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Vulnerable children: Messages for ECE teachers and services from the Growing Up in NZ Study

growing up in NZ reportOne in 10 NZ children are vulnerable (at risk) due to exposure to four or more risk factors from birth to age 2 according to New Zealand's longitudinal study of children and their families.

When planning to support and meet the needs of vulnerable children attending early childhood education the insights generated by the Growing Up in NZ longitudinal study are interesting and helpful. 

In July 2015 a representative form ChildForum and a large group of officials and family workers attended the launch of 'Vulnerability Report 2: Transitions in exposure to vulnerability in the first 1000 days of life – 2015’ presented by the study's director Prof Susan Morton at Superu (formerly known as the Families Commission).  

Vulnerability in early life is a current policy focus in NZ.  

The specific risk factors found by the research to be most relevant in the NZ context for identifying vulnerable children early in their life are:

  • mother's physical well-being
  • mother's smoking
  • mother's age (teenage at the time of pregnancy)
  • mother with no current partner
  • mother with no formal secondary school qualification
  • reporting highly stressful money problems
  • living in a high deprivation area
  • mother actively seeking work but not currently working
  • living in social housing
  • living on an income tested government benefit
  • household overcrowding - having 2 or more persons per bedroom

Having less family support, feeling less integrated into the neighbourhood, and more relationship and more family stress are family characteristics associated with persistently high vulnerability.

Children who are exposed to persistently high vulnerability risk are more likely to have behavioural problems and poorer health.

The study found that targeting single risk factors for intervention has limited capacity to minimise adverse outcomes later - risk factors tend to cluster.

Therefore it is possible that assisting a mother to engage in paid work by providing childcare may not alone be enough, if for example the child is living in social housing, in an overcrowded house, in a high deprivation area.

Risk factors that ECE services may be able to help with is being located on high school grounds or having a relationship with a high school to provide education for parents, enabling a social network for support and friendship among families, encouraging parents to join in with their child's physical play especially and learn about health promoting behaviours, and giving support to reduce smoking.

The study reveals that only 1 in 5 children in the high risk group have access to social services such as CYF, Whanau Ora, Family Start and Parents as First Teachers. Less than 10% of the families using Parents as First Teachers were from the high vulnerability risk group. The geographical location of services is something that needs to be looked at to improve access. But also this finding raises a need for teachers, health professionals and everyone who comes in contact with families in the high risk group to be proactive in making referrals and personally assisting families to get access to social services.

 

If you found this interesting you may also like to check out a news article providing an ECE perspective on a Child Poverty report, click here.

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