How Well are Australian Infants and Children Aged 4 to 5 Years Doing?
FaHCSIA Social Policy Research Paper
124 Pages Posted: 7 Nov 2010
Date Written: September 2008
This report explores five specific aspects of infants’ and children’s experiences, exposures and environments in relation to their Outcome Index scores: * key sociodemographic characteristics covering the child, mother, family and neighbourhood * non-parental care experiences * child health - prenatal and postnatal experiences and exposures * maternal physical and mental health * the early educational experiences of the child cohort in the home and out-of-home contexts.
Background: The researchers used Wave 1 of the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC) dataset - 5,107 infants aged between 3 to12 months (infant cohort) and 4,983 children aged between 4 to 5 years (child cohort). LSAC is a large, nationally representative dataset with an early childhood development and social policy focus. Therefore the findings are broadly applicable to all Australian families with young children and directly relevant to social policy development and practice.
Most children are doing well and a few have pervasive difficulties: * Most of the children in both cohorts were making good developmental progress. * The findings revealed that development does not occur uniformly across all domains (physical development, social and emotional functioning, learning and cognitive development) at these ages. * The findings of the paper highlight the dangers in drawing conclusions about children’s developmental status from information on limited aspects of their early development
Sociodemographic factors are more strongly related to child than to infant developmental outcomes: * In the infant cohort, child, family and neighbourhood characteristics had minor associations with outcomes. This may in part reflect less sensitivity in the measures for this age group, but also the fact that contextual factors impact on children’s development in a cumulative process over time. * In the social-emotional and learning domains girls in the child cohort consistently had more positive outcomes than boys. This well-replicated finding is thought to involve both biological dispositions and differences in parenting practices and societal expectations for boys and girls. * In the child cohort, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children had poorer outcomes in all but the physical domain; and children in families where a language other than English was spoken tended to have poorer outcomes. An important task will be to track these children’s trajectories in future waves of LSAC. * Children in the child cohort were more likely to have positive outcomes in the context of higher maternal education, higher family income, higher parental occupational status, and in the absence of financial stress. * Family type (single or two-parent family) and neighbourhood disadvantage did not make unique contributions to child outcomes for the child cohort, suggesting that their influence is mediated through family variables such as income, financial stress and family functioning. * These data provide clear evidence of a socioeconomic gradient, with poorer outcomes in the context of greater family disadvantage
Different forms of non-parental care and early education programs have differential effects on developmental: * Children in the infant cohort participating in group-based child care programs were at most risk of impaired physical outcomes in the first year. Authors comments that this is probably due to exposure to infectious diseases. Later waves of LSAC will be very valuable in determining the longer-term implications of this finding. * Children in the infant cohort who experienced only informal care tended to have higher learning scores than infants not in care. Since most informal care was provided by grandparents, this finding suggests the value of further research on the influences of extended family as care givers.
Child health variables affect developmental outcomes: * While most mothers breastfed their children, few mothers had met the current National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) recommendations for exclusive breastfeeding for at least six months. The majority of the children had diets that did not meet nutritional guidelines and many preferred less physical activities. These findings suggest the need for ongoing public health initiatives regarding breastfeeding and nutrition. * Many child health variables were associated with child social-emotional and learning outcomes, emphasising the relation between children’s health to other aspects of their functioning and wellbeing. Maternal physical and mental health affects child outcomes * Mothers of LSAC children were broadly representative of all Australian mothers on parameters such as smoking and alcohol in pregnancy, mental health status, and prevalence of overweight and obesity. * Current maternal general health, serious psychological distress and enjoyment of physical activity were related to children’s outcomes, especially in the physical and social-emotional domains of the Outcome Index.
Family learning environments are strongly associated with children’s learning outcomes: * For the child cohort, children’s overall and learning outcomes were associated with family factors such as being read to by a family member, the number of children’s books in the home, and the child’s access to a computer at home. * Overall development tended to decrease as time spent watching television increased. This appeared to be related to a decrease in the physical and social-emotional outcomes, as television viewing had no significant impact on learning outcomes. * These findings highlight the significance of a home environment that encourages and supports early learning, and imply an important role for parenting education.
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