One in four children face development risks

Children16 May 2012

By John Warner

A recent study indicates that more than a quarter of young people are growing up in families that face multiple challenges, such as parents lacking employment and depression - with potentially damaging effects on children's development.

This was the conclusion drawn from work carried out by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies (CLS), an ESRC resource centre based at the Institute of Education, University of London. Shirley Dex, Emeritus Professor of Longitudinal Social Research in Education at CLS, and Dr Ricardo Sabates of the University of Sussex undertook the project.

The research, entitled 'Multiple risk factors in young children's development', involved examining information on more than 18,000 families with young children who are taking part in the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS) - a longitudinal study tracking the development into adulthood of children born shortly after the millennium.

The researchers investigated the impact of ten risk factors:

  • Overcrowded housing
  • Teenage motherhood
  • Financial hardship
  • Domestic violence
  • Parental depression
  • Disability
  • Low basic skills
  • Substance misuse
  • Parental unemployment
  • Excessive drinking.

An analysis of the situation for children from different ethnic groups was also included.

It was found that 28 per cent of families faced two or more of the ten risk factors. As MCS is intended to be representative of the current UK child population, it was estimated that 192,000 children born in 2001 faced multiple challenges in early childhood.

"Multiple family difficulties are most damaging in the development of children," says Professor Dex. "During our work we found that Millennium cohort children who faced two or more risk factors had poorer behavioural development scores at ages three and five than those experiencing one challenge or no challenges at all."

Among ethnic minority groups, Bangladeshi families were found to be facing the highest rates of multiple risks, followed by black African and Pakistani families. Indian families were facing the lowest levels – lower than equivalent white families in the MCS data. Almost 50 per cent of Bangladeshi children were likely to be exposed to multiple risk factors, with financial hardship often being a recurrent factor. By comparison, only 20 per cent of Indian children were found to have experienced a similar level of family difficulties.

The researchers believe policy has to address the predominant co-occurring economic disadvantages some families face, such as households without paid employment and low basic skill levels of parents. However, the multiple risks experienced were not found to group together well - there were no obvious sets of circumstances that formed clusters of risks.

The wide range and varying nature of multiple disadvantages suggest it will be difficult to tackle simultaneously disadvantages where they occur two or more at a time. Also, the findings pointed to low income and multiple risks mattering both independently and jointly to children's outcomes.

Professor Dex and Dr Sabates conclude that there is relatively little to be gained from policy that seeks to tackle clusters of disadvantage. They recognise, however, that there may be potential beneficial knock-on effects, albeit more limited, from tackling individual risk factors and disadvantages.