A New Approach

Our approach to research is different. A Better Start’s research strategy is new for New Zealand, because we are:

We are working in depth

Research projects in New Zealand are usually funded for no more than three years. Our projects are funded for up to ten years, until 2024. 

We have set up our projects in a logical sequence designed to make the greatest possible impact. We have also built in the flexibility to commission complementary new projects as our work reveals the need for them.

We are looking for solutions that are translatable and scalable

Scientific research that is well received in academic circles often fails to translate into practical solutions that work in the real world. Our job is to turn research into real change for children.  We aim to do more than publish research that is well-received in academic circles because it is proves a new idea.

Our goal is to come up with practical solutions that work for people.  We will translate our ideas into strategies that are manageable for whole communities.

We are drawing together experts from different disciplines

Scientists specialising in paediatrics, education, psychiatry and psychology will collaborate with public health experts, education specialists, social workers, software designers, big data analysts, epidemiologists, economists and Māori and Pacific research experts, as well as representatives of the Māori and Pacific communities most in need.

This kind of research has never been done in New Zealand before.  It’s rare for our health and education researchers to work together, let alone experts from the breadth of disciplines working on A Better Start.

We are drawing together experts from different institutions

A Better Start draws experts from different institutions together to collaborate.

More than 75 researchers from seven universities, four District Health Boards and several other organisations will work on our initial projects.

We are collaborating with experts around the world

Researchers here have not always been able to tap the best minds around the world. Our science leaders are internationally-regarded experts themselves, and they are working with other experts around the world.

Our researchers are also working with others internationally to examine data from studies on large groups of children around the world.

We are taking a holistic approach to apparently different problems

Researchers have tended to examine one problem in isolation, without looking at what we might learn if we investigated several at once.  But from the child’s point of view - obesity, learning and mental health problems are often intertwined. 

We will investigate these apparently separate problems together, because they often appear together in children at risk, with each problem affecting the others. We will also look not just at the individual child, but their family, their peers and their environment.

We are targeting children as early as possible in life

Researchers studying obesity, learning and mental health have tended to focus on children who are starting school, rather than on infancy and early childhood, when it is easier to make changes.

A Better Start will concentrate on the ages when we can make the most difference:

  • obesity – in infancy and early childhood, when prediction and early detection using statistical and biological tools will allow us to develop new prevention strategies for obesity and its associated learning and behavioural problems
  • learning – in early childhood and the first year of school, when prevention and early intervention strategies will compliment reading recovery programmes
  • mental health – during the teenage years when problems first become apparent, and can be treated early, before they become ingrained.

We are targeting the children most in need

Studies here and internationally have tended to look at samples of the whole population. A Better Start will focus on those tamariki most at risk of obesity, learning and mental health problems – those for whom we can make the most difference. 

These are Māori, Pacific and poorer children, who carry an unfair burden.

We are working with communities and cultures

Researchers have often tended to impose their own cultural values on people from other communities and cultures. We will succeed in making real changes only when our research projects respond to the cultures of the people they are designed for, and deal with their realities.

Māori and Pacific communities are helping to design, execute and interpret our research in a way that is culturally right for them. 

We are working across scientific cultures

The study of our tamariki has for many years been dominated by the western world view. We are the first large, multidisciplinary New Zealand project in this area to integrate indigenous and western perspectives. We believe science works best for people where there is a crossing of cultural borders – a braiding of rivers.

Our research is designed in line with kaupapa Māori principles, to braid together indigenous and Western scientific understandings. We include Māori and Pacific researchers on project teams, and increase their expertise.

By engaging with Māori and Pacific communities, we increase the cultural competence of all our researchers, and New Zealand’s capacity to conduct research that is culturally effective. We are guided by Vision Mātauranga – the government research framework which aims to unlock the potential of Māori knowledge, resources and people.

We are working in the community

Health and education research in New Zealand has often been based in tertiary education institutions and clinical research units. With the guidance of Māori and Pacific community leaders, we are going into communities, schools and families.

This is pivotal to making sure that we come up with solutions that work in the real world. 

We are working with strengths

When researchers think only about the things that are going wrong for people, they can end up with expectations for improvement that are too low, and relationships that are antagonistic and disrespectful. We recognise that communities with children most at risk also have real strengths in health and education.

We will work with these strengths.  We believe a positive approach is critical to coming up with effective solutions.

We are using Big Data to see the big picture

In the past, New Zealand researchers have not used statistical data sets to their full potential. We are using state-of-the-art big data tools to see the big picture.

We are analysing the links between anonymous health and sociodemographic data sets, using the Intergrated Data Infrastructure held by Statistics New Zealand. 

This allows us to better understand problems, identify risk factors, test solutions and quantify their costs and benefits over a child’s lifetime.

We will be able to offer scientists, policy makers and community groups this new depth of information and understanding.  

We are using digital tools

Our mental health project will create the next generation of online self-help tools for teenagers and those around them. These tools – or behavioural intervention technologies – will help detect common mental health problems and offer users help, first with an online treatment programme, and then, if needed, with access to mental health services.

These evidence-based tools will build on the success of the SPARX fantasy game - www.sparx.org.nz - and will be rigorously tested. They will be available on computers, tablets and mobile phones, and will be designed to appeal to young people and their communities, including Māori and Pacific teenagers.

They will be designed to be stable, secure and easy to adapt to other mental health treatment programmes in the future.  We may build on these technologies to help detect and treat obesity and literacy problems.