Guest blog by Dr Orla Doyle
Senior Researcher, UCD Geary Institute
Environmental conditions brought about by poverty are often detrimental to healthy child development. Childhood disadvantage can result in a number of negative outcomes later in life, including low educational attainment, poor mental health, and delinquency. Increasing evidence suggests that targeted, early intervention can reduce such socioeconomic disparities in childrens’ skills and capabilities and subsequently improve their life chances. A new experimental programme operating in a disadvantaged area of North Dublin is set to provide further evidence on whether such early childhood intervention schemes can be effective.
‘Preparing for Life‘ is a five-year school readiness programme which works with families from pregnancy until the child starts school. The programme provides a range of supports including weekly home visits from a trained family mentor, group parent training, and developmental toys. The rationale for this intervention is found in the work of Nobel laureate James Heckman, Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago. Heckman is one of the chief advisers of the ‘Preparing for Life’ evaluation team, based at the Geary Institute in UCD. His work demonstrates that early intervention lowers the need, and thus the cost, of later remediation programmes. His work is based on the premise that ‘skills beget skills’, and that the earlier a child receives a foundation for learning the easier it is for the child to learn, leading to a self-reinforcing ability and desire to learn more.
A key strength of ‘Preparing for Life’ lies in the experimental methodology applied to evaluate the programme. As parents are randomly assigned to a treatment and control group, receiving different levels of supports, any differences between groups can be attributed to the intervention itself. The programme began in 2008 and will continue until 2013, with the first results launched in early 2011. It is hoped that this major project will not only generate best practices in scientific methodology, but will make a direct difference to the lives of children in disadvantaged areas of Dublin.