Early intervention when children are very young – from birth to three years of age, while their brains and skills are developing rapidly – can dramatically improve life prospects. Basics such as good nutrition, language development, and physical, cognitive and social skills can be helped by family and supported by social and early-child development programs.
Less recognised is the importance of the second stage of rapid brain development, early adolescence. Between the ages of eight and 14, a period sometimes called the “middle years”, a person’s brain goes through changes almost as radical as those in the first two years. If we want to maintain momentum from initiatives to foster development in early years, and intervene to prevent problems and set future, positive life courses, this time represents an important second chance.
Yet we know very little about what parents, or policymakers who design government programs, can do in these years to make a positive difference. We pay far more attention to very young children and older teenagers: cute babies and unruly teens gather headlines, while the middle years are ignored.
The one exception is education, where we worry about NAPLAN scores and international test rankings. In other fields such as health, material well-being, participation in society or cultural identity, children in their middle years are virtually ignored. If young people develop mental-health problems, anti-social behaviours, radicalisation and disaffection, or myriad other issues later in life, they likely had their origins in the ages 10 to 14. Unfortunately, the evidence on how or why this happens is limited.
– Stephen Bartos
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