As students throughout our community dress up as their favourite characters for Book Week, it's important to remember how vital the early years are for childhood development. In this excerpt from her Strategic Plan 2020-23 research paper, HBNC CEO, Tanya Stevenson, explores the barriers our youngest residents face, and some of the solutions HBNC has in place.

HBNC believes that the early years of a child are a critical time for building capabilities for life to lay the foundation for children’s future learning and lifetime outcomes. HBNC delivers a Play with Your Kids program and understands the local needs for further investment in a child’s first 1000 days. HBNC is aware of the Australian Early Developmental Census data which identifies Hervey Bay children as being nearly three times the state average in vulnerability. To support our children under six years, HBNC supports the delivery of:

  • Mobile playgroup van
  • Expand the use of the mobile playgroup van to suburbs with higher vulnerability
  • Deliver multiple parenting programs across all ages
  • Implement Read Bears
  • Host awareness-raising events
  • Support the delivery of community events that raise awareness

Early childhood

It is clear that the early years from conception to age six have the most important influence of any time in the lifecycle of brain development and subsequent learning behaviour and health. The effects of the early experience, particularly during the first three years, on wiring and sculpting the brain’s billions of neurons last a lifetime (Mustard 1999).

While most families provide the support children require to build the capabilities they need for life, families dealing with problems such as poor mental health, substance abuse and domestic violence are likely to be less able to provide an environment conducive to nurturing children and learning.

Around 15 per cent of Australian parents living in with children aged 0-14 are estimated to be affected by poor mental health (AIHW 2012). Over one third of 4-5-year-old Australian children residing with a parent who has poor mental health fall into the bottom 15 per cent of overall development domain (compared with 14 per cent of children whose parents do not have poor mental health). There is an extensive evidence base that shows that children who experience abuse or neglect in their early years are more likely to experience ongoing habitual and learning problems, substance abuse and poorer mental and physical health and labour market outcomes (Biovin and Hertzman 2012).

Survivors of child abuse and neglect can experience long term effects including:

  • Poorer labour market outcomes
  • Higher rates of contact with the justice system
  • Higher rates of homelessness
  • Poorer physical health
  • Poorer mental health
  • Higher rates of substance abuse
  • Higher rates of re-victimisation and repeating the pattern of abuse.

(Taylor et al. 2008)

Seventy-Two per cent of women who experience abuse during their childhood also experienced violence as an adult. 33% of children who experience abuse and neglect go onto repeat the patterns of abusive behaviour with their children (Lamont 2010).

A child starts life with a set of personal resources or endowments - at conception they are dealt a hand of cards (by genetic heritage and maternal health). The evidence points to the importance of the antenatal period for shaping future development pathways for children. A child’s earliest years fundamentally sharpen their life chances. Gaps in capabilities between children from socioeconomically disadvantaged families and their more advantaged peers appear early in life.

Starting school ‘behind the eight ball’ can begin the cycle of disadvantage that sets a trajectory for poorer outcomes later in life. Children who experience abuse or neglect and persistent stress in their early years are more likely to experience ongoing behavioural and learning problems, engage in violent behaviour and substance abuse and suffer poor mental and physical health. Education is a foundation capability. It improves a person’s employment prospects and earning capacity, and the evidence points to a relationship between education and better health and raised civic and social engagement.

Gaps in capabilities between children from socioeconomically disadvantaged families and their move advantaged peers appear early in life. Development scores for 4-5-year-old Australian - Children show that the more income a family has, the better the average overall development score. Also, children in this age group living in families experiencing multiple hardships are more likely to have lower development scores than those children living in families free from financial hardship. The Employment status of a child’s parent is strongly correlated with a child’s development at ages 4-5 years - the average overall development scores for children with no parent working are lower than those with at least one parent working.

Early intervention programs for children from disadvantaged backgrounds conducted in the US - High-Scope Perry Pre-school Program and Abecedarian Project. Employment is a key trigger for moving out of disadvantage with less than 4 per cent of Australians employed full-time and 5 per cent of Australians who were reliant on wages as their primary income source experienced relative income poverty in 2010. While finding employment can provide a route out of a state of disadvantage, it does not guarantee an absence of recurrent disadvantage.

Access to education and participation in higher education can increase life opportunities particularly for children from low socioeconomic backgrounds, but the evidence shows that educational differences tend to persist across generations. Students whose both parents have Year 12 qualifications are more likely to complete year 12 than those with one or neither parent having attained year 12.

There are many factors that influence a person’s life chances of experiencing disadvantage including: their personal capabilities; their family circumstances; the community where they live (and the opportunities it offers); life experiences; and the boarder economic and social environment. It is difficult to disentangle how the various factors interact and to establish causality.