Early Childhood Development


Early childhood development is a complex process involving dynamic interactions between the environment, biology, cognition, and behaviour. Despite being a data-rich area, there is an increasing need for international, interdisciplinary, and longitudinal research to better identify pathways of, and risks to, healthy childhood development.

Following an initial workshop organised by Professor Toney Okley (Director of Research for the Early Start Initiative, University of Wollongong), colleagues from across the UGPN network identified opportunities for collaborative interactions. This was followed by a successful application to the UGPN Research Collaboration Fund for the project ‘Resilience and Diversity in Early Childhood Development’ led by Professor Jane Herbert (School of Psychology, University of Wollongong,) with co-investigators Professor Alex Florindo (School of Arts, Sciences and Humanities, University of São), Professor Catherine Hoyo (North Carolina State University) and Professor Annette Sterr (University of Surrey). The project brings together key researchers to develop and co-ordinate studies on early childhood development, with the specific aim to build the foundation for a quadrilateral cohort study in due course.

The project team, including PhD students, early career researchers and senior colleagues, met at North Carolina State University in November 2017 to identify areas for strength and complementary expertise, and to decide upon a strategy for sustainable funding as well as building a joint research record. The latter includes a systematic review of measures of cognition in nutrition studies, led by Nadine Page (Lecturer in Integrated Care (Mental Health), University of Surrey) and Dr Bernadette Egan (Senior Research Fellow, Food, Consumer Behaviour & Health (FCBH) Research Centre, University of Surrey) and a positioning paper on cognitive measures and methods in development research. Both these activities were advanced further during a recent exchange visit by Professor Annette Sterr to the University of Wollongong.

The team are keen to capitalise on expertise and experience obtained from the Early Start Project, a unique combination of community outreach, education and research initiatives housed within a 8,800m2 purpose-built research and educational facility, based at the University of Wollongong. The facility provides a supportive and stimulating environment from which to coordinate large scale national and international research. As Director of Research for the Early Start Initiative, Professor Tony Okely forms an important part of the project team, adding his particular expertise in physical development and community-based interventions to the programme of work. Contributing colleagues from the University of Surrey include Drs Kathrin Cohen-Kadosh and Peter Klaver who offer expertise on social and emotional development as well as brain development. Professor Monique Raats, Director of the FCBH, Drs Kathrine Hart and Sarah Bath contribute their expertise in maternal and child behavioural nutrition and particular knowledge of decision making relating to infant and child feeding practices at policy level. The team are currently working on a proposal to fund a longitudinal study on early childhood development across four continents.

Key researchers

Professor Jane Herbert
University of Wollongong
Professor Alex Florindo
University of São Paulo
Professor Cathrin Hoyo
North Carolina State University
Professor Annette Sterr
University of Surrey