A breakthrough in the search for indicators of child risk

A recent piece of research we completed in partnership between our Jack Brockhoff Child Health and Wellbeing Program and the Victorian Department of Education and Training has revealed a breakthrough in the search for risk indicators of child developmental, emotional and behavioural difficulties as they enter school.

The relationship between low socioeconomic status (disadvantage) and the mental health of young people is well established. The reason we undertook this research was to gain a better understanding as to which measures best indicate disadvantage and potentially vulnerable children and families. This knowledge is important to help ensure services are targeted correctly and to assist in planning for service demand.

The data source was the 2010 Victorian School Entrant Health Questionnaire (SEHQ) with over 57,000 children.

A key finding was that children listed on a Pension/Health Care Card were nearly three times more likely to have developmental, emotional and behavioural difficulties.

Figure 1

The results in Figure 1 are based on research that contributed to our paper, The Influence of Social Disadvantage on Children’s Emotional and Behavioral Difficulties at Age 4-7 Years.

 Why is this important?

A problem in both research and policy has been identifying and measuring a suitable indicator of child and family disadvantage. Commonly used indicators include parental education, employment status, income and Socio-Economic Indexes for Areas (SEIFA). Aboriginal/Torres Strait Islander origin, single parent families or living in a rural location are also sometimes used. Our research found the Health Care Card provided a much stronger indicator of risk compared to all other indicators.

This finding may therefore point to a pension/health care card being an indicator of disadvantage not just low income.

Advantages of using the Health Care Card as a measure

An important advantage of collecting health care card status is that it is easy to measure in comparison to other measures of income and disadvantage as it is a simple yes or no question. However, it is important to consider the way that the question is asked to differentiate whether the child has a health care card due to their own disability or if they are listed on a family health care card.

Other indicators are more difficult to accurately measure and they can also be seen as quite discriminatory or stigmatizing.

Most importantly this finding can help to ensure support services and resources are directed to where they are needed most.

Written by Shae Johnson.

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