Fact sheet: Children with special healthcare needs

From the Centre for Community Child Health

Of the Australian children who start their first year of formal full-time school each year, the majority start with their development on track, ready to take advantage of everything that school has to offer. About 4 per cent of children will start school with a significant developmental delay or disability that has been clearly identified; these children are likely to receive assistance, such as a classroom aide, to help them participate to the fullest at school.

Young boy with head in hands, looking down at desk.

However, the Australian Early Development Index data have shown that up to 20 per cent of children start at school with some level of special healthcare need that may not yet have been formally identified, and for which they may not receive any formal special assistance at school. For these children, there can be significant challenges in taking advantage of everything that school has to offer.

Defining special healthcare needs

Children with special healthcare needs are those who "have or are at increased risk for chronic physical, developmental, behavioural, or emotional conditions and who also require healthy and related services of a type or amount beyond that required by children generally."

Special healthcare needs can include those that impact physical health- such as diabetes or epilepsy- and those that impact on your child's psychological health- such as attention deficit disorder and autism spectrum disorders.

Starting school with special healthcare needs

Children with special healthcare needs are often more poorly equipped in terms of their school readiness when they start school. The initial difficulties that these children experience upon school entry lead to achievement gaps between them and their peers that only worsen over time if appropriate support isn't provided. The ability of these children to meet the learning demands of the classroom, as well as make friends and fit in with their peer group can be compromised. Without prompt identification and support, these children can often be left behind.

Working with others in your community

There are different risk and protective factors in children's lives that can help or hinder their growth and development. If you are concerned about your child's ability to make the most of all the opportunities that come with starting school, it's important to work closely with the teachers and service providers in your child's life to ensure that they can get the support they need:

  • Plan for your child's transition to school, involving education, health and social services to help make everyone aware of your child's needs
  • Use strategies to bridge the environment between kindergarten or preschool and school. Take opportunities to familiarise your child with the new school and its staff
  • Advocate on behalf of your child, and don't be afraid to ask questions
  • Draw on your existing support networks and expand them. People who are already in your network- friends, family, and other parents - can provide you with help and support. Seek out opportunities to meet new people and interact with services that are new to you.

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