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One in three Australian children ‘exposed to disadvantage’

The long-term health and wellbeing of Australian children suffers if they live in neighbourhoods lacking basic amenities like schools, parks and libraries, says a new study. 

Changing Children’s Chances looked at the experiences of more than 5,000 children, identifying patterns in their experiences of ‘disadvantage’ between birth and nine years, and how this related to their development between 10 and 11 and longer-term.

Researchers from RMIT University and Murdoch Children’s Research looked at four types of disadvantage: sociodemographic factors; geographic environments; health conditions and risk factors, and how they affected a child’s vital skills, such as literacy, numeracy and interpersonal.

Literacy and numeracy

Using data from the Longitudinal Study of Australia’s Children, they found 41 per cent of children who had experienced disadvantage were in the bottom 15 per cent of literacy and numeracy test scores under the National Assessment Program.

Co-author Dr Hannah Badland, from the Healthy Liveable Cities Group based at the RMIT Centre for Urban Research, said living in a neighbourhood lacking in amenities, such as local parks, libraries, and good quality early education and primary schools, had long-term impacts on children’s health and development.

“When people hear the word disadvantaged they often think about how wealthy someone is, how much power they have, how much prestige they have,” she said. “For children, disadvantage manifests in the circumstances in which they live, learn and develop.”

Neighbourhood environments

“Those who started out in the most advantaged neighbourhoods, became more advantaged over time, while those who started in most disadvantaged neighbourhoods became more disadvantaged,” she said.

“The goods news is that it may be easier to change our neighbourhood environments – something as simple as building a library or safe open spaces all have excellent benefits for a child’s development.”

Chief investigator Professor Sharon Goldfeld from the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute said the findings pointed to the importance of sustained, evidence-based solutions to address childhood disadvantage.

Policy responses

“At a population level, successfully addressing all aspects of disadvantage in childhood could reduce poor developmental outcomes by as much as 70 per cent,” she said.

“Better understanding of how specific aspects of disadvantage relate to child development domains is necessary for greater precision in policy responses. If we don’t take into account how disadvantage manifests and occurs over time, well-intended public health and public policy interventions to address inequities could be undermined.”

Author: Simon Weedy

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