From birth to eight years old, kids do a huge amount of growing, learning and changing.

These enormously impactful years, which lay the foundations for the adults we become, are the focus of the researchers at the Centre for Community Child Health.

The Centre, a department of The Royal Children's Hospital (RCH) and research team at Murdoch Children's Research Institute (MCRI), plays a key role in ensuring MCRI's work in population health goes beyond the hospital walls to support the best start in life for every child in the community.

The Centre began its life in 1994 in a pair of cramped offices, wedged in next to the RCH Emergency Department. This connection, which made collaboration simple from the start, has paid off. Twenty-five years on, the Centre has led the implementation of many state and nation-wide programs that have changed the face of child health.

MCRI's population health research studies, many led from the Centre, have been pivotal to this success. They have created better understanding of the many complex and interrelated factors that influence child and adolescent health.

1. Measuring how every child develops

In 2003, the Centre led a group of national stakeholders to consider if a Canadian developed tool called the Early Development Instrument (EDI) would be useful in Australia. The EDI was designed to measure the developmental health and wellbeing of young children when they began school.

After adapting the Canadian EDI to use in Australia, the Centre led its national implementation from 2004-08, in partnership with Telethon Kids Research Institute in Perth and supported by the federal government.

The survey that Australian primary school kids and parents know as the AEDC was born.

With its national rollout, Australia became the first country in the world to collect national data on the developmental health of all children starting school. This laid the foundation for the Australian government's commitment to ongoing, three-yearly data collection cycles, under the name the Australian Early Development Census (AEDC).

2. Getting it right, from the start

The powerful data from the first rollout of the AEDC showed that at least one in every five Australian children starts school without the developmental capabilities to take advantage of the learning and other opportunities schools provide. They were coming to school without being ready.

It was clear to ensure that every child could take full advantage of their school years, it was going to be important to work with children and families before school began. This led to the right@home program.

Right@home is embedded in the national maternal and child health service. It works to improve outcomes for children and their families by building parents' capacity to provide safe, responsive care and a home environment that supports children's learning.

Results have shown that the program makes a positive difference in children's school readiness and parents' skills. The program was named a finalist in VicHealth's 2019 awards.

3. A resource for Australian parents

A third major innovation to come out of the Centre's 25 years is the Raising Children Network,

The website began in 2006 with support from the federal government. The Centre worked with partners to create a resource for Australian parents that supported them from pregnancy to adolescence.

Now, it is a space for parents and carers, with videos, parenting forums, and information on topics from parenting preteens, to bathing babies. MCRI continues to be actively involved as a research and knowledge partner.

The Raising Children Network provides a comprehensive and trusted resource for parents across Australia and internationally. In 2019, the website recorded more than 33 million page views.

A bright future for community child health

Under the leadership of Founding Director Professor Frank Oberklaid and Associate Professor Jill Sewell, these and many more programs have contributed to the Centre's stellar reputation across Australia and around the world.

As the Centre celebrates its 25-year anniversary, Professor Sharon Goldfeld is taking over the directorship with her sights firmly on what's in store for the next quarter-century.

"One of the strongest things about the Centre is its people," says Sharon. "It's the human capital, but it's also the heart."

"Today's kids are growing up in an extraordinarily complex environment, and we need to support them with extraordinarily clever ideas."

The Centre's work aligns with other important aspects of MCRI's population health research, including studies of Aboriginal health and mental health.

Supporting mental health

MCRI research published in 2019 found that the vast majority of Australian children with mental health disorders are not getting sufficient professional help. Girls, young children and families from non-English speaking backgrounds are the least likely to access services.

"Fewer than one in four children with mental health problems saw a health professional in the 18 months after they were identified as having a problem," says lead author Professor Harriet Hiscock.

Harriet says families may delay getting help for young children in the hope that they will 'grow out' of the mental disorder. They may also not know where to get help, or cannot afford it. Her team is now working on developing and testing models of accessible and affordable mental healthcare to remove these barriers.

Aboriginal Health

Aboriginal health is a key focus for MCRI, under the direction of Aboriginal Health Group Leader Professor Stephanie Brown. October saw the inaugural meeting of the MCRI Aboriginal Reference Group, which provides strategic guidance and cultural advice to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Leadership Team, the Institute Director and the Institute Executive.

The Reference Group members are Aunty Di Kerr, N'arweet Carolyn Briggs, Andrew Jackomos (co-chair), Graham Gee (co-chair), Justin Mohamed, Trevor Pearce, Selena White, Denis McDermott, Indi Clarke and Sandra Eades.