Dita De Boni 's Opinion

Business columnist, with a political twist, for NZ Herald

The critical first nine months

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A study of 15,000 children in Britain has revealed that babies' progress at 9 months of age is directly related to how cognitively developed they will be at the age of five. Photo / Supplied
A study of 15,000 children in Britain has revealed that babies' progress at 9 months of age is directly related to how cognitively developed they will be at the age of five. Photo / Supplied

The findings of a study that promises to send alarm bells ringing in the heads of parents everywhere have been released in Britain this week.

The Millennium Cohort study of 15,000 children has shown that the progress of babies at the age of nine months in the area of gross motor skills is directly related to how cognitively developed they will be at the age of five - and also how well behaved they are likely to be.

Delays happen in the development of roughly one in every 10 children.

This will be a concern for some parents because, in essence, it appears to go against the prevailing orthodoxy that all children develop at their own pace and that the pace of reaching certain milestones doesn't necessarily have anything much to do with intelligence.

The Guardian puts the new findings starkly: "Children who failed at nine months to reach four key milestones in gross motor development, relating to sitting unaided, crawling, standing and taking their first walking steps, were found to be five points behind on average in cognitive ability tests taken at age five, compared to those who passed the milestones.

"This equates to the difference between being in the middle of the ability range in the cognitive tests, and being below average..."

The report said: "This finding highlights the importance of early screening for developmental delay at ages under one year, as a tool to promote positive child development."

Now, as some critics have pointed out, there are some holes that can be punched in this study:

- All children are different and there's no reason to brand them "failures" because of perceived slow development at the age of nine months

- Everyone knows of children who have been extremely slow to meet gross motor targets and yet are now finishing PhDs etc.

- How much of a part do genes play in the equation?

- The findings could be used to get the Government intervening at ever lower ages to ensure better educational outcomes (which could be a good or bad thing, depending on how you view it). Should the Government be in the business of "equalising outcomes" - especially if a large component of the difference between children is genetic in origin and can not be changed either way?

Just like in Britain, in New Zealand the issue of the "tail" of academic non-achievers has become big news and political fodder.

There is a tail of underachieving Kiwi kids which persists despite a concerted outlay of time and money to address it.

Based on studies like this one, is it a realistic goal to be trying to iron out wide variations in academic achievement within our kids?

If it's not realistic, why do we persist with it?

And if it is still a fervently held wish by educators and society in general, at what stage along the development spectrum do we need to start investing resources to ensure better outcomes?

If the findings of the Millennium Cohort study are to be believed, earlier - much earlier than ever before envisaged - has to be the answer.

Dita De Boni

Business columnist, with a political twist, for NZ Herald

Dita De Boni is a columnist, commentator and TV producer/journalist. She first wrote columns for the NZ Herald in 1995, moving to daily business news in 1999 for four years, and then to TVNZ in Business, News and Current Affairs. After tiring of the parenting/blogging beat for the Herald Online she moved back to her first love, business (with a politics chaser), writing a column for Friday Business since 2012.

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