Cohort Study last week, will have done little to alleviate the stress of the relatively new parent.
According to widespread interpretation, a nine-month-old who is not yet sitting up, crawling or capable of accurately picking up objects using coordinated fingers and thumb may struggle at school at age 5. They don’t share as much — ergo are more antisocial — and fall behind their classmates. On an already overcrowded checklist, the results provide one more worry for anxious parents who could conclude their young offspring, perhaps slow to reach such milestones, are doomed.
This is not the intention of the survey’s researchers, though it certainly made for fear-inducing headlines. The unique study, which follows in the footsteps of the UK’s Mass Observation, is following up to 19,000 children born at the beginning of the 21st century and is being carried out by the Center for Longitudinal Studies at London University’s Institute of Education. It is charting children up to the age of 11, monitoring the impact of poverty, parenting, education and health to establish how these factors can affect their later years, and should deliver invaluable information to parents, healthcare specialists and policy-makers.
The study did conclude that those children who did not reach certain developmental achievements at 9 months, which was one in 10, did less well in their first year at primary school. Social factors did not seem to affect this finding. Other factors influencing children’s behavior in their first year at school include those growing up in “persistent poverty” performing less well than “those in families who had never received means-tested benefits.” The study also found that a good mother-child relationship “significantly benefits the cognitive and behavioral development of children in poor families.”
There are no data, as yet, on the impact of this developmental delay beyond 5 years to determine whether such children do eventually catch up. What this report has done, however, is draw attention to the fact that developmental delays can, and should, be assessed early.
By no means, its authors have pointed out, is it proof that children will be forever developmentally disadvantaged.
“Some children grow more slowly than others,” Professor Heather Joshi, the study group’s director, told BBC Radio. “We are saying there could be a cause of concern, not that there must be a cause for concern. The biology of it would need to be investigated.”
Other findings indicated that three-year-olds whose parents read to them every day were two months ahead of their peers in the first year of primary school, not only in language and literacy, but also in math. However, there was no “significant” decline for those at the same age who watched TV for two or more hours a day.
The education of the mother also emerged as a significant factor at the age of 5. Those whose mothers had fewer than five A-Cs at GCSE trailed far behind those born to mothers with degrees: They lagged by 6.5 months in math and 6.6 months in literacy.
Results from the MCS always provoke debate. These latest were drawn from the third sweep of the sample, which took place between early 2006 and early 2007. A fourth sweep, of the children at 7, finished in December 2008, and a fifth sweep will take place in 2012.