Early influences on development in Australia’s Northern Territory

Australia’s Northern Territory has the country’s smallest population, but the highest proportion of the population living in remote or very remote areas. The area is also unique as the Aboriginal population makes up about 30% of the total population, compared to only 3% across all Australia.

Steven Guthridge and colleagues tried to identify the factors that negatively affect early child development for both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal children living in Australia’s Northern Territory.

To find out what is influencing early child development the researchers linked 2009 Australian Early Development Census (AEDC) data with the Northern Territory Perinatal Data Register and government school enrolment records.

A final sample included 1,922 children (57.8% Aboriginal) after removing children whose data could not be linked.

What did they find?

The vulnerability difference between groups was large, with a far greater proportion of Aboriginal children vulnerable on one or more AEDC domains (68.3%) compared to non-Aboriginal children (23.2%).

Before adjusting for other factors, Aboriginal children were almost seven times more likely to be developmentally vulnerable than non-Aboriginal children.

However, in the overall sample the study identified many early life factors associated with increased vulnerability.

  • ESL status – ESL students were more likely to be vulnerable than non-ESL students.
  • Gender – boys were more likely to be vulnerable than girls.
  • Birth order – second or later born children were more likely to be vulnerable than first born children.
  • Primary caregiver education – the lower the primary caregiver’s education the more likely a child was to be vulnerable.
  • Preterm birth – children born preterm were more likely to be vulnerable than full term birth children.
  • Remoteness – the more remote location a child was living the more likely they were to be vulnerable.

After taking into account these factors, the strength of the vulnerability risk associated with Indigenous status was reduced from a seven-fold to less than two-fold greater risk.

For Aboriginal children specifically, not attending day care or pre-school was a risk factor for increased vulnerability, whereas caregiver education was not. For non-Aboriginal children, having a younger mother (18 or 19-years-old) and a mother who smoked during pregnancy were risk factors, whereas living in a remote area was not.

What does it mean?

The study shows that early childhood development varies according to socio-demographic and perinatal factors , and these factors can explain much of the disparity in developmental vulnerability between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal children. These findings are particularly relevant to policy and service initiatives to improve the outcomes of Aboriginal children and highlight the need for collaboration across health, early childhood, and education services.