Simple tests in babyhood ‘could point to children who need help with learning’

17 February 2010

Screening tests that monitor babies’ motor development could prove crucial in helping to identify children who will need learning support in their pre-school years, says a book published today.

Researchers who analysed the development of nearly 15,000 UK children taking part in the Millennium Cohort Study have found that failure to reach key ‘milestones’ at nine months is associated with learning and behaviour problems at age 5. The assessments in babyhood measure gross motor skills, such as crawling, and fine motor skills like holding objects with the fingers.

“We found that delay in gross and fine motor development in a child’s first year — which affects about one in ten children — was significantly associated with delayed cognitive development at age 5,” say researchers at the Institute of Education, University of London. “Delay in gross motor development also has a significant impact on the child’s behavioural adjustment at 5. This additional finding confirms the importance of screening for developmental delay before the first birthday.”

The findings have emerged from a study of factors that could reduce the impact of financial hardship on young children’s development. The researchers found that at age 5 there was a gap in ability between children growing up in persistent poverty and those in families that had never received means-tested benefits. It amounted to 11 points on the cognitive ability scale – roughly the difference between the middle of the ability range and the top of the bottom quarter.

The researchers then checked to see whether psychological characteristics of the mother and the quality of her relationship with the child might help to explain why financial hardship affected the youngster’s cognitive development. They found that a good mother-child relationship significantly benefits the cognitive and behavioural development of children in poor families.

Previous research has reached similar conclusions, but this new study provides the first UK evidence that these effects can be identified at a very young age. “Our findings also suggest that policy interventions aiming to promote positive development of children should provide support for parents too,” the researchers add. “If parents’ mental health and self-esteem are undermined by hardship this could affect their parenting and interactions with the child.”

The researchers, Ingrid Schoon, Helen Cheng and Elizabeth Jones, analysed child development information gathered by the first three surveys of the Millennium Cohort Study, which is run by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies at the Institute of Education.

This week Professor Schoon said that screening tests needed to be followed by more thorough evaluations if it appeared that a child might have a developmental delay. “Developmental evaluations are in-depth assessments of a child’s skills and should be administered by a trained professional,” she said. “They are used to create a profile of a child’s strengths and weaknesses in all developmental areas. The results of such evaluations help to determine if the child is in need of early intervention services.”

The research into ways of reducing the impact of financial hardship on children is included in a book published today (February 17) by The Policy Press, Children of the 21st century (volume 2): the first five years. The book is available from the publisher’s website

The Millennium Cohort Study was commissioned by the Economic and Social Research Council, whose funding has been supplemented by a consortium of Government departments. Some of the work undertaken by Professor Schoon and her colleagues was supported by a grant from the Nuffield Foundation.

Further information

David Budge
(off) 020 7911 5349
(mob) 07881 415362

Notes for editors

1. The first survey of the Millennium Cohort Study took place between June 2001 and January 2003. It gathered information from the parents of 18,818 babies born in the four UK countries. The second survey took place at age 3 and the third at age 5. The study’s field of inquiry covers such diverse topics as parenting; childcare; school choice; child behaviour and cognitive development; child and parental health; parents’ employment and education; income and poverty; and housing, neighbourhood and residential mobility. It is the first of the nationwide cohort studies to over-sample places with high densities of ethnic minorities and large numbers of disadvantaged families.

2. The Institute of Education is a college of the University of London, specialising in teaching, research and consultancy in education and related areas of social science and professional practice. The 2008 Research Assessment Exercise judged almost two-thirds of the work submitted by the IOE as internationally significant, and 35 per cent as ‘world leading’.

3. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK’s largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC’s planned total expenditure in 2009/10 is £204 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes.

The contract for data collection in MCS is awarded under competitive tender to specialist agencies. For three out of the four surveys undertaken to date the data collection was carried out by the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen), who in turn sub-contracted the interviewing in Northern Ireland to the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA). The agency responsible for the second round of data collection was Gfk-NOP, who sub-contracted in Northern Ireland to Millward Brown.

Back to news listing

Media enquiries

Ryan Bradshaw
Senior Communications Officer

Phone: 020 7612 6516

Contact us

Centre for Longitudinal Studies
UCL Social Research Institute

20 Bedford Way
London WC1H 0AL


Follow us