The ground-breaking Dunedin Study findings

The Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study, widely known as the Dunedin Study, is a longitudinal study tracking the lives of more than 1,000 people born in Dunedin between 1972 and 1973.

It has revealed many fascinating things about the things we do in early childhood that can have impacts on our adult lives.

One of these findings was around self-regulation. The researchers found that young children’s self-control skills – such as conscientiousness, self-discipline and perseverance – predict their health, wealth and criminal history in later life, regardless of IQ or social background.

The researchers assessed the self-control of the participants at three years of age, and then examined their health outcomes, wealth outcomes and criminal conviction history at age 32.

Their findings suggested that even small improvements in self-control for children and adolescents could yield important reductions in costs of healthcare, welfare dependency, and crime to a nation.

Even after accounting for study members’ differences in social status and IQ, children who scored lower on measures of self-control were more likely than children with higher self-control to have physical health problems, substance dependence, difficulty with financial planning and a criminal conviction record in adulthood.

Interestingly, children whose self-control increased with age tended to have better adult outcomes than initially predicted, showing that self-control can change and with desirable results.

Can self-control be learned?

Of course, researchers have been preoccupied with the benefits of developing self-regulation for many years. A review of 102 studies found that two approaches most commonly used to promote self-regulation, either alone or in combination, were teaching caregivers how to co-regulate, and providing children with age-appropriate skills instruction.

The Dunedin Study findings added to the importance of developing self-regulation in young children and prompted Dr Dione Healey from the University of Otago to investigate the subject further.

“Self-regulation is essential for school readiness and success as you need to be able to sit still, not blurt out answers, persist with tasks, manage frustrations, and give and take in social relationships,” says Healey.

“We also know that early self-regulatory skills are predictive of adult outcomes,” she adds, citing the Dunedin Study.

“Therefore if we can find ways to improve self-regulation in preschoolers we can alter the life course trajectory for many individuals”.

Healey noted that while the number of preschoolers with behavioural difficulties (including hyperactivity, inattention, and aggression) is on the rise, current treatments, including medication, have their limitations and are not effective for all children.

She acknowledged the effectiveness of the reputable Positive Parenting Programme (Triple P) which works to improve self-regulation by providing clear and logical consequences to guide behaviour, and uses techniques such as quiet time and time out to allow children space to self-soothe.

‘ENGAGE’ alternative

Healey’s study, published in Scientific Reports, trialled an alternative intervention based on structured play. Enhancing Neurobehavioural Gains with the Aid of Games and Exercise (ENGAGE), was found to be equally effective in managing children with difficult behaviour and complemented current treatment options.

Children learn self-regulation through play. In structured games they need to wait their turn, plan their next move, focus on the ball, and manage frustration when things don’t go their way, Healey says.

ENGAGE involves parents playing a range of common games with their children in a structured way, for 30 minutes a day. Games can include puzzles, musical statues, hop scotch, blocks and skip rope.

Sixty families with children aged three to four took part in the study and were randomly assigned to undergo the Triple P or ENGAGE intervention over eight weeks, with a follow-up after 12 months.

Overall, ENGAGE was found to be as effective in improving children’s behaviour as Triple P. Reductions in hyperactivity, inattention and aggression, to within the typical range for their age, was evident post-intervention, and maintained for 12 months afterwards, according to parent reports.

“Our results indicate that parents spending regular one-on-one time playing with their young children has the same positive effect on children’s behaviour as using behaviour-management techniques, which have a long history of being effective in managing child behaviour.

“With ENGAGE, we now have an additional treatment option for young, at-risk children that is enjoyable, low cost, easily accessible, and associated with long-term maintenance of treatment gains. It’s good to have a choice of equally effective options as what works well for one family may not work as well for another,” says Healey.

An example of the programme in action is a game participants played called ‘Animal Speeds’. Children would engage in various activities – such as dancing or moving around the room – at various speeds based on what animal name was called out. Cheetah mode was fast, giraffe mode was moderate speed, and tortoise mode was really slow.

“Then when they are out and about as a family, parents were able to just say ‘tortoise mode’ when they wanted their child to slow down. They found this worked really well and helped manage their child’s behaviour very effectively, whereas in the past they were constantly telling their child to slow down with no success.”

A large trial of ENGAGE has just been run in early childhood settings in Auckland, in conjunction with Dunedin’s Methodist Mission, along with a home-based care trial in partnership with Pioneers in Dunedin.

“Results of these studies are still being worked through, but anecdotal feedback has been very positive and led to significant improvements not only in children’s behaviour, but also in the practice of those teachers involved.”

Red Light, Purple Light

Wayne and Chloe Wright, of the Wright Family Foundation, which owns New Zealand’s BestStart early childhood centres, also took a keen interest in the Dunedin Study’s findings on self-regulation.

Realising the significant implications for children’s future outcomes if they could help children develop self-regulation, the Wrights embarked on some research with the University of Auckland.

A self-regulation intervention programme called ‘Red Light, Purple Light’ developed at Oregon State University was trialled at 16 BestStart centres in June and July 2018, with eight centres forming the control group.

The intervention focuses on a series of music- and movement-based circle time games that can be used to promote young children’s self-regulation at home and at school.

The trial has been evaluated by University of Auckland and results will be disseminated shortly. It is hoped that the findings will help inform future interventions in early childhood centres that will help children develop self-regulation skills that will equip them well for later in life.

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