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A better beginning

Friday, 20 May 2016

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What happens in the first years of a child’s life can have ramifications for the rest of their days. David Gear looks at four ways researchers and governments are trying to set children up for success.

“Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man” — so said sixteenth century Jesuit missionary Saint Francis Xavier. 

While children are raised very differently today than the methods of 500 years ago, the idea that the first few years of a child’s life are fundamental to their development is just as relevant today. 

It is increasingly acknowledged that the key to tackling many of the ills associated with modern life, from depression and mental health problems to obesity, is to focus resources on children from a very young age. In fact, researchers are finding that it is never too early to start helping a child develop what they need to grow into healthy and happy adults.

Never too early to encourage good mental health

No matter what statistic you look at — the more than 2000 Australians who take their lives each year, or the estimated $20 billion it costs the economy — the burden of poor mental health on individuals, families and wider society is undeniable. 

Associate Professor Lynn Priddis, who has spent much of her career researching the mental health of infants and their families, says the best way to promote a mentally healthy population is to work with children and their families as early as possible, even before birth. 

“The relationship a child develops with their parents forms the foundation of all future relationships,” she says. 

“When things go well, the child develops a template for how to behave in healthy relationships as well as what to expect from others in interpersonal interactions. 

“If we can support and nurture this relationship, children are more likely to develop stable, positive relationships as adults.” 

Priddis, the course coordinator for ECU’s new Master of Infant Mental Health, says being a new parent is a stressful time, reflected in the growing number of initiatives that seek support families. 

Groups like Community Link and Network WA run dozens of parenting courses a year, backed by the Department of Local Government and Communities, in everything from building resilience in children to helping your child reduce anxiety. 

“If we can support and nurture this relationship children are more likely to develop stable, positive relationships as adults,” Priddis says. 

“The evidence tells us that it is never too early to start helping parents promote positive mental health in their children.”

Writing already on the wall by school age 

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) estimates that almost half of Australian adults have below adequate levels of literacy. 

Adults with low literacy skills have lower average incomes and are more likely to be unemployed than those with high literacy. 

Clearly schools have a core role in teaching children to read and write, but early childhood literacy expert Professor Caroline Barratt‑Pugh says that the building blocks of literacy are laid well before a student starts school. 

“Research suggests that the development of literacy skills begin at birth and are developed through daily interactions between parents and children.” 

But while Barratt-Pugh says it is never too early to start exposing children to reading and writing, that doesn’t mean pushing very young children into formalised learning. 

"You do not need formal worksheets and programs in the early stages of literacy," she says. 

"Pointing out labels in the supermarket, reading signs in the street, talking about leaflets that come through the letterbox, these are all about literacy and support the early stages of learning to read and write."

Better food can start at childcare 

The portion of Australian children overweight or obese has been rising for decades, climbing to a quarter of all young people in 2008 according to the ABS. 

In an effort to tackle this problem, primary schools have been introducing measures to encourage healthy eating, from serving more nutritious food in canteens to establishing vegetable gardens on their grounds. 

But with more than a million Australian children attending childcare, PhD candidate Ruth Wallace says there is a need for childcare centres to do more to promote healthy eating to their young clientele. 

As part of her PhD studies, Wallace developed the Supporting Nutrition in Australian Children (SNAC) website to provide reliable, accurate resources about healthy eating to childcare workers. 

“Centres are the ideal places to help children develop healthy eating habits,” she says. 

“Childcare guidelines recommend that children who attend full-time receive between 50 per cent and 70 per cent of their daily intake at childcare, so what they eat there has a huge impact on their overall diet. 

“We know one in five children currently overweight or obese faces a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease as adults. This is why we need to help children establish healthy eating habits from a young age.”

Connecting primary students with better health 

In 2012, the State Government announced a program to establish Child and Parent Centres at primary schools around WA. 

The centres offer a range of services to parents of young children, including speech pathology, physiotherapists, paediatric services and counselling services, as well as early literacy and numeracy support. 

Education Minister Peter Collier says the State Government has invested over $50 million to date to establish 21 centres across WA. 

"Parenting is challenging and we know the first four years of a child's life are critical for development," he says. 

“The Child and Parent centres provide wrap-around services that embrace both the parent as well as the child in those vital early years. 

"(They) are located in areas of most need to help children facing challenging circumstances reach their full potential." Collier says the success of the centres has attracted interest from around the country. 

“We’ve had enquires from three other states who are interested in looking at the model,” he says.

Happiness 

One element that is often missing from discussions about early childhood development is happiness, according to Dr Bronwyn Harman. 

Harman, who researches families and parenting, said ensuring children are happy and secure during their formative years was vital to their development. 

“One of the key things children need to feel happy, safe and secure is routine and consistency. Children thrive when they have routine and know what to expect,” she says. 

“The flip side of this is that you shouldn’t have too strict a routine where kids are dragged from activity to activity with no time for play. It’s important for children to have time to play and be kids as well. 

“It’s all about striking the right balance.” 

Harman says there is a lot of pressure on parents to be perfect. 

“We know that children pick up on the stress of their parents,” she says. 

“So one of the take home messages is ‘don’t stress’ and have some fun with your kids.”

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