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Early diagnosis of problems is key: research

Children with special health care needs in early childhood may be more prone to social and learning difficulties in their first years of school, new research has found.

Children with chronic physical, developmental, behavioural or emotional conditions requiring health and related services are at risk of a range of negative developmental outcomes, as they perform lower in social and learning competencies prior to school.

Master of Education researcher at Queensland University of Technology, Chrystal Whiteford, analysed data from ‘Growing up in Australia: The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children’ for her study, which was the first of its kind in Australia.

She found that having special health care needs prior to school may also impact upon children’s social and learning competencies at 6 and 7 years of age.

Whiteford said previous research indicated lower social competencies could result in withdrawal from social situations, poor peer relationships and work skills, lower academic performance, learning difficulties and problems with future social adjustment. Lower learning competencies could result in leaving school prematurely, lower future income and later negative emotional and mental health outcomes.

While there were currently no programs in place to identify and help children with special health care needs, Whiteford said her research could be used to inform such a project.

“My research uncovered a number of characteristics which can be used to identify children in need of support or intervention,” she said.

“Children with special health care needs are likely to be male, of low birth weight and poorer general health, likely to use prescription medications, have a specific health condition and come from families where mothers were less well educated.”
Whiteford found that 68 per cent of children with health care needs were taking medications, compared to 4 per cent of peers the same age.

Speaking of the research’s messages for educators, Whiteford said teachers need to be aware children with special health care needs exist. “They need to be aware of who these children are. They need to bear in mind these children are at risk of falling behind, in terms of social and learning domains. By focusing on this, we can create intervention programs specifically tailored for them,” she said.

Darragh O Keeffe

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