We advocate for the interests, rights and wellbeing of children and young people

Discover what kids need at different stages of their childhood, plus tips on where you can make the biggest impact on their lives.

Children and young people experience five key stages of development as they move towards adulthood. Poverty can be a barrier to children making good progress and the impact is different for each of the stages:

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This page outlines briefly what kids need at different stages of life. More details on how poverty affects development, can be downloaded from the panel on the right or read about it here.

Pregnancy and healthy babies (0-2 years)

What happens in the womb and in the first years of life are really important to a child's future. It is a critical time for brain and body development. Positive attachment to a caregiver, good nutrition and appropriate stimulation are all important for a healthy start. Needs not met during this critical time can have lifelong impacts.

To give babies a healthy start, families with newborns need support. They need knowledge about how children grow, about parenting, and support to develop parenting skills, such as being responsive to a baby's crying.  They need healthy, safe housing, and basic material items for the baby (such as a safe place for it to sleep) and access to support in the community. 

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Developing Pre-schoolers (2-4 years)

The pre-school years are important for continuing brain and body development, and establishing appropriate behaviour.

To learn appropriate behaviour, children need positive and nurturing parenting with lots of praise.  Routines and patterns (such as reading time, bed time, eating, play time) can help.  Parents need to learn how to discipline children in non-violent ways, using positive parenting techniques.

Healthy, safe housing is important in the toddler years because children still spend a lot of time at home.  Parents also need information and support to provide good nutrition for the children and themselves, and develop healthy family eating habits.

Learning through play is important for a child's brain, social skills and physical development at this age.  Children need access to safe and stimulating outdoor play areas.  During this stage, quality early childhood education (ECE) makes a big difference for children’s preparation for school, wider social development and attachments.

Language development also blossoms when children are talked to a lot, with words they can understand.

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Growing Children (5-12 years)

A child’s time in school builds on their education and social skills.  During these years, the brain is still developmentally flexible enough to learn appropriate behaviour and develop reading and numeracy skills. 

Children need access to safe and interesting recreation and play - parks, playgrounds, libraries, swimming pools, music and cultural activities. 

Missing out on what other children have can affect a child's sense of belonging and self esteem. This impacts on their mental health and psychological wellbeing.

During the early school years, children’s peer relationships develop and different emotional and physical developments take place. Positive peer or mentoring relationships, and good experiences and supports become more important as the influence of school friends increases, and the influence of parents decreases.

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Empowered Teenagers (13-17 years)

Adolescence creates new challenges as children become more independent from their parents. They also feel pressure to achieve at school or with their peers, and develop new relationships. Hormonal changes affects how young people think, behave and react.

Self-harm, suicide, mental illness and unhealthy relationships can emerge in young people with low self esteem or insecurity, and those who have been traumatised (by an event or family violence, for example).  Knowledge about health, changing bodies, and the dynamics of healthy relationships can help young people avoid bullying or risky and unsafe behaviours. 

Leaving school with few or no qualifications puts young people at risk. Drug and alcohol use may increase if a young person is not taking part at school or in training or employment. Mentors can be useful role models and supporters of young people who need help to get back into education and on a positive track.   

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Young Adults (18-24 years)

Even as a young person moves into adulthood, mental capacity in terms of decision-making is still developing.  This stage is marked by risk taking, particularly among young men, whose brains are affected by testosterone.  This presents challenges for the new adult who is given all of the rights and responsibilities of older, fully mature adults in the community.

For those individuals whose development has been interrupted or set back, it can be a time where poverty, despondency and resentment set in.  The negative effects of risk taking can affect young adults from all socioeconomic status groups (for example deaths from car or motorbike accidents), and these can be exacerbated by poverty.

Supportive communities are needed to ensure that young adults get the skills and confidence needed to live fulfilling lives. Living independently is particularly challenging for young people who have been in State care or in supported living due to a disability, and these young people often require additional community supports. It is important to avoid transferring the negative effects of poverty and other disadvantages to the next generation.  

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Invest earlier for best results

People are more likely to notice problems among older children, such as truancy, unemployment, crime, or drug and alcohol abuse.  There is a lot of focus on investing in at-risk youth and also supporting those 'not in education, employment or training'. 

It would be more effective if we could re-balance giving towards the earliest stages of a child's life, and then provide on-going support as needed in later stages.

Investment is most needed for babies, because that is when their physical and mental settings are established.  All later development builds on that foundation.  The costs to parents, the child and society are greater if babies do not get a good start in life.

Evidence

There is evidence to support a greater focus on investing in younger children.  Look at the section on 'early investment – life cycle and cognitive skills' in The Case for an Investment Approach to Reducing Child Poverty.  If you want to understand more about how the timing and quality of early experiences combine to shape a child's brain, you can read this paper and a range of others by the Centre on the Developing Child at Harvard University.

Expanded version: children's needs

If you have found the content on this page interesting you may wish to read more.

Download the expanded version to discover more about what children need to thrive and how to make sure those needs are met.