Belfast Telegraph

Monday 28 July 2014

Time to sit up and grasp the building blocks of parenting

There's always been anxiety about bringing up children — not helped by the competitive edge between many parents. “Oh, isn't Savannah walking yet? Marley's very steady on her feet now . . .”

For those whose babies don't seem to be sprinting past the developmental milestones with the speed of Usain Bolt, it's all too easy to panic and bulk-buy Baby Einstein DVDs and state-of-the-art walkers with built-in flashcards.

So the news that children who fail to pass the motor-skills tests — the early ones, before the age of one — will face difficulties in school and, quite probably, throughout the rest of their lives, heightens the anxiety.

Over the past decade, 15,000 babies have been the subject |of comprehensive research into early development by the Millennium Cohort Study from the University of London's Institute of Education.

The ability to sit up, crawl and hold a pencil by nine months is vital, researchers discovered, to children being ready and able to concentrate, learn and share when they reach school age.

Not being able to do these things leads, inevitably, to falling behind, frustration and negative labelling. Of course, no one, including those who carried out the study, could claim that all children develop at a uniform rate and just because little Johnnie is still rolling around on his changing mat doesn't mean he's doomed to a low-grade GCSE future.

The delay, says leading researcher Ingrid Schoon, affects one in 10 babies and is not solely determined by the parents' economic and social status, but it's tempting to see deprivation as a significant factor.

Should health visitors and/or social workers intervene early when babies are not receiving the stimulation they need? Remove children from homes where they are left in their cots or in front of the television, and not encouraged to try holding a spoon, or shuffle round the living room?

It's a dangerously grey area, but one of which I have a small amount of experience. My wonderful daughter, vivacious and curious, bold and imaginative, came to live with me as she turned four, having had three years with her birth mother and one in foster care.

The love and consistency she was shown in the latter did much to balance the neglect and damage done at the former, and I hope the seven years following her adoption have built on it.

But in her secondary transfer year, it is clear that the woeful lack of attention early on — with speech, motor skills and just about everything else — has had a major impact.

The study also points up that three-year-olds who are read to every day have a far better grasp of a variety of educational subjects at five. She certainly never had that.

Educational psychologists have told me what this new study backs up: it is impossible to catch up with, or gloss over, those gaps in the early building blocks of development.

I will never know how her achievement level might have changed with a different start, or an earlier intervention.

She might, just might, be one of the one-in-10.

Milestone-missing is sure to become another key election battleground, as part of a wider argument about how to police/protect parents and families. It will be debated in infinitesimal detail and with the probability of no clear solution.

Between aggressive interference and benign neglect (by the authorities, not the parents) lies a possibility: factor in a gentle test for babies of nine-months-old as part of an extended post-natal care system.

It won't catch those who move or avoid such ‘meddling’, but it's got to be worth a try.

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