Early intervention is not a panacea – it cannot solve every problem – but it is vital as a way to minimise the negative impacts of economic disadvantage, increase social mobility, and prevent some of the risks that can jeopardise a child’s future.
Failing to intervene at an early stage can lead to a multitude of negative consequences later in life. By then, it may be too late: these problems may be more serious, more damaging and more difficult to address once a person reaches adolescence or adulthood. Knowing this, we cannot stand by and wait for problems to get worse before we intervene.
At EIF, our mission is to ensure all children can reach their potential. Effective early intervention works to make this more likely, for hundreds of thousands of children across the country.
An example: the impact of social and emotional learning on later life
To illustrate how the cycle can play out, consider the link between the level of social and emotional development in childhood and its impacts on an individual’s mental health and other outcomes later in life.
We know that social and emotional skills – such as self-awareness, social awareness, relationship skills, emotional regulation and responsible decision-making – play a crucial role in a person’s development. Research shows that children with stronger social and emotional skills are more likely to graduate from college or university, to succeed in their careers, to have positive work and family relationships, to have good mental and physical health, and to become engaged citizens. They are less likely to get involved in crime or antisocial behaviour.
Emotional wellbeing and self-esteem in childhood are particularly strongly associated with good mental health in adulthood. Children’s social skills, self-control, self-regulation and self-efficacy also appear to be important to adult mental health and wellbeing.
Research indicates that half of all mental health problems are present by the age of 14. Mental health problems during childhood and adolescence are strongly associated with substance misuse and antisocial behaviour in adolescence, and ongoing mental health problems in adulthood. Adult mental health problems, in turn, have a negative impact on participation in the workforce, income, relationships and physical health.
It is clear that fostering strong social and emotional skills provides an important protective factor against the risk of long-term wellbeing. Like cognitive capabilities, social and emotional skills can be taught and developed through childhood, adolescence and beyond. There are clear opportunities for early intervention to improve social and emotional skills before children start school, and during the school years.
We can see the same cycle in other areas of childhood development too.
- Cognitive development: Children are born with a set of competencies which facilitate their early learning, but learning is also shaped by the family, community and society. Early cognitive development, including speech and language development, is predictive of later cognitive capabilities, including academic achievement in primary and secondary school and later employment opportunities and income.
- Behavioural problems: Most children outgrow aggressive and defiant behaviour by the time they are 3, but a minority of children will carry on behaving aggressively once they enter school. Behavioural difficulties identified in early childhood are predictive of a variety of problems as children grow older, including antisocial and criminal activity in adolescence in adulthood, mental health problems, substance misuse, higher rates of hospitalisation and mortality, academic failure, greater unemployment, family breakdown, and intergenerational transmission of behaviour problems to children.