Cognitive development of Indigenous children

By Guyonne Kalb

Disadvantage is widespread amongst Indigenous populations across the world, with higher mortality rates from birth and strong evidence of disadvantage across developmental outcomes.

This early gap in skills development has significant effects on outcomes in later life. As a result closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous children in the early years has become a priority for policy makers.

However, due to a lack of data, very little is known about the influence of childcare on developmental outcomes among Indigenous Australians. Our latest Melbourne Institute working paper uses data from the Longitudinal Study of Indigenous Children (LSIC) – a unique data set which enables more detailed analysis of early development outcomes than previously available in Australia.

Our research investigates the types of childcare used by children from Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander descent and their cognitive outcomes compared to those who did not attend childcare.

We focus on the younger cohort (born between 2006 and 2008) that has been followed for five years from infancy.

Use of childcare facilities:

Similar to the broader population of Australian children, children from more advantaged families – where the parents are employed, have higher education and where there are more books in the home – are more likely to attend formal childcare (such as Centre Day Care) than children from less advantaged families.

The use of formal childcare is much lower for Indigenous children than for children in the general Australian population, with no more that 30% attending childcare at any given age compared to 55% of the general population (at age 2 to 3).

Girl in playground
55% of the general population (at age 2 to 3) use formal daycare. Photo credit: Purino

95% of all children have used informal childcare by the age of five, such as a relative, neighbour or friend. Traditional Indigenous context features a more communal approach to the care, mentoring and education of children – it is not a job undertaken solely by the parents but supported by the community as a whole.

Cognitive development:

In a second step of the analysis, we investigate the influence of formal childcare attendance on the cognitive development of Indigenous children, using the MacArthur Bates Communicative Development Index – measuring expressive vocabulary and early grammar skills; the Who Am I measure – ability to write name, letters and copy shapes; and the Renfrew Word Finding vocabulary test – capacity to name pictures of objects

Existing evidence on the relationship between childcare and children’s cognitive outcomes in Australia (and internationally) is mostly based on general surveys that fail to recognise the specificities of Indigenous populations and are not representative of these populations due to the usually small Indigenous population numbers.

We find that compared to Indigenous children who never participated in childcare, Indigenous children who participated in childcare performed better on a range of cognitive outcomes measured across the preschool years. However, accounting for a broad range of family and parent characteristics (using statistical techniques, such as regression and propensity score matching), the research shows that this difference is entirely driven by selection into childcare – children from more advantaged families are more likely to attend formal childcare than children from less advantaged families. That is, these children already do better than children from more disadvantaged families, regardless of childcare attendance.

Building Cognition
Research revealed that children who participated in childcare performed better on a range of cognitive outcomes measured across the preschool years. Photo credit: Zatvornik

Interestingly, tentative results suggest that relatively disadvantaged children might benefit more from attending childcare, as indicated by the positive potential effects found for those who never attended childcare: that is, the estimated (hypothetical) effects if they had participated in childcare are positive. However, with the data available, the evidence remains weak.

The LSIC data is a major improvement compared to what was available before this data collection started, both in terms of collecting information on a larger number of Indigenous children than ever before and in terms of the type of information that is collected. However, the sample size is still relatively small (and compared to general population data collections, relatively large proportions of families leave the survey every year), information on local formal childcare availability is missing and specific characteristics of formal childcare are not available for a sufficiently large proportion of children attending formal childcare to include in the analysis. If these limitations could be overcome, the question of whether more disadvantaged children would benefit from using formal childcare could be investigated further and more accurately, so that stronger evidence for or against recommending childcare as a way to improve Indigenous children’s education outcomes could be provided.

That said, the LSIC data is a resource that has enabled a much more detailed analysis not currently feasible in other countries with large Indigenous populations, such as Canada or the US.

Guyonne Kalb is Professorial Fellow at Melbourne Institute Of Applied Economic And Social Research, University of Melbourne.

Article based on the Melbourne Institute Working Paper Series Working Paper No. 36/16
Childcare Use and Its Role in Indigenous Child Development: Evidence from the Longitudinal Study of Indigenous Children in Australia.

Co-Authored by: Francisco Azpitarte, Abraham Chigavazira, Brad M. Farrant, Francisco Perales and Stephen R. Zubrick