First three years key to school success: study

How children are faring at ages one, two and three is a good predictor of how they will perform in their first year at school

How children are faring before they turn four is a strong guide to early school success, according to a major study. It is more important than what happens to them in the year immediately before they start school.

The Federal Government has promised to provide 15 hours a week of free preschool for the nation's four-year-olds. But the study indicates the importance of investment in the earlier years, too.

The Child Care Choices study is unique in Australia for having followed an initial group of children - more than 670 - from child care to school for six years.

The team of researchers, led by Jennifer Bowes of Macquarie University's children and families research centre, focused on children who used some formal child care - usually long-day-care centres - and did not include children cared for exclusively by parents, nannies or other carers.

It found that how children are faring at ages one, two and three is a good predictor of how they will perform in their first year at school in literacy and numeracy, and in their social behaviour. Those who had shown behaviour problems at child care and home early in their development were at risk of continuing the pattern at school.

"It indicates children's relationships and attitudes to learning are established very early on in life," Professor Bowes said.

As well, the study showed the children who did well in numeracy in the first year of school had already shown an aptitude for numerical concepts from about age three, and had fewer early social problems; and those doing well at literacy had fewer early social problems, and also had fewer siblings.

Professor Bowes said the Government's guarantee of a year of preschool was important, especially for children with no experience of child care.

"But investment before the age of four is also important for child development."

The study also found children who spent longer hours in child-care centres in their first three years were more likely to experience behaviour problems in their first year at school than those who spent shorter hours in care. The long-hours children on average also showed less kindness and empathy than those who had spent shorter hours in care.

The study, which is mostly funded by the NSW Department of Community Services, has not yet established what number of hours triggered the negative effect of child care on behaviour and empathy.

But international studies have found 30 hours a week to be significant, especially for children under one. Because only 11.8 per cent of Australian mothers with preschool age children work full-time, only a small minority of very young children spend long hours in formal child care.

The combination of formal child care with some care by grandparents, friends, or relatives helped children's later adjustment to school, the study showed. There was also strong evidence that having had a close relationship with child-care workers was important for a child's later behaviour at school and development of empathy.

Professor Bowes said the relationship between children and child-care workers was "central" to children's social development. "Spending time with individual children is very important to a child-care worker's job," she said.

The findings will be presented as the Australian Social Policy conference at the University of NSW this week.