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Review of trends in disabilities, mental health disorders and complex needs among children and adolescents
The prevalence of disability among children and adolescents in Australia, as well as trends in prevalence, are difficult to discern. Disability prevalence varies across data sources, presenting a challenge to the planning and allocation of resources and supports. This is a difficulty faced by the education sector in particular, tasked with providing ongoing, high quality support for children and adolescents with a disability, despite limited evidence regarding levels of need.
The aim of the project was to provide the South Australian Department for Education with a synthesis of high-quality evidence on the population prevalence of various disabilities among school-aged children. Trends in prevalence over time were described according to available evidence, both in Australia and internationally. Information regarding common comorbidities and help seeking behaviours were also explored to better understand complex needs and service use among children and adolescents. Finally, factors that may be driving trends in prevalence were explored.
Findings from this project helped to identify how disability prevalence as reported in the scientific literature aligns with that of internal department data sources. Additionally, investigation of trends in the factors associated with disability prevalence highlight potential drivers that may lead to shifts in prevalence in future. Together, findings will help to inform the department’s future planning and provision of supports for students with disability.
South Australia, through the Department for Education, was tasked with leading a national project to provide a comprehensive picture of the range of specific screening and assessment tools used across health, early childhood and education sectors to consider ways in which these tools can support practice, policy development and national research priorities. An initial state-specific review was undertaken by researchers at the Fraser Mustard Centre, which provided a foundation for this project.
The overall objectives of the review were to:
- consider what developmental domains (and influencing family factors) should be screened and assessed to best respond to learning and development needs
- determine when these measures would be best implemented taking into consideration sensitive periods in development
- develop current contact points for screening and assessment in South Australia.
The findings of the review informed a national review of screening and assessment practices in early childhood.
Fostering student wellbeing is increasingly seen as a central objective of education, however few education systems across the world monitor the wellbeing of their students. Our department is an exception to this rule, conducting an annual wellbeing collection referred to as the Wellbeing and Engagement Collection (WEC).
The aim of the WEC is to help teachers, school leaders and policy makers better understand and support the wellbeing and engagement of their students.
The WEC report provides a history of the WEC from an initial pilot with Grade 6 students in 2012 to 2013, to a full system wide collection with Grade 4 to 12 students in 2019. The report describes changes to the collection over time, such as the expansion to include students of different ages and participation rates in different collection cycles.
The WEC report also describes:
- the survey used to measure student wellbeing and engagement
- how it has evolved and changed over time
- the psychometric properties of the different measurement scales using the 2019 WEC data.
This information will be highly relevant to academic researchers who are using the WEC data in their research projects.
It has been well established that children’s development at school entry is associated with their later academic achievement, but less is known about whether there is also an association with other measures of school success, such as students’ social and emotional wellbeing. Given the increased focus for education systems on fostering student wellbeing, this study aimed to better understand the relationship between different aspects of children’s development and later social and emotional wellbeing. The findings from this study will be used to help guide intervention programs that support school readiness, mental health and wellbeing in early childhood settings and schools.
This research used linked population data from the 2009 Australian Early Development Census and the 2015 Wellbeing and Engagement Collection (WEC). The AEDC captures five developmental domains of children’s development at school entry (physical health and wellbeing; social competence; emotional maturity; language and cognitive skills; and communication skills and general knowledge). The WEC captures a wide range of students’ self-report social and emotional wellbeing, engagement with school, learning readiness and health and wellbeing out of school. This study utilised 4 domains related to social and emotional wellbeing (life satisfaction, optimism, sadness and worries) when students were in grade 6.
The Fraser Mustard Centre was funded to undertake this work through an Australian Research Council (ARC) Linkage Project.
Review of the quality of evidence for preschool and school-based programs to support social and emotional skills, perseverance and academic self-concept
In recent years, there has been an increased focus from teachers, schools and education systems on helping to build and nurture student’s social and emotional skills, as well as their literacy, numeracy and communication skills. The first step is to understand the current level of social and emotional skills in SA children, and the second step is to understand the programs that schools can use to help develop children’s social and emotional skills. Significant progress has been made towards this goal in the past five years in SA with the collection of the Australian Early Development Census (AEDC) in 2012 and 2015, and the Wellbeing and Engagement Census (WEC) in 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016 providing information about the social and emotional skills of SA students in reception and during the middle years of schooling (Year 6-9). This data provides a wealth of information that can be used to track the population over time and to explore differences between children based on their demographic characteristics and geographical location in the state.
The focus of this project was on the second step - understanding the interventions and programs that schools can implement to help build these skills. This project aims to provide some tools and guidelines for schools and the Department for Education to use to help select evidence-based programs that can be implemented within a preschool or school setting to help nurture children’s social and emotional skills.
Children’s centres were established in South Australia to reduce the impact of social inequality on children’s outcomes. They are generally located in areas of high need to enable the provision of high quality services to children and families who may not otherwise have access to these supports. Children’s centres are based on a model of integrated practice, bringing together education, health, care, community development activities, and family support services in order to best meet the needs of vulnerable children and families.
The Fraser Mustard Centre undertook research to measure the process and impact of integrated services in children’s centres. The evaluation is now complete, and the final report is available here.
Strong Start in the North is a pilot program targeted at first time mothers experiencing numerous complex issues. The program seeks to engage pregnant women to help them prepare emotionally and practically for the arrival of their infant. By working with mothers to develop their skills to cope with challenges, connect them to resources, and increase their parenting capacity, Strong Start seeks to support the development of children who may otherwise be at risk of adverse outcomes.
Researchers at the Fraser Mustard Centre conducted a mixed methods evaluation to examine both process (how well the program was being delivered) and early indications of likely impacts (improved outcomes for mothers and their infants) of Strong Start. Evaluation activities included interviews with program staff and clients along with an examination of the program’s administrative data.
As of December 2015, student wellbeing data had been collected from approximately 52,000 South Australian students in grades 6, 7, 8 and 9. Over 700 school reports had been completed and delivered to schools. Conducting a census of student’s wellbeing rather than completing small scale surveys provides information on students from every school, community, and region.
Given the important work that has been done to date, and the momentum within the education system to continue to collect student wellbeing data, it is imperative to review whether we are measuring the right aspects of student wellbeing and whether the scales that we are using are working effectively. The department commissioned this review from the Fraser Mustard Centre for the purpose of informing future decisions around which aspects of wellbeing should be measured at scale within schools and the quality of the tools available to do this.
Student wellbeing survey: Analyses and recommendations on student engagement and wellbeing measurement scales
In 2012, the Office for Strategy and Performance together with the Telethon Kids Institute commenced work to identify potential measures of young people’s wellbeing. The department selected the Middle Years Development Instrument (MDI) for piloting on the basis that it had been extensively trialled and validated in the Canadian school system. The MDI measures a combination of strengths and poor wellbeing and placed students’ wellbeing in a wider context by asking them about their support and activities in the home, at school, and with their peers. Additionally, the department added survey items measuring perseverance, and then in 2015, students also responded to questions about their level of engagement (a concept relating to experience in being immersed and absorbed in positive challenges). Since this work first commenced, interest in measuring children’s wellbeing has grown and the department has recognised the need to undertake system-wide measures of students’ engagement and satisfaction with their schools.
The main aim of the current project is to trial a set of student engagement items and make recommendations about which combinations of items should be included in a new module on student engagement in the department’s annual Wellbeing and Engagement Collection (WEC).
Socioeconomic inequalities in children's developmental and educational outcomes have been observed in Australia over many years. In communities with higher levels of socioeconomic disadvantage, children tend to have a higher level of developmental vulnerability and face more challenges at school. However, there are always exceptions to the rule and these exceptions can provide vital information and lessons that can be applied to other communities.
In the thriving in adversity report (PDF 2.35MB), we identified communities that were doing better than expected given their socioeconomic disadvantage in order to better understand what is driving this success, and to determine if there are any lessons to be learned that may be transferable to other communities.
Language enables literacy, education, and employment and is one of the major pathways that support human capability formation. Variation in parental talkativeness has shown to be a plausible mechanism for social inequalities in children’s language acquisition.
A process evaluation was conducted using novel speech recognition technology (LENA) to unobtrusively measure the language environment of the child in the home. Through this study, we aimed to provide the preliminary data and experience to guide future research using LENA software to quantify the audio and social environment of children in South Australia.
There is growing international evidence about the growing gap in educational outcomes between boys and girls. This trend appears to be evident in South Australian and national data. To date, little has been undertaken to document this trend in South Australia, understand the trajectories of boys as compared with girls, identify the drivers of these developmental pathways and identify potential strategies for intervention.
The Department for Education commissioned this report to understand how such gender differences in early childhood may influence outcomes later in life.
The results of the 2009 Australian Early Development Index (AEDI) highlighted large differences between South Australian boys and girls in child development outcomes at school entry.
The report includes gender differences in education, health and social circumstances across the life-course. Knowledge of this evidence base is crucial if we are to improve outcomes for all children and young people and reduce inequity.
The Fraser Mustard Centre reviewed the Women’s and Children’s Health Network Infant Therapeutic Reunification Service, assessing what services are currently provided to Families SA and if value for money is being achieved.
The review was conducted to support the development of a contract for subsequent service delivery for infants and families in the child protection system. The review included a proposed model of evaluation for future service delivery to measure appropriateness and impact of the program.
The Middle Years Development Instrument (MDI) is a validated population-level measure of wellbeing in middle childhood. The MDI was designed in Canada, to provide schools and communities with pragmatic data to inform policies and practice. It gives children a voice, an opportunity to communicate to adults about what their experiences are inside and outside of school, and has great potential to provide educators, parents, researchers and policy makers with much needed information about the psychological and social worlds of children.
The MDI project is a collaboration between researchers from the Telethon Kids Institute/University of Western Australian, Menzies School of Health Research, the University of British Columbia, and policy makers from the South Australian Department for Education and the Department of Education in Western Australia.
Researchers completed a pilot project in 2013 measuring the wellbeing of approximately 6000 children across South Australia and Victoria in the middle years of school in order to provide summary information back to policy makers, schools and communities about the health and wellbeing of their children. In 2014, the Department for Education and Child Development completed a second round of data collection involving almost 18,000 children, including those who participated in the 2013 research trial, allowing the accuracy of data to be explored further and to provide these schools with two data points.
Participating schools have now received their school report containing data on students' self-reported wellbeing. In 2013 the MDI received additional financial support through an ARC Linkage grant to establish the validity of the MDI in Australia, explore the international comparability of the instrument between Australia and Canada, and culturally adapt the MDI for Australian Aboriginal children, by leveraging off the MDI data collected.
The Australian Early Development Index (AEDI) is undertaken once every three years by the Department of Education, Canberra as a progress measure of future human capital for the Council of Australian Governments. The AEDI has been completed in 2009 and 2012 across South Australia and the results reveal patterns of child development across the state. Although simple descriptive statistics have been produced and mapped data for communities are available via the national AEDI website – the AEDI results have not been critically analysed for SA.
Specifically, the project aimed to determine if there were specific population groups that improved or not, and if so explore why, and to identify policy and service changes which may have impacted differently on South Australian children born in 2003/04 compared to those born in 2006/07.
This project helped inform the state and in particular the Department for Education and Child Development regarding the AEDI results in SA. Along with the AEDI analyses, resources to help facilitate conversations at the community through to Departmental level will be produced – aimed at supporting the use of population data.
The Fraser Mustard Centre launched in September 2012, at its inaugural event: Found in Translation.
The online seminar between South Australia, Manitoba and British Columbia explored the value of knowledge translation as a means of addressing the underutilization of evidence based research in practice and policy development. That is, how to close the gap between what is known and what is currently done both at the strategic and local level.
The translation of knowledge has the capacity to inform our policies and programs to improve the outcomes for children and young people in South Australia. Manitoba, British Columbia and South Australia share a common goal for children and young people. The theme of the event supports this common goal and recognises the enormous influence of Dr Fraser Mustard in bringing it about.
Fraser Mustard Centre
Phone: 8207 2039
Email: info.frasermustardcentre [at] sa.gov.au