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Reducing the vulnerability of Canberra’s young children

Tara Corcoran

16 July 2020: A research team from the University of Canberra has won a Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF) grant for a four-year project that will address developmental vulnerability and health inequity among young children in the Australian Capital Territory.

The project, led by Professor Rachel Davey, Director of the Health Research Institute, will guide public health policy efforts in promoting health and wellbeing for early childhood (birth to five years) and inform local intervention efforts focused on the community.

The project will test whether a local integrated system, that includes identification, referral and targeted service delivery, will improve child development outcomes in intervention suburbs where there are the highest levels of developmental childhood developmental vulnerability.

“A large body of research suggests that the early years of a child’s life have a significant impact on their lifetime health and wellbeing,” said Professor Davey.

“It is well known that children from disadvantaged environments, particularly those exposed to a range of early childhood adversities, are at increased risk for poor health, including developmental delay, mental health problems, school failure and increased adult mortality and morbidity.”

“This project will foster increased collaboration across academic disciplines, policy makers, social and community services, and health services to support positive behaviour change in order to maximise children’s development.

“For family and children’s services to be effective – especially for at-risk children – systems and the programs associated with them must be connected in a collaborative and integrated approach.”

Previous studies have found that early intervention programs have positive lifelong effects, stretching beyond education.

There are also several studies demonstrating the effectiveness of high-quality, focused preschool programs in reducing the effects of social disadvantage, developing social and emotional health and preparing children for formal schooling. These effects have significant lifelong social, health and economic benefits.

If successful, the project could not only improve overall physical health and wellbeing but enhance social competence and improve attendance at early childhood education.

As Professor Davey said, the benefits would extend beyond the current cohort of young children.

“We are seeking to change the life trajectory of vulnerable children during early childhood, in order to improve health for the next generation,” she said.

Researchers from the Australian National University, University of Wollongong and Queensland University of Technology will also be involved.