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The Disadvantages Our Kids Face in Preschool Predict Their Future Struggles, Study Shows

Early intervention in kids' lives can reduce problems they face as adults. 

Image via Unsplash.com/@4dgraphic

Disadvantages children face when they're just 3 years old can accurately predict the types of problems they'll face as adults, according to a new study from Duke University. The study also showed that by intervening in kids' lives early society could reduce the issues they face later in life. 

Researchers from Duke University, King’s College London and the University of Otago in New Zealand used health and government records to analyze how a group of about 1,000 people in Dunedin, New Zealand, progressed in life -- starting from birth and ending when they were 38 years old.

The group of individuals had been part of a long-term study that provided a wealth of additional information on their life, which allowed researchers to examine if there were any early indicators of future successes or failures.

"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," explained Karl Leif Bates of Duke Today. "This yielded a summary index the researchers called 'brain health.'" 

The scientists determined that low brain health scores at 3 years old can predict high health care 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," said Avshalom Caspi, professor of psychology and neuroscience, and of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke. Researchers also determined that a small portion of a population of people are responsible for the majority of social costs like crime, health care needs, and dependence on welfare. Of the group studied, one-fifth of the people were responsible for 81 percent of criminal convictions, 77 percent of fatherless child-rearing, three-quarters of drug prescriptions, and two-thirds of welfare benefits.

By analyzing the longitudinal study, the scientists found that the disadvantages faced by those who fell in the "one-fifth" group when they were kids -- along with their brain health scores -- would have predicted their future problems.

"Most expenses from social problems are concentrated in a small segment of the population," Caspi shared. "So whatever segment of the health, social or judicial system that you look at, we find a concentration. We called the group 'high-needs/high-costs.'"

The good news is that early intervention by educators and parents can help kids who are struggling with intelligence, language, and motor skills improve, which would decrease health and social issues later in life. "These are all traits that can be controlled and improved upon with the proper interventions, so identifying them in young children is a gift," shared Rena Subotnik, director of the Center for Psychology in Schools and Education for the American Psychological Association. She added: "You get the best bang for the buck with early intervention." 

The researchers encouraged people to use this information to determine which kids need extra help. "Any time you identify a population segment, the next thing people do is stigmatize," explained Terrie Moffitt, professor of psychology & neuroscience at Duke. Moffitt and Caspi warned that we shouldn't discriminate against the disadvantaged kids, but instead intervene to change their expected life trajectory.  "There is a really powerful connection from children’s early beginnings to where they end up," Caspi shared. "The purpose of this was not to use these data to complicate children’s lives. 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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