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It is widely recognised that the early years of a child’s life, particularly the period between conception and age two, is a crucial period for physical, cognitive and emotional development. What happens in those first years can affect a child’s future health and wellbeing.

Early intervention is a public policy approach to identify and support children and their families at an early stage, to prevent a range of problems developing later in life, such as poor physical and mental health, low educational attainment, crime and anti-social behaviour. The Early Intervention Foundation charity notes that policies in this area can take many different forms, from home visiting to support vulnerable parents, to activities to support children’s early language development. Early intervention policies are not, however, limited to early years but due to the rapid pace of physical and social development in very young children, policies are often targeted at this stage.

There are a range of different definitions of ‘early intervention’, covering a wide range of policy areas and attached to a variety of approaches and different age groups. Some, such as the First 1001 Days Movement, focus interventions during the early years of a child’s life. Other approaches, such as the Troubled Families programme extend to adolescence and whole family units to prevent problems developing at later stages.

Early intervention programmes can be targeted at specific groups; for example the Family Nurse Partnership (England) for first time mothers aged 19 or under, aimed specifically at vulnerable families, where children are at higher risk of poor outcomes in later life. Universal programmes by contrast, such as the mandated health visits for young children, are offered to all families.

The common thread between different definitions is their focus on the importance of early support for children and their families, to improve children’s later life chances, health and wellbeing.

A key argument in favour of early intervention is that social problems can be more effectively addressed if dealt with early in a child’s life. It is argued that later, reactive interventions are markedly less effective at combatting social issues, ranging from unemployment, to crime and substance misuse.

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