One of the two branches of the study involves tracking the development of 11,000 children from the age of 9 months onwards. Those children and their families have just been interviewed at the age of 5. While it will be some time before we know about their progress at 5 years old, we do now know much more about how they were faring at 3.
The study shows that the large majority of 3 year olds in Ireland are in good health, experience a positive parenting style, and are reaching the developmental milestones expected of children at that age.
However, almost 16% of 3 year olds have a long-standing illness, disability or health condition, with asthma the most common (6% of 3 year olds). Nearly one in five parents of 3 year olds have concerns about their children’s speech and language development. And a quarter of 3 year olds are overweight (19%) or obese (6%).
Worryingly, the report notes that already by the age of 3 a “social gradient” has emerged across a range of child outcomes. For example, obesity is significantly more prevalent (9%) in the least socially advantaged group (those whose parents had “never worked”) than the most advantaged (5%), i.e. those whose parents are professional / managerial. On a general rating of children’s health, whereas at 9 months there was no significant difference between children by social class, by 3 years old a gap has emerged. Children from the least advantaged background are significantly less likely to be rated very healthy than are children from other social class backgrounds.
A social gradient has also emerged in cognitive and language outcomes by the age of 3, especially when one looks at the education level of the primary caregiver.
The report finds associations between behaviour problems among the 3 year olds and parental stress, as well as parenting style. Parenting styles that are low in warmth and consistency, or high in hostility, are associated with more behaviour problems, though the report notes that the causation could work in both directions.
There are also notable differences in outcomes between boys and girls. 3 year old girls perform measurably better than boys on tests of cognitive ability, as well as in behavioural problems. And girls are significantly less likely than boys to be reported as having speech or language problems at 3 years old.
Interviews were carried out shortly before children reached the age of eligibility for the Free Pre-School Year. At the time of interview, 50% of 3 year olds in the survey were in regular non-parental childcare. Just over half of these (27% of all the children) were in centre-based care, with around 12% of all 3 year olds cared for by non-relatives in a home-setting (childminders or nannies). The average time spent in childcare was 23 hours per week.
54% of the mothers were working outside the home. The proportion was much higher (68%) in two-parent families with one child than in one-parent families with two or more children (32%). Not surprisingly, the report shows a strong association between the number of hours worked per week and reported measures of work-life conflict.
Over the next year or so, further research will be published analysing these findings in greater depth. It is very positive that the Government earlier this summer committed to fund the Growing Up In Ireland study until 2019, as the scope for analysis of the findings becomes ever stronger the older the children grow.