Early years support is key to future well-being

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Parents need support right from the start, argues Javed Khan

javed-khan-barnardo-s-chief-executive

Javed Khan

As the father of four girls, I have always felt the tremendous responsibility of parenthood, so I am grateful to have the support of my wife in raising them.

From the work we do at Barnardo’s, I see that not every child is born into a stable, loving family. Some of the parents we work with didn’t have the best start in life themselves and might not have had the experience of being read to or played with by their own parents.

Bringing home a ‘bundle of joy’ can often bring with it a bundle of nerves. The first years of a child’s life can be a bewildering time, especially in the first few weeks.

That was certainly true for me when we took our firstborn home. Alongside huge pride, I remember looking at my daughter, hoping I would be able to give her all she needed.

From conception through to a child’s first year of life, what’s happening around them influences their mental and emotional development. Along with the genes they were born with, environment has a huge impact on a child’s well-being.

Looking at brain development alone underlines the huge importance of positive early experiences. The synapses – the connections – are formed at a rapid pace up to the age of three, then whittled down to those used most. Smarter humans have more of these, so positive early experiences are vital for intelligence.

It is therefore important that all parents are supported well from the very beginning, before negative experiences in a baby’s life are cemented in their development. Babies will adapt to each situation they find themselves in, whether positive or negative. The impact of early neglect, for example, can manifest as adults who then find it trickier to form strongly bonded relationships. Tackling issues early on can prevent bigger problems later in a child’s life.

PLAY, RELAX, CUDDLE…

Parenting is one of the hardest jobs going, so no wonder some parents need a little help to learn the skills they need. Barnardo’s family support team uses the simple ‘Five to Thrive’ principles – talk, play, relax, cuddle, respond – to help parents interact with their children in a positive way. So far, we have trained more than 2,500 staff in 250 services to help parents use this approach with their babies.

I recently visited Newport in Wales to meet some families using our services. One mum talked me through the difference a Barnardo’s project worker had made to her understanding of her young son’s autism, which was undiagnosed until he was three. Everything changed and she began to understand how better to support him.

All families with under-fives can attend our children’s centres, which offer a range of services for parents and children. These centres can play a vital role in helping all families, as well as any parent who may need a bit of help learning the skills needed to raise their child.

LIFE CHANCES

So, we are playing our part in supporting families, but what is the Government doing? £17 billion is spent every year in England and Wales addressing problems affecting children and young people, but many of those issues could have potentially been avoided if families had more support at the beginning.

Earlier this year, the Government promised to invest in children and young people’s futures through its new Life Chances strategy. More recently, it set out proposals to improve social work support for vulnerable children and young people in the UK today, alongside tackling some of the UK’s deepest social problems.

I’m glad the Government has set these priorities, and I share the Prime Minister’s high ambitions for children. This has been Barnardo’s driving force for 150 years. However, any promise of equal life chances for all children must be underpinned with a real investment in support to help parents through children’s earliest years. Good parenting sets the foundation for happy, healthy children.

The future of vital children’s centres hangs in the balance due to a whopping 35 per cent cut in funding since 2010. The impact is that many services are closing, and even our Prime Minister’s own mother is protesting against the cuts.

Government announced plans to review children’s centres almost a year ago, but we are still waiting for a date for the consultation to begin, along with the detail of its Life Chances strategy. Our view is clear: the early years support on offer in children’s centres and family services has a key role to play in helping the Government meet its Life Chances ambitions.

Children are our future and they deserve the best start in life. Investing in their well-being from the outset will not only have a positive effect on the child, but on society as a whole.

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