The complexity of issues facing country children is growing, yet common sense and recent evidence tell us that unaddressed need leads to lifelong challenges. Children already falling behind in the first few years of their development face greater obstacles to catching up and succeeding at school and beyond. As early experiences shape the architecture of the developing brain, they also lay the foundations of sound mental health. Disruptions to this development process can impair a child’s capacities for learning and relating to others – with lifelong implications.
Royal Far West (RFW) finds children are displaying challenging behaviours at a younger age. In addition, the number of children presenting with trauma to our Child and Family Services has doubled since 2017 and over half of our occupational therapy services now address behaviour-regulation issues.
COVID-19 and compounding natural disasters of drought, bushfires and floods have particularly impacted country children. More needs to be done to ensure a child’s start in life is not negatively determined by their postcode. We must banish once and for all the idea that children living in rural and remote communities all have an idyllic country life. RFW estimates that there are 190,000 children aged 3–12 in rural and remote communities across Australia needing support for their developmental health and future wellbeing.
Our research shows that the effect of natural disasters and resulting trauma can have long-term impacts on children’s mental health, resilience and life trajectories. Children particularly at risk are those from more vulnerable backgrounds who may have other compounding factors.
In 2020, a RFW survey asked school principals what they needed to help developmentally vulnerable children. The trends identified as most important were:
- Support students’ mental health.
- Support students’ social interaction skills and relationships with peers and adults.
- Identify students who should be referred for assessment and then support any child with special needs or a diagnosis.
- Specifically address behaviour and attention in children.
- Facilitate trauma-informed classrooms.
Children not receiving the right support are much more likely to become the children who cannot listen in the classroom. They do not have the strategies to regulate their emotions and become disruptive, agitated and unable to learn. In the long term, they are more likely as adults to be unemployed, homeless or incarcerated.
In 2022, RFW and Narromine Public School (NPS), in central-west New South Wales, celebrated an eight-year partnership that has delivered impressive educational outcomes – improved attendance and classroom engagement and significantly improved wellbeing and educational pathways for many students and their families.
NPS initially asked RFW to deliver speech pathology services such as screening, assessment, individual and group therapy, and teacher professional learning. NPS adjusted the mix of services throughout the time, in discussion with RFW’s therapists about the needs of the children. Denise Toohey, Principal of NPS said ‘we were in this bubble that just wasn’t getting any services.’
The qualitative results of the Narromine partnership, together with improved systems and capability, have driven the evolution of our model of stepped care. This evidence-based model will provide a more comprehensive screening and wraparound service model. With a focus on school capacity building it aims to allow country kids in the bottom 20 per cent of every developmental measure to have the same chance of positive life trajectories as other children.
Jacqui Emery, Chief Executive Officer at RFW, says ‘It is going to take courage and vision to shape effective health outcomes of people living in rural Australia.
‘Preventing poor mental health, developmental vulnerability and lack of access to healthcare services for children aged 3–12 is a health problem, but one that can be addressed within the school gate, where children and families are easy to reach.’
She says ‘Let’s be pragmatic – we should be using evidenced-based research to help rural communities prepare and respond to disasters. If service providers are given a clear framework, backed up with sustainable and consistent long-term investment, we can look forward to a brighter future for all Australian children.’