New research describes the lives of 7/8-year-olds and identifies areas where interventions could help children achieve positive later life outcomes

The latest Growing Up in Ireland research findings describe how 5,000 7/8-year-olds in Ireland are faring in three aspects of their lives and help to identify where children of this age require most support to build healthy, successful lives in the following areas:

  1. Health and development
  2. School and learning
  3. Socio-emotional development, relationships and play

Health and development at 7/8 years of age

Most 7/8-year-olds are in good health. Around 80 per cent of 7/8-year-olds were described by parents as being very healthy, no problems with a further 19 per cent described as healthy, but with a few minor problems.  This has been the general picture since 9 months of age.

Overweight and obesity remain a major health problem, particularly among children from low income families.  15 per cent of children were reported to have been overweight and 5 per cent as being obese.  27 per cent of children from lowest income families were overweight or obese compared with 16 per cent of children from the highest income families.

Dietary quality was linked to family social class.  36 per cent of children from families in the most socially disadvantaged group had a low dietary quality compared to 17 per cent of children from a professional/managerial background.

School and learning at 7/8 years of age

Most children were reported to have adjusted well to school.  90 per cent of mothers reported that that their child had adjusted easily to school. Over three-quarters (77 per cent) of mothers said their 7/8-year-old did not find it difficult to sit still and listen in class, although 14 per cent did report they found it difficult.

Children who find it difficult to settle into school in the beginning continue to find school difficult. Children who were identified by their teachers at 5 years of age as having a negative attitude or disposition to school were reported by their mothers to have had more adjustment problems 2 years later. Identifying the types of children who have negative dispositions to school at an early stage helps to target children most in need of support.

Boys are more likely than girls to find school difficult. Mothers reported that 87 per cent of boys compared to 92 per cent of girls found it easy to adjust to school.  19 per cent of boys found it difficult to sit still and listen in class, compared to 8 per cent of girls.

Children whose mothers have less education are more likely to find schoolwork difficult. Mothers who had third level education were less likely to say their child usually found schoolwork hard (2 per cent) compared to mothers who had left school at Junior Certificate or earlier (5 per cent).

Socio-emotional development, relationships and play at 7/8 years of age

Most children were doing well in terms of their socio-emotional development. This was based on reports from the children’s mothers, using internationally developed and widely-used measures of socio-emotional well-being.

Girls had higher scores on measures of social skills than boys. Girls were scored higher on measures of social skills such as assertion, empathy, responsibility and self-control.

Reading, ‘make-believe’ games and playing on a computer/tablet were the most frequent play activities reported by children’s mothers. 35 per cent read for pleasure every day but 22 per cent did so less than 1-2 times a week.  Boys were more likely to play physically active games but also more computer games.  Girls were more likely to enjoy dance, music, crafts and reading.

Boys had more screen time than girls. Among all children, typical screen time on a week day was reported to be 1-2 hours, but this increased to over 3 hours each day at the weekend.  Boys had substantially more screen time than girls.  14 per cent of boys and 10 per cent of girls had more than three hours of screen time on a typical weekday.  On a typical day at the weekend 51 per cent of boys and 39 per cent of girls had more than 3 hours of screen time.

Children whose mothers had lower levels of education have more screen time.  Screen time varied significantly with level of mother’s education.  23 per cent of 7/8-year-olds whose mothers have Junior Certificate level education or less had more than 3 hours of screen-time on a week day compared to 6 per cent of those whose mother had a degree.

Commenting on the new research findings, James Williams, Research Professor at the ESRI, noted that: ‘The figures released today once again show how the Growing Up in Ireland study is providing very detailed information to highlight the areas of children’s lives where they most need support.  The findings published today highlight the importance of early identification and intervention for children who have a negative attitude towards school from their earliest experiences of it.  Negative attitudes towards school at 5 years of age are reflected in the children having difficulties in adjusting to school 2-3 years later and to coping with the pace of schoolwork’.

Welcoming the publication of this new research from the Growing Up in Ireland study, Minister Katherine Zappone TD commented, “Obesity and diet are issues which must continue to be addressed to ensure the health of our children. Growing up in Ireland is a significant state investment in research on children’s lives funded by my Department - it helps us understand children's lives and experiences. This evidence will feed into future policy not just in my own area but right across Government. There are lessons for health, education and many others. It is invaluable. The findings show many children are doing well, settling into school and experiencing positive health and well-being. But they also draw attention to more problematic issues and help identify which groups are doing less well and where support may be required. This is the kind of information that will be of great value to policy makers working to improve outcomes for children.”

The publications are available to download at the links below:

These publications were published on the same day as Understanding General Practitioner Use among Children in Ireland. The associated press release is available here.