12 May 2022

In summary

Childhood as we understand it, is changing. 300 years ago, only five per cent of children lived in cities compared to 50 per cent today. Children growing up in these noisy, busy environments face unique challenges which can affect their early cognitive and emotional development.

Researchers from the Baby Development Lab at the University of East London (UEL) have pioneered new methods to uncover how changing modern living environments affect early year development.

Led by Professor Sam Wass, an expert in developmental psychology, the lab has created the first research-based evidence showing how the early living environment can affect multiple types of problems for children, including impaired academic performances and adverse mental health outcomes.

Their work has shaped educational practices and encouraged public discussions to mitigate stress and anxiety for young children.


What did we explore and how?

As part of the Baby Development Lab, Professor Wass has investigated how these diverse home environments affect multiple types of problems for children, including poor academic performance and increased mental health challenges. 

Studies in the lab include wireless miniaturised wearable microphones, cameras and physiological stress monitors that can be worn by babies and parents to observe early parent-child interactions.

They can examine for the first time how changing levels of noise and chaos in the home environment can immediately impact on children's physiological stress, concentration, and social engagement. 

Results show that by 12 months of age, children growing up in physically noisier home environments have higher physiological stress levels, affecting both their cognitive performance and their emotional responsiveness.

Urban children showed lower sustained attention and greater emotional instability, they showed faster learning speeds in some contexts. Work has also analysed the relationship between how stress and anxiety is shared between adults and children both at home and at school.

What is the impact of this research?

Professor Wass has presented his research findings to over 50,000 Early Years practitioners, including the head teachers of over 2,000 primary schools, nurseries and 40 local Councils or Academy Trusts in the UK.

His work has led to fundamental change in practitioners reducing auditory and visual noise in teaching environments wherever possible to improve children's learning. With his input, local councils have also introduced steps to identify children who are particularly vulnerable to the detrimental effects of noisy environments, and to alter their teaching practice to reflect this.

Professor Wass has contributed in several media reports, including Channel 4's series The Secret Life of 4 and 5-Years Olds, advising on best practices for educating children and supporting them with their mental health.   

His work also included partnering with New River, who own 35 shopping centres around the UK, to introduce steps to make shopping centres more accommodating to children and adults vulnerable to over-stimulation.

REF case study: City kids: demonstrating how noisy, cramped environments affect early cognitive and emotional development

School: The School of Psychology

Area: The Baby Development Lab

Academic: Professor Sam Wass

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