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About early intervention

We know that children who get a good start in life are more likely to do well later in life. Even before birth, issues affecting the family and mother such as stress in pregnancy, smoking, low income and poor housing can be strong influences on a child's development. Similarly after birth, factors such as post-natal depression, socio-economic stress, hitting and frequent smacking are strongly associated with negative outcomes for the child many years down the line.

Just as risk factors are strongly linked to negative later outcomes, resilience factors, such as a supportive family environment, are strongly linked to positive later outcomes. The family environment and parent-child interaction are crucial factors in the emotional and social development of a child and there is strong and growing evidence of the relevance of the experiences in the first few years of life on the development of the child's brain.

For a young child, neglect and rejection has been shown to limit the functional ability of the brain and damage it physically. This is crucial because brain growth and the development of cognitive (intellectual) and non-cognitive skills (socio-emotional, such as motivation, self-control and self-confidence) are at their greatest during the early years - it is at this stage that patterns of future development, in areas like learning, health and behaviour, are established.

Supporting families and whānau, through early intervention in the lives of children, provides opportunities to promote child development by preventing risk factors arising, and reducing them when they do. Well designed and carefully implemented early intervention programmes improve social, educational and economic outcomes for children and their families and whānau.

Early intervention tilts the balance from remedial action to upfront investment, and has the potential to transform New Zealand society over the next decade. The effectiveness of early intervention is supported by a large body of international research demonstrating improvements in children's lives across a range of domains. Evaluations of US programmes show that for every dollar invested in quality early intervention initiatives, returns range from $3.00 initially to $17.00 when participants are followed to adulthood. Other evidence, taking into account savings in criminal justice, educational attainment, benefit savings and increased revenue from taxes, suggests an economic return of between 15 and 17 per cent. Similar gains may be possible in New Zealand.

The following diagram shows the value in investing in early interventions such as pre-school programmes as the rate of return is far greater than returns on later interventions such as job training.

Rate of Return to Investment to Human Capital Graph

We are working to ensure that:

  • families have the practical skills to provide safe, positive age/stage appropriate parenting that helps their children develop.
  • communities have strong relationships with families with young children, and provide connections to support networks, structures and services to improve the lives of children and families.
  • networks of well co-ordinated and responsive services are readily available to all families.
Rates of return to human capital investment initially setting investment to be equal across all ages. Source: Heckman, J, 2006


The Early Years Intervention approach is a cross-government approach to developing an early years intervention system for all children aged 0 to 6 years, and their families and whānau.  The approach is led by the Ministry of Social Development (in conjunction with the Ministries of Health, Education and Justice) and involves the child and family services sector.  It includes services from across the health, education and social services sectors.  Building the system requires progressively expanding current services and developing new initiatives across government.

Action is required in three areas:

  • improving the provision and coverage of key early years services
  • ensuring effective delivery of services
  • improving system capacity and capability.

The approach also includes work to improve the way early years services, (including universal, targeted and intensive services) identify young children with additional needs, assess their needs and respond to those needs.

The Early Years Intervention approach aims to improve the following outcomes for children:

  • Attachment and Belonging - children enjoy secure attachment to family and whānau
  • Physical Health and Mental Wellbeing - children enjoy good physical and mental health
  • Safety - children are safe and free from abuse, neglect, family violence, or death from injury
  • Knowledge and Skills - children are supported to reach their potential
  • Participation - children are given the opportunity to participate in decisions that affect them now and in the future.