Using what we know to get the best results

What makes us who we are? How can we know what it takes to ensure that every child gets the best start in life? How can we help policy developers make the best decisions for the wellbeing of Kiwi kids? Our answer is simple but, at the same time, complex: we study them. And we do it over a long period of time.

Longitudinal studies provide researchers, policy makers, programme developers and funders with a rich selection of information about influences on the development of young minds, and how and why the impacts differ for children as they grow and develop.

Longitudinal studies are most valuable when the information they gather anticipates well the influences on the life course experienced by each cohort of children. When the information is analysed there are insights to be gained which help us make better decisions and, ultimately, improve the wellbeing of future generations.

The Growing Up in New Zealand (GUiNZ) longitudinal study is investigating these issues and GUiNZ and Superu* have just released the latest findings from the study, which focuses on the children at age 4 as they are preparing for school.

The study is designed to provide unique information about what shapes children’s early development and how interventions might be targeted at the earliest opportunity to give every New Zealand child the best start in life. As the children in the study grow, there will be new findings about their later lives.

From the latest GUiNZ research we know, for example, that there’s a high prevalence of obesity among the children: at age four, 14 percent were classified as overweight or obese. However, a majority of the children found to be overweight were perceived by their mothers to be of normal weight. Knowing this could influence how the government and other relevant organisations address the issue and so avoid negative long-term outcomes for the children and costly health care.

While the huge benefits of big data are becoming more apparent, for government most of what is considered big data comes from how the state records it’s connections with its citizens. The GUiNZ study provides information from the perspective of the child and their parents or caregivers, enabling the impacts not only of policy but of service delivery to be assessed. For data to move beyond being just numbers we need these sort of insights, that are the key to knowing how we can make a positive change.

* The GUiNZ report was produced by the University of Auckland with Crown funding managed by Superu.