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Poor health and obesity more common among disadvantaged children – ESRI

The Growing Up in Ireland report found that children’s health and wellbeing are strongly linked to their family circumstances.

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Children from disadvantaged backgrounds are much more likely to suffer from poor health and obesity, a new study shows.

The Growing Up in Ireland report from the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), found that children’s health and wellbeing are strongly linked to their family circumstances.

The study, carried out in 2017 and 2018, showed broadly positive experiences among children aged nine years old in Ireland.

But it warned that a gulf between those in higher and lower income brackets could be worsened by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Dr Eoin McNamara, co-lead author, said: “Whilst today’s report references the experiences of the children before the current Covid-19 pandemic, it does highlight disparities along the lines of family income and social class that could potentially be magnified as a result of the pandemic and associated lockdown measures – particularly in terms of health and education-related developmental outcomes.”

The study conducted interviews with more than 8,000 nine-year-olds and their parents, who have been followed by researchers since they were nine- months-old.

Previous editions of the study took place when the subjects were nine months, three, five and seven or eight years old.

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The study found that nine-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds were “much more likely to have poorer health, higher rates of overweight/obesity, more socio-emotional difficulties and less positive views of their school subjects.”

It found that obesity rates among children from disadvantaged backgrounds, 31%, were more than double those from the highest income families, 15%.

Obesity rates were also higher amongst girls than boys, 24% compared to 21%.

Children in two-parent families, in higher income households and with higher educated parents were likely to have better health at age nine, the report found.

And those in two-parent and higher social class families were likely to be consistently healthy at ages three, five and nine.

Negative attitudes towards school were quite uncommon among nine-year-olds, with just 5% saying they never liked school and 3% saying they never liked their teacher.

The report states the broadly positive attitude to school was not strongly related to socio-economic circumstances, but instead was markedly patterned according to the child’s gender.

Many more girls than boys said that they “always liked” school, 41% compared to 25%, and their teachers, 73% vs 59%.

However, significant differences were found in reading test scores by socio-economic background.

Where an average score was 100, there was a gap of more than 10 points between the highest and lowest social class and parental education groups.

This gap has widened since the children started primary school, with children from poorer families who were early high performers being outperformed by children from wealthier backgrounds by the age of nine.

Children’s views of themselves were also more negative among those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Some 27% of those from the lowest income families reported low or very low self-concept, compared to 14% of those from the highest income category.

Dr Desmond O’Mahony, co-lead author, said “In terms of socio-emotional outcomes, the nine-year-old data show the majority of children enjoying relationships that are warm, close and low in conflict with their parents at this age.

“These are encouraging and strongly protective factors in socio-emotional development, which is going well for a large proportion of the children.

“However, figures of close to 40% of all children experiencing bullying behaviours, and low levels of well-being reported by over a quarter of children in the lowest social class, show a requirement for improvement in school and social policies to reduce the impact of economic circumstances on children’s socio-emotional development.”


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