A culturally adapted early childhood program for Aboriginal children has shown promising impacts on their language, development and communication skills, according to a new study.

The research, co-led by the Murdoch Children's Research Institute and the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute and commissioned by the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress (Congress) found children attending the centre in Alice Springs were receiving a high-quality early education and care service and their overall learning skills had improved.

Professor Sharon Goldfeld said attendance at high-quality early childhood services greatly benefitted children's learning, school readiness and wellbeing, particularly for those who were disadvantaged.

In 2018, only 76 per cent of Aboriginal children aged four years were enrolled in an early childhood education program, well below the Closing the Gap target of 95 per cent by 2025. Two in five Aboriginal children who started school in 2018 were also developmentally vulnerable.

"Globally, Indigenous children face some of the greatest barriers to positive developmental outcomes and experience greater educational, health, social, and economic disadvantage following centuries of colonisation, assimilation, discrimination and racism," Professor Goldfeld said. 

Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute and Curtin University Professor Sandra Eades said despite these barriers Aboriginal families aspired to see better educational outcomes and life opportunities for their children.

"Traditional cultural practices and a strong sense of cultural identity act as protective factors for children and families in the face of these challenges," she said.  

"But few studies have evaluated how early childhood education and care services can support Aboriginal children's learning and development or reported on the challenges of conducting such evaluations."

The study, published in the Early Childhood Education Journal, evaluated the Arrwekele Akaltye-Irretyeke Apmere Centre for Aboriginal children in Alice Springs, which follows a specially modified early learning curriculum incorporating Aboriginal cultural practices and language.

The Centre, the only one of its kind and established in 2017 by Congress, support children from the age of six months to three years from unemployed families who would not otherwise attend an early childhood program. 

The centre adopted a culturally adapted version of the 'Abecedarian' approach to supporting the learning and development of young children. This approach uses evidence-based teaching and learning strategies that emphasise the role of young children as active learners and encourages educators to have frequent, intentional and playful interactions with the children.

Professor Goldfeld said despite some challenges, particularly early in its operations such as initially low attendance rates, the centre had continued to improve and was overwhelmingly valued by staff, parents/carers and community stakeholders.

"By the end of the evaluation period, more children were regularly attending the centre and receiving a high-quality service, the staff were passionate and skilled and engagement with families continued to improve," she said.

"Parents and carers appreciated the practical support the centre provided them, such as the transport provided, the lack of fees, and the stable and culturally safe welcoming environment for their children."

Professor Eades said for Aboriginal children it was important that these early childhood services support their cultural identity and connections, for example, through incorporating cultural content, Aboriginal languages and a focus on family engagement.

During the evaluation, the centre was rated by the Australian Children's Education and Care Quality Authority as 'exceeding' the overall National Quality Standard (the highest level).

Moreover, children entered the centre with low levels of development, language and communication skills. But, at follow-up, the pre-school language screening test (PLS-5) showed children who had more exposure to the centre tended to have higher language scores.

"Parents/carers and staff reported improvements in the children's social skills, independence and cognitive abilities such as increased talking and showing more interest in reading, which they attributed to attendance at the centre," Professor Goldfeld said.

Congress Chief Executive Officer Donna Ah Chee said if children had the right start to life it could change their whole life story.

"Our centre is really helping some of our most disadvantaged children get a healthy start to life so that they can go on to pre-school and school with the capacity and capabilities they need to do really well," she said.

"Aboriginal children and families across the country should have access to evidence-based, culturally responsive childhood development programs such as this, no matter their circumstances."

Professor Eades said given the strong impact of the social determinants of health on long-term Aboriginal health outcomes, early childhood development programs such as these, with strong implementation research and evaluation should be a priority for governments and communities.

Researchers from the University of Melbourne and The Royal Children's Hospital also contributed to the findings.

Publication: Catriona Elek, Alison Gibberd, Lina Gubhaju, Jodi Lennox, Roxanne Highfold, Sharon Goldfeld and Sandra Eades. 'An Opportunity for Our Little Ones: Findings from an Evaluation of an Aboriginal Early Childhood Learning Centre in Central Australia,' Early Childhood Education Journal. DOI: 10.1007/s10643-021-01174-5

*The content of this communication is the sole responsibility of MCRI and does not reflect the views of the NHMRC.

Available for interview:

Professor Sharon Goldfeld, MCRI Theme Director, Population Health

Professor Sandra Eades, Curtin University and the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute

Donna Ah Chee, Central Australian Aboriginal Congress, Chief Executive Officer

Media Contact:

Bridie Byrne                                                                     
Murdoch Children's Communication Specialist                               
+61 3 9936 6211/ 0403 664 416                                           

Kate Buckland
Congress Communications Manager
+61 8 8958 4871 / 0408 741 691
[email protected]

Vanessa Beasley
Curtin University Media Relations Deputy Director 
+ 61 8 9266 1811 / 0466 853 121
[email protected] 

About us
The Murdoch Children's Research Institute is the largest child health research institute in Australia committed to making discoveries and developing treatments to improve child and adolescent health in Australia and around the world. They are pioneering new treatments, trialling better vaccines and improving ways of diagnosing and helping sick babies, children and adolescents. It is one of the only research institutes in Australia to offer genetic testing to find answers for families of children with previously undiagnosed conditions.

The study was supported by funds from the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress and an Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Practitioner Fellowship Grant/Award Number: GNT1155290.