Growing Up in New Zealand is a longitudinal child development study, and research using information collected from it has identified several factors which are crucial to children’s early learning outcomes.
Funded by the Ministry of Social Development’s Children and Families Research Fund, the University of Auckland, University of Otago and Ministry of Education research is the first in New Zealand to look at a range of factors which can impact early learning success.
University of Auckland senior lecturer in education and lead researcher, Dr Kane Meissel, says it’s also the first New Zealand study to explore whether there are ethnic differences in the determinants of early learning success.
“This is important research because discovering what contributes to successful early learning across ethnic and socio-demographic groups helps us provide equitable and optimal early learning environments for all children in Aotearoa New Zealand,” Meissel says.
The research used modelling to explore factors which predict early learning success in the Growing Up in New Zealand cohort of more than 6000 children.
Early learning outcomes were determined by looking at oral language, letter recognition, and writing skills at four-and-a-half years of age.
Meissel says a key contributor to early learning success was parents reading, writing and counting with their children.
“This demonstrates the importance of ‘parents as first teachers’ and we need to look at how we can support parents to ensure they have the skills and resources necessary to help extend their child’s early learning,” he says.
• Parental teaching of early literacy and numeracy skills (e.g., encouraging their child to print or read letters) at 54-months was an important contributor to better early learning outcomes.
• A child’s oral language at age two is an important mediator of early learning, and shared book reading in the first two years is the best predictor of oral language.
• Most factors explored in the models remained important predictors across ethnicities. However, there was considerable variation within groups.
• Mothers from all ethnic groups reported engaging in teaching behaviours to similar extents, indicating that a broadly similar value is placed on teaching activities across all groups.
• Children whose mothers reported some concerns about their child’s conduct (temper tantrums, disobedience etc) at 24-months tended to have poorer early learning outcomes at 4.5 years. Further, the mothers of these children tended to report engaging in fewer teaching behaviours at 4.5 years.
• Mothers of children living in homes with more children’s books reported fewer concerns about emotional and hyperactivity difficulties at age 24 months.
Meissel says parents across all ethnic groups demonstrated a similar commitment to teaching early literacy and numeracy skills, which suggests widespread acceptance of the importance of teaching activities.
He says shared book reading was important as it was a predictor of better oral language at two years old and in turn, a child’s vocabulary at two was a strong predictor of early learning success.
The research also explored associations between children’s behavioural issues and early learning outcomes.
Meissel says mothers who reported concerns about a child’s conduct aged two, such as temper tantrums and disobedience, were less likely to engage in teaching activities when the child was four and a half.
“This is an important finding given the role of parental teaching for early learning outcomes," he says.
“It suggests that earlier intervention to support parents who have concerns about their child’s conduct may be warranted and may assist with improvements in early learning outcomes."
A greater number of children’s books in the home seemed to be associated with fewer concerns about emotional and hyperactivity difficulties at two years old.
Meissel says the research has clear policy implications for government to provide support for parents to help develop their children’s oral language, early literacy and numeracy skills.
The Ministry of Education’s Director of Early Learning, Nancy Bell, says they supported the research to better understand what assists children’s early learning.
“This research confirms that reading with children from an early age has long lasting benefits for children, particularly in the development of foundational oral language skills. This is helpful information for both parents and for early learning services,” she says.
You can read the full report: Factors of the Early Learning Environment that promote Early Learning Outcomes in Aotearoa/New Zealand here and find out more about the Children and Families Research Fund here.