Child wellbeing study hopes to find link to adult success

Vaughan Carr
Luming Luo
Philip Hull

Children's early experiences affect later mental health

Schools will be invited to participate in a far-reaching child health and wellbeing study being carried out by the University of NSW that hopes to provide evidence-based research linking children’s social skills and emotional regulation to mental wellbeing and success in adult life.

For example, recent findings from a European study that followed adolescents over a two-year period, suggest that self-efficacy, a type of social and emotional competency, may act as a buffer against developing depression.

The study asked 1643 adolescents aged 11–17 years whether they agreed with statements such as “I can always manage to solve difficult problems if I try hard enough”. They found that those whose responses reflected higher levels of self-efficacy, that is, a stronger belief in their own ability to succeed, were less likely to report depressive symptoms.

More encouragingly, when they followed up on the same adolescents two years later, they found that amongst the adolescents who initially reported depressive symptoms, those who became more confident in their own abilities also had a decrease in the severity of their symptoms at follow-up.

The findings add to a growing body of evidence that say strengthening various types of social and emotional competencies at a young age has benefits for later mental health and wellbeing.

The need for the delivery of evidence-based programs targeting these skills is especially important considering that young people experiencing mental health difficulties are unlikely to seek professional help (findings from Mission Australia’s 2014 National Youth Survey).

To support this, researchers from the University of NSW this year are leading one of the largest-ever child health and wellbeing studies in Australia.

The NSW Child Development Study (NSW-CDS) will follow a cohort of students over time in order to obtain information about how children’s early experiences influence later mental health, as well as educational achievement and other life outcomes.

The group comprises the same students for whom teachers completed the Australian Early Development Census (AEDC) in kindergarten in 2009 and who are now in their final year of primary school.

In partnership with the NSW Department of Education and Communities, Ministry of Health, and Family and Community Services, the NSW-CDS aims to build upon previous findings on the benefits of strengthening children’s social and emotional competence using a more comprehensive population approach.

“In order to identify what types of protective factors lay the foundations for positive outcomes for children you need to consider a whole range of influences that shape a child’s development,” says Professor Vaughan Carr, lead investigator of the study.

“A population health approach, which involves collecting information from a whole population, rather than a specific subset, is critical to ensure that the diverse needs of all Australian children are met.”

As part of the study this year, all year 6 students of participating Government, Catholic, and Independent schools in NSW will be invited to complete an online Middle Childhood Survey (MCS).

The survey, which will be completed in class during term 3, will give students an opportunity to provide confidential feedback on their thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. It was successfully piloted last year with 11 representative schools across the state, and it took most students just 15-30 minutes to complete.

The information collected from the MCS will provide schools with a unique snapshot of the social and emotional development of this group of students and could help to inform mental health and wellbeing promotion within their school.

More significantly, findings from the MCS will be combined with anonymous information from government agencies, including the cohort’s AEDC records to help researchers more accurately identify protective factors for healthy development that can be strengthened as well as risk factors that early interventions can be tailored to address.

School principals will receive an email invitation to participate in the MCS during the second week of term 2 this year. The survey will take place in term 3. To find out more about the MCS and what it involves for participating schools, click here.