North or south, left or right, "soft skills" count

North or south, left or right, "soft skills" count
09 November 2009

Australians are being told that the quality of life inside their schools is likely to exert a more powerful influence on their children's long-term well being than any other aspect of their lives, just as the UK think tank, Demos, is announcing findings based on a larger UK development study that parenting quality in the early years is the key to "building character".

The announcement from the Australian Institute of Family Studies, last week, is based on a reading of data from the Australian Temperament Project, which is tracking the psychosocial development of 1,158 children born in the State of Victoria in late 1982 and early 1983.

It suggests that the Victoria students' sense of connection with their schools when they were in their mid to late teens was the strongest predictor of how well they would be doing three years later in relation to their social competence, satisfaction with life, civic engagement and their ability to trust and tolerate others.

The connection held true regardless of gender or social background and was found to be a bigger factor than any measured aspect of personality – or the quality of a young person’s relationship with parents or peers.

The progress of the Demos Building Character initiative, which draws on data from the UK Millennium Cohort Study, will be the focus of a press launch on Wednesday fronted by the Shadow Minister for the Family, Maria Miller, and Professor Stephen Scott, Director of Research at the National Academy for Parenting Practitioners.

According to one weekend press report, Demos will argue the case for a balanced combination of parental warmth and discipline as a basis for life skills such as application, self-regulation and empathy. An opposite permutation - low warmth/high criticism – emerged from the UK child protection research in the 1990s as a key indicator of damaging neglect.

Coverage in the right-leaning UK tabloid The Daily Star said Demos had found that children with affluent and/or married parents were twice as likely to show the desirable character traits as children from lone parent or step-parented families. When parental style and confidence were factored in, the difference in child character development between richer and poorer families disappeared – indicating that parenting quality was the most important influence.

Demos's own trailer says: “We find that a combination of warmth, responsiveness, and consistent discipline leads to the development of strong character capabilities in children and that these qualities are best measured through proximal, micro-level interactions between parent and child in the home.

“Children essentially learn empathy, self-regulation, and application through interaction with trusted, loving adults. We also find that while traditional disadvantage – poverty, family structure, and educational background – still impinges on parent’s ability to parent well, these effects are mediated and knocked out when parent’s possess high levels of competence, confidence, and self-belief.

The Australian daily The Age reported the Melbourne research analysts as being surprised by the strength of the findings emerging from the Temperament Project that “school bonding” trumped every other factor in predicting whether teenagers developed into positive, well-adjusted young adults.

Study co-author Meredith O'Connor said of the Victoria perspective, "If we look at 19-year-olds today, their parents are not telling them what to do. They no longer have the traditional structures of the past where there was a clear pathway from education into employment and family life.

"That means young people really need to have their own competencies because the abundance of choice can make it very difficult to negotiate the next steps in life after school. If a person feels good about school and invested in their schoolwork, they're much more likely to be able to negotiate emerging adulthood than people who feel disconnected."


Australian Temperament Project

The Australian Temperament Project is a longitudinal study of the psychosocial development of a representative sample of Australian children born in the state of Victoria between September 1982 and January 1983. It aims to trace the pathways to psychosocial adjustment and maladjustment across the lifespan, and to investigate the contribution of personal, family and environmental factors to development and well-being. A major theme throughout has been the influence of an individual's temperament on his/her emotional and behavioral adjustment.
The initial sample comprised 2,443 families from urban and rural areas, of whom approximately two-thirds are still participating after 24 years. Fourteen waves of data have been collected by mail surveys from 4-8 months to 24 years of age. Parents, maternal and child health nurses, primary school teachers, and. from the age of 11, the children themselves have completed questionnaires.

UK Millennium Cohort Study

The UK Millennium Cohort Study study is following the lives of approximately 19,000 children born in the UK between 2000-2001. So far there have been four sweeps of data collection, the last in 2008.
The sample was selected from a random sample of electoral wards, disproportionately stratified to ensure adequate representation of all four UK countries, deprived areas and areas with high concentrations of Black and Asian families.
The first wave of data collection covered circumstances of pregnancy, birth and early months and the social and economic background of the family. The second survey concentrated on continuity and change to assess key aspects of the child's physical, cognitive, social and emotional development and to maximize longitudinal potential for predicting and explaining future development.
The Centre for Longitudinal Studies carried out the first two surveys with funding from the Economic and Social Research Council and a consortium of Government Departments.

Stephen Scott

Stephen Scott is Professor of Child Health and Behaviour and Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist at the Institute of Psychiatry in London, England and Director of Research at the National Academy for Parenting Practitioners. He has published extensively on the mechanisms through which interventions operate as well as on their effectiveness. He is also Head of the National Specialist Conduct Problems Clinic and the National Specialist Adoption and Fostering Clinic.

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