Family difficulties affect young children’s development more than moving home, study finds

19 July 2016

It is not moving home, but broader family circumstances that impact the wellbeing of children when they are in their early years, new research shows.

Parents’ economic, partnership and health problems are more likely to have a negative effect on children’s development in their first five years of life.

Researchers from the UCL Institute of Education analysed information on more than 14,000 children born in 2000-01, who are being followed by the Millennium Cohort Study. The findings have been published in a special issue of the journal Longitudinal and Life Course Studies, which focuses on housing and children’s wellbeing in the UK and US.

The study’s authors, Professor Heather Joshi and Dr Ludovica Gambaro, examined information on home moves, family life and parents’ employment when children were 9 months, 3 and 5 years old.

They then compared this information with measures of the children’s development, including vocabulary skills and emotional and behaviour problems at age 5.

At first glance, the children who moved appeared to fare badly compared to those who did not move. However, when other family circumstances were taken into account, such as parents breaking up or repartnering, parental depression and unemployment, moving house did not appear to be the root source of problems.

Children who moved home within the poorest areas – those in the bottom 30 per cent – showed some disadvantage from moving, having slightly more emotional and behaviour problems and worse vocabulary scores than those who didn’t move in these neighbourhoods.

Among children from the better-off neighbourhoods, those who moved into or relocated within these areas had no more emotional or behaviour problems than those who didn’t move home in their early years. They also scored the same on vocabulary.

After accounting for difficult family circumstances, children who moved multiple times by age 5 did not suffer any further adverse effects than those who moved only once.

Overall, children living in disadvantaged neighbourhoods for their first five years had more emotional and behaviour problems and lower vocabulary scores than those in better-off neighbourhoods.

Professor Joshi said: “Moving home is sometimes portrayed as a stressful life event adversely affecting child development, particularly if it happens several times. Five-year-olds in this cohort showed very little sign, in general, of a setback from family moves, over and above the formidable impact of other family changes and circumstances.

“We have been able to detect that moving adds to family stress if it occurs within relatively deprived areas. These areas also show poorer child outcomes for those who lived in them without moving home.

“The public policies underpinning the early years, though increasingly stretched and localised, should be able to support families to take advantage of opportunities for good moves. They should also help families avoid having to make bad moves as the case may be.”

Read the full paper

Moving home in the early years: what happens to children in the UK?’ by Ludovica Gambaro and Heather Joshi was published in Longitudinal and Life Course Studies on July 19 2016. It is part of a special issue of the journal entitled ‘Moving home and children’s wellbeing

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