Background: Early childhood social and emotional development underpins later social, emotional, academic and other outcomes. The first aim of this study was to explore the association between child, family and area-level characteristics associated with developmental vulnerability, amongst Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal children in their first year of school. The second aim was to quantify the magnitude of the social and emotional developmental inequalities between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal children and the extent to which differences in socioeconomic disadvantage and perinatal characteristics explained this inequality.
Methods: This retrospective cohort study used cross-sectoral data linkage to identify and follow participants from birth to school age. In this way, social and emotional development was examined in 7,384 Aboriginal and 95,104 non-Aboriginal children who were included in the Australian Early Development Census in their first year of full-time school in New South Wales (NSW) in 2009 or 2012 and had a birth registration and/or perinatal record in NSW. The primary outcome measures were teacher-reported social competence and emotional maturity as measured using the Australian version of the Early Development Instrument.
Results: The mean age at the start of the school year for children in the study sample was 5.2 years (SD = 0.36 years). While 84% of Aboriginal children scored favourably - above the vulnerability threshold – for social competence and 88% for emotional maturity, Aboriginal children were twice as likely as non-Aboriginal children to be vulnerable on measures of social development (RR = 2.00; 95%CI, 1.89–2.12) and had 89% more risk of emotional vulnerability (RR = 1.89; 95%CI, 1.77–2.02). The inequality between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal children was largely explained by differences in the socioeconomic and perinatal health characteristics of children and families. Thus, after adjusting for differences in measures of socioeconomic advantage and disadvantage (Model 2), the relative risk was attenuated to 1.31 (95% CI: 1.23–1.40) on the social competence domain and 1.24 (95% CI, 1.15–1.33) on the emotional maturity domain. Child, family and area-level characteristics associated with vulnerability were identified.
Conclusions: Most of the gap in early childhood social and emotional development between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal children can be attributed to socioeconomic and early life health disadvantage. Culturally safe health and social policies addressing the socioeconomic and health inequalities experienced by Aboriginal children are urgently required.