One in five children starts school with emerging health and developmental needs identified by their teachers, and on average goes onto having poorer NAPLAN results in Grade 3, a new study has found.

For these kids this is equivalent of being nine months behind in schooling by Grade 3.

The research, led by the Murdoch Children's Research Institute (MCRI) and published in the Child: Care, Health and Development journal, showed a failure to support children's learning could have serious social and economic repercussions, entrenching inequity across Australian generations. 

It found that socio-economic disadvantage even further added to the risk of poor learning outcomes for children with these needs.

The study of 42,619 children analysed data from the Australian Early Development Census, which teachers complete in students first school year, and the National Assessment Program—Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) at Grade 3. 

Lead author Dr Meredith O'Connor said by the time they enter school, one in five children has emerging physical, developmental, behavioural, or emotional difficulties. 

"Speech and language, emotional, behavioural, and learning difficulties are now the most common issues identified by teachers, and the proportion of children experiencing these difficulties is increasing over time," she said. 

Dr O'Connor said for some children with emerging needs, language and learning issues could directly affect their capacity to engage with the mainstream academic curriculum. For other children the impact on learning was more indirect such as through missing more school days, she said. 

Additionally, Dr O'Connor said that not all health and developmental difficulties qualify children for special needs programs, and it was unclear to what degree the needs of these children were being recognised and met.  

Senior author on the study, MCRI's Professor Sharon Goldfeld, said there was a need for timely and coordinated support across the health and education systems, particularly for those who were also disadvantaged.

Professor Goldfeld said flexible approaches were needed to quickly respond to children's needs as they first arise. 

"Well-coordinated processes for assessment and feedback across health and education settings are required to ensure an appropriate referral pathway when teachers have concerns." she said.

"When working with children with additional needs and their families, health practitioners like paediatricians can help to identify learning issues and make referrals to early intervention services, provide guidance for parents on how to create rich learning environments in the home, and advocate for the use of evidence-based approaches," she said.

Professor Goldfeld said in this way schools were a powerful public health platform in preventing longer term problems. 
"The unnatural divide between health and education is part of the challenge. For instance, there are almost no community based public paediatric services in Victoria that see children over the age of five and schools are often struggling to find the health resources they need to help these children," she said. 

On March 11-12 the National Early Years Summit 2020 in Melbourne will begin a ten year endeavour by bringing together those who work on the front line with children, academics, government policy makers and parents.

The forum, which will hear from Professor Goldfeld, will explore what works for kids and highlight what information is lacking and how to acquire it.

Publication: Meredith O'Connor, Shiau Chong, Jon Quach and Sharon Goldfeld. 'Learning outcomes of children with teacher-identified emerging health and developmental needs,' Child: Care, Health and Development. DOI: 10.1111/cch.12737

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The study was funded by the Murdoch Children's Research Institute Population Health Theme and was supported by the Victorian Government's Operational Infrastructure Support Program. Prof Goldfeld is supported by Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Career Development Fellowship (1082922). Dr Quach is supported by an Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DE140100751). This paper uses data from the Australian Early Development Census (AEDC). The AEDC is funded by the Australian Government Department of Education and Training (DET).