Understanding mental health as children start school

Mental health from pre-conception to early adolescence
Thursday 26 July, 1340 – 1400


Meredith O’Connor
Murdoch Children’s Research Institute

Children’s mental health includes not just difficulties (e.g., anxious and fretful behaviour, aggressive behaviour); but also competence (e.g., social competence, prosocial and helping behaviour).

The Australian Early Development Census (AEDC) is a teacher-reported checklist completed on full populations of school entrants. The intersection of competence and difficulties was examined using 2015 AEDC data (n=302,003, 96.5% of the estimated 5 year old population). Only 23.1% of children displayed an optimal combination of high competence with low difficulties. Children from the most advantaged communities had nearly twice the odds of experiencing this optimal combination, compared to those living in the most disadvantaged communities (RRR 1.8 [1.6-1.9]). This highlights the need to address both difficulties, which is widely acknowledged, and competence, a less established goal. The benefits of enhancing competence may flow through to other important outcomes, like academic achievement.
The relationship between competence and academic achievement was examined using 2009 AEDC data that had been linked to participants from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children Birth cohort (LSAC-B) who started school that year (n=2,461). Using propensity score analysis, positive effects were found for competence on later academic outcomes three years later: Numeracy (β = 0.21, p < 0.05), Persuasive Writing (β = 0.19, p < 0.05), Reading (β = 0.18, p < 0.05), and Spelling (β = 0.18, p < 0.05).

Approaches to improve child mental health need to address both competence and difficulties to have the greatest impact and effectively reduce mental health and learning inequities.