Strengthening children's relational competencies: Identifying key factors that impact on emotional and social resilience from pre-birth to 4-5 years

Early Years Research Centre

Principal Investigators: Linda Mitchell & Jayne White (RMIT)

Associate Investigators: Sally Peters

Statistician: Edith Hodgen Economist: Gordon Cleveland (University of Toronto)

Project Dates: July 2018 - May 2019

Partnerships: Funded by the Ministry of Social Development

What is this research about?

The study will build on our analysis of pre-birth and age nine months Growing Up in New Zealand (GUINZ) data carried out by Early Years Research Centre University of Waikato researchers and a parallel analysis of age nine months Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC) data carried out by Charles Sturt University researchers. This preliminary analysis investigated relationships between a mother’s emotional state and attitudes towards her infant, and the development of relational competencies, including language, of her infant, over the first nine months of life. The current study will extend the analysis of mother-child relationships, maternal characteristics and environmental factors to ages two years and 4½ years.  The project is being undertaken as a research collaboration with Te Oranga Tamariki Ministry of Children and in close consultation with the Ministry of Health. Informed by the results we will then work with these Ministries to inform existing support and early childhood education services aimed at strengthening children's relational competencies and promoting resilience.

Why is this research important?

A large body of research evidence has linked mothers' depression with poor social competencies in their young children. In turn, social competence is closely linked to child outcomes concerning effective engagement in the social world, with long-lasting negative impacts on educational success, mental health and well-being. However, little is known about the kinds of environmental supports that can alter these effects in the early years. The project will investigate maternal characteristics and environmental supports, including early childhood education, that play a role in disrupting potentially negative social trajectories.

Who will this research help inform?

Our study will be of particular interest to policy-makers in education, social services and health. It will contribute to an understanding of mothers with self-reported maternal depression, their support networks and the decisions they make in relation to early childhood education for their child. Information about how children are impacted by maternal depression over the first 4½ years of life, how and why impacts change over time, and what maternal characteristics and environmental factors disrupt potentially negative impacts of maternal depression will be especially relevant. The focus on maternal characteristics and environmental supports will offer decision-makers opportunity to assess when and how to intervene to effect change in relation to the child and family, through, for example, provision of parenting and family support and access to empowering early childhood education services. For a policy analyst audience, we will write up findings in the form of “policy/research briefings” that will pinpoint key policy-relevant findings targeted to particular government ministries.