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Study: Disadvantages children face at age 3 can foretell adult problems

Educators often say they can look at children in fifth grade and predict their life course based on their performance in school and their home situations.

A new study says those predictions can even be made at age 3.

Using long-term tracking of 1,037 New Zealanders from birth through age 38, researchers at Duke University, King’s College London and the University of Otago in New Zealand found clues from early childhood – medical records, government records and  “economically burdensome outcomes,” including welfare dependency and hospitalizations – can foreshadow which children will likely end up troubled adults.

This new research underscores the rising call for public funding of education outreach to infants and toddlers and their families.  As I have written twice in the last week, there is a push to reach babies and toddlers to optimize early brain development.

A study released last week provided strong evidence the window to increase a child's IQ is birth to age 3. In response to the growing awareness of early brain development, Georgia's Heard County School System has created a program to educate parents of babies on how to engage their children starting in the cradle.

This new study suggests early intervention targeting at-risk children could reset their life course and save taxpayers money. The children with poor "brain health" at age 3 ended as adults who heavily used the courts, welfare benefits, disability services, children’s services and the healthcare system.

According to an article in Duke Today by Karl Leif Bates about this new study:

A detailed analysis of the lives of nearly a thousand people from birth to age 38 shows that a small portion of the population accounts for the lion’s share of social costs such as crime, welfare dependence and health-care needs as adults.

Just one-fifth of the study population accounted for 81 percent of criminal convictions and 77 percent of fatherless child rearing. This fifth of the group also consumed three-quarters of drug prescriptions, two-thirds of welfare benefits and more than half of the hospital nights and cigarettes smoked.

The researchers found they could have predicted which adults were likely to incur such costs as early as age 3 based on assessments of “brain health,” giving them hope that early interventions could avoid some of these social costs.

The analysis, by researchers at Duke University, King’s College London and the University of Otago in New Zealand, combined data from a long-term study of a group of people born in the same year in Dunedin, New Zealand with their electronic health records and governmental databases on such things as health, welfare and criminal justice.

The research group wanted to test the “Pareto principle,” which is also called the “80-20 rule.” Italian engineer and social scientist Vilfredo Pareto observed a century ago that 80 percent of wealth is controlled by 20 percent of the population. This principle has subsequently been found a useful rule of thumb when applied to phenomena in computer science, biology, physics, economics and many other fields.

“Most expenses from social problems are concentrated in a small segment of the population,” said Avshalom Caspi, Edward M. Arnett professor of psychology & neuroscience and psychiatry & behavioral sciences at Duke. “So whatever segment of the health, social or judicial system that you look at, we find a concentration. And that concentration approximates what Pareto anticipated over 100 years ago. We called the group 'high-needs/high-costs’.”

The key information the researchers possessed was rich data about the study group in early childhood. At age 3, each child in the study had participated in a 45-minute examination of neurological signs including intelligence, language and motor skills, and then the examiners also rated the children on factors such as frustration tolerance, restlessness and impulsivity. This yielded a summary index the researchers called “brain health.”

In the latest study, low scores on the brain health index at age 3 were found to predict high healthcare and social costs as an adult. “We can predict this quite well, beginning at age 3 by assessing a child’s history of disadvantage, and particularly their brain health,” Caspi said.

The findings remind Rena Subotnik, director of the Center for Psychology in Schools and Education for the American Psychological Association, of a recent effort in New Jersey to put a medical clinic in the neighborhood with the greatest need for services. Educators might be able to do the same sort of thing for these young children at risk of higher social costs, she said. “These are all traits that can be controlled and improved upon with the proper interventions, so identifying them in young children is a gift,” she said. And all of society would benefit. “You get the best bang for the buck with early intervention,” Subotnik said.

“There is a really powerful connection from children’s early beginnings to where they end up,” Caspi said. “The purpose of this was not to use these data to complicate children’s lives any further. It’s to say these children -- all children -- need a lot of resources, and helping them could yield a remarkable return on investment when they grow up.”


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Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.