The study aims to explore how such skills develop over time, and how and why this differs among children. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Parents often ask why their child is not able to speak as early as other children.

A new study aims to understand this, and how babies and toddlers develop the skills and abilities needed to succeed in school.

Researchers hope to learn how cognitive development takes place in the first four years of children's lives, and what factors make the most impact in that time.

The study, which was awarded a grant from the Ministry of Education last year, is the first tie-up between the National Institute of Education (NIE) and SingHealth Polyclinics.

It is targeting some 1,000 children who visit the polyclinics in Punggol and Tampines for regular health screenings.

Recruitment of the families started in September, and so far nearly 200 children have been signed up.

The study is jointly led by co-principal investigators Anne Rifkin, head of infancy and early childhood research at NIE's Centre for Research in Child Development, and Tan Ngiap Chuan, director of research at SingHealth Polyclinics.

They lead a team of 23 investigators with expertise ranging from developmental psychology and language to community health and parent-child relationships.

In an interview with The Straits Times, Dr Rifkin said the study is "purposefully designed to look at 21st century skills" in children, and is the first in Singapore to do so for such an early age span and over several visits.

Such skills are important for success in school and well-being later in life. They include executive function, a set of abilities crucial to learning, such as paying attention, prioritising tasks, following instructions and flexible thinking.

Aspects like memory and emotions are also assessed.

The study aims to explore how such skills develop over time, and how and why this differs among children.

Its researchers said other large-scale projects on young children in Singapore currently focus more on their physical development and well-being.

Said Dr Rifkin: "The big question is, why do some children do better than others, (why do they) have an easier time with things like learning, socio-emotional functioning and mental health issues when they get to school?

"We all know that there's a lot that goes on prior to school age, but what we don't know really is why these differences occur."

The children in the study are assessed at the polyclinics over several sessions between the ages of four months and four years.

An infant joining at four months would have seven sessions in total.

During these visits, they are given a series of tasks resembling games, which are meant to evaluate skills like memory and control.

There are experiments to track eye movement and test reaction time, with researchers observing how the child interacts with his or her parent or caregiver.

Associate Professor Tan said the study wants to examine how cognitive skills develop over time and where there is room for children to "catch up".

"We are trying to find out the possible enablers in order to design interventions in the future so that we can enhance what actually will help the child to grow better, and to mitigate negative factors."

Nurses at the polyclinics are well trained in assessing developmental milestones such as crawling or walking, added Prof Tan.

"We are looking after their biological, physiological health, (but) very little is actually known about their health in terms of intellectual development," he noted.

Parents often ask why their child cannot speak as early as another child, he pointed out.

"We actually have difficulty understanding and responding to their questions.

"This study is really an opportunity to learn what role 21st century skills (play) in enhancing the overall health of the child right from the beginning."

The study is roping in the children's pre-school teachers and parents as well, through online questionnaires to gather data on the school and home environments.

The questionnaires will cover topics ranging from teaching practices and parental beliefs to the families' socio-economic status and languages used at home.

Recruiting participants from the two polyclinics means that they are more likely to live in the same areas and attend the same pre-schools, said Dr Rifkin.

"We think that people who work in education and people who work in public health need to understand what the other is doing if we really want to help young families," she added.