Can a childcare centre help prevent child maltreatment? AIFS study underlines the importance of a population approach

Moving a percentage of the population away from behaviours that can have a long-lasting impact on society has long been a key driver behind the development of the multi-level Triple P system.

Now a report by the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) underlines the importance of a population approach to prevent child maltreatment and the role that family interventions can play.

The report refers to a Productivity Commission recommendation for the involvement of child care and early learning centres in risk assessment and early intervention to protect children. As well as providing a safe learning environment for children, early learning centres could also help improve life at home by offering skills development and information to parents.

The report, A safe and supportive family environment for children: Key components and links to child outcomes (2014, Mullan K and Higgins, D) analyses data from the AIFS longitudinal study, Growing Up in Australia, to identify the prevalence of different types of family environments and their links to children’s health and well-being.

The study looks at outcomes for children from different types of families and tracks what happens when those family environments change.

Among the findings:

  • Children from families displaying below-average levels of parental warmth and parent-child shared activities and above-average levels of hostile parenting – identified as disengaged families – had lower Year 5 NAPLAN reading and numeracy scores.
  • Children aged 2-3 from families displaying average levels of parental warmth but higher than average levels of parental conflict – identified as enmeshed families – were more likely to be underweight.
  • And children aged 2-3 from disengaged families were more likely to have one or more injuries per year.

But when children’s family environment improved, they showed improved social and emotional well-being and gained higher NAPLAN reading scores. And when family environments became more problematic, they displayed more social and emotional problems.

Underscoring the importance of providing broad access for parenting programs rather than targeting those already designated as “at risk”, the authors argue that programs directed to parents with young children might be more effective if they were to target behaviours rather than groups of people.

“We found problematic family environments weren’t concentrated solely in low-socioeconomic families.’’

They suggest careful tailoring of family interventions to specific dynamics arising within families would be beneficial.

“We found problematic family environments weren’t concentrated solely in low-socioeconomic families,’’ Dr Higgins writes.

In a study summary, Dr Higgins identifies early learning and childcare centres as potential dissemination points for early intervention.

“One example proposed by the Productivity Commission in its July 2014 draft report on child care and early childhood learning is that families where a child is assessed as being ‘at-risk’ of abuse or neglect receive funding for up to 100 hours per fortnight of early childhood education and care services,’’ Dr Higgins writes.

“Under the Commission’s proposal, the assessment of risk would be undertaken by a qualified child care worker, social worker, teacher or medical professional, which is not dependent – at least initially – on notification or assessment by the statutory child protection service which reduces the stigma to individual families in need.

“Child care and early childhood education settings would have a unique opportunity under this strategy to respond to the needs in the family environment by simultaneously providing parents with parenting skills and information.

“In doing so – not only would they be providing a consistent, calm, high-quality learning environment away from the family (through the offer of free child care) but helping families improve the environment to which the child returns at the end of each day spent in child care.’’

One concern with the PC recommendation that some people have expressed is that even though the initial assessment would be made outside of the child protection system, apparently a referral would still need to be made afterwards to protection authorities, which many view as counter-intuitive.

However, Dr Higgins writes that improving parents’ knowledge and skills through a parenting program might also increase their employability in the long term.

“A positive and consistent parent is likely to display the kinds of attributes that are needed for success in the workplace: organisational skills, emotional calmness, persistence, warmth and structure,’’ he wrote.

Different types of families identified by the study were:

  • Cohesive families: the largest group of families exhibited average or above-average levels of parental warmth and parent–child shared activities, and below-average levels of hostile parenting and parental relationship conflict.
  • Disengaged families: a smaller group of families exhibited below-average levels of parental warmth and parent–child shared activities, and above-average levels of hostile parenting.
  • Enmeshed families: a small group exhibited average levels of parental warmth, but higher than average levels of conflict in the relationship between parents.