Our Science

What is A Better Start's job?

Children looking at a computer screen smiling

Our job is to make science work for children. 

A Better Start’s mission is to find better ways to predict, prevent and treat obesity, learning and mental health problems in children and teenagers.

We are one of the National Science Challenges designed to find solutions to large, complex issues facing New Zealanders.

Our research strategy is new for New Zealand because it will target at-risk children early, engage their communities, draw together experts from different disciplines and institutions, and take a holistic approach to obesity, learning and mental health difficulties, which are usually studied in isolation.

What will A Better Start do on obesity?

The obesity research goals are:

  • to develop tools to predict which infants are at risk of becoming obese by the age of five – using sociodemographic and research data, body measurements and biological samples
  • to develop strategies to prevent or treat obesity in children and teenagers at risk.

Research will include investigating:

  • environmental factors such as food, activity, sleep and gut microbiome
  • genetic inheritance
  • epigenetics – the way the environment can change the behaviour of a child’s genes.

What will A Better Start do on learning?

The literacy research goals are:

  • to develop strategies to help children at risk of literacy problems succeed from their first year at school  – using the best techniques and services in the education and health sectors
  • to support children who are emerging as bilingual in English and either Te Reo Māori or Samoan, as they move from preschool to primary school.

Research will include investigating the best ways:

  • to teach vocabulary and phonological awareness – the ability to read a word by sounding out the letters in it
  • to integrate health and education services to support children and their families.

What will A Better Start do on mental health?

The mental health research goals are:

  • to develop next-generation online self-help tools for teenagers and those around them to help detect common mental health problems
  • to use these tools to offer help to at-risk teenagers, first with an evidence-based online treatment programme, and then, if needed, with access to mental health services.

Research will include:

  • designing the next generation of behavioural intervention technologies
  • developing rigorous tests of their effectiveness
  • presenting them in an engaging way.

What will A Better Start do on developmental and behavioural disorders?

Learning and mental health researchers will explore new methods of detecting and treating young chillden with developmental and behavioural disorders.

How does A Better Start’s research programme work?

Our research programme is designed to run for up to a decade, from 2015 until 2024, in two phases. 

In each phase we will carry out core research projects and commission complementary special projects: 

  • in Phase One from 2016 to 2019 we will work to understand the causes and mechanisms of obesity, literacy and mental health problems and how they are linked, develop tools to predict who is at risk, and develop strategies to prevent or treat problems early in life
  • in Phase Two from 2019 to 2024 we will put our findings into action in the community to find solutions that work in the real world, and commission new research projects as necessary.

We will use a variety of research methods:

  • statistical models
  • laboratory work
  • clinical research unit studies
  • studies in communities and schools.

We believe science works best for people where there is a crossing of cultural borders – a braiding of rivers.  We aim to bring together indigenous and Western scientific understandings.

We are guided by Vision Mātauranga – the government research framework which aims to unlock the potential of Māori knowledge, resources and people. 

What will A Better Start add to science in New Zealand?

A Better Start will:

  • develop a cluster of New Zealand researchers with world-class skills in obesity, learning and mental health
  • develop the expertise of Māori and Pacific researchers
  • develop expertise in multidisciplinary and collaborative research
  • create new models for engaging community stakeholders in research and sharing the results with them
  • engage with leading international thinkers and enhance New Zealand’s scientific reputation.