The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children
Annual statistical report 2012

10 The family circumstances and wellbeing of Indigenous and non-Indigenous children

Jennifer Baxter, Australian Institute of Family Studies

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10.1 Introduction

The health and wellbeing and learning outcomes of Indigenous Australian children have improved over recent years, though Indigenous children continue to be at greater risk of poorer developmental outcomes than non-Indigenous Australian children (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare [AIHW], 2011; Steering Committee for the Review of Government Service Provision, 2011). This chapter provides some insights on how the lives of Indigenous children and non-Indigenous children compare, using data from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC), and presents new information on the differences between these groups of children on a range of indicators of child wellbeing. Throughout these analyses, Indigenous children are those who were identified as being Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander by their primary carer.

The LSAC data cannot provide insights for all Indigenous children, because LSAC is not representative of children living in remote areas of Australia. Nevertheless, these data can help to build up a picture of the lives of Indigenous children in non-remote areas, and allow comparisons to be made between these children and non-Indigenous children (Hunter, 2008). While on many (though not all) indicators of child outcomes, Indigenous children living in more remote areas of Australia do not fare as well as other Indigenous children (e.g., Steering Committee for the Review of Government Service Provision, 2011), it is important to note that the majority of Indigenous children live in non-remote parts of Australia, and so a focus on these children is important.1

A particular strength of LSAC for making comparisons of different groups of children is the availability of extensive information about the families and parents of the children. Families set the scene for children's development, with parental characteristics being useful indicators of children's developmental opportunities. To understand the contexts for the development of Indigenous children, these data are used to provide information about their families, and about the parent or parents with whom they are living at each wave of LSAC. While LSAC is not designed to specifically capture the way in which Indigenous households are structured and function, the extensive family information in LSAC provides some useful insights. More information about Indigenous households can be gained through analyses of data from Footprints in Time: The Longitudinal Study of Indigenous Children (LSIC); but as we wish to compare Indigenous and non-Indigenous children in this analysis, we focus here only on the findings from LSAC.

Reflecting on the family circumstances of Indigenous compared to non-Indigenous children is particularly important, as Indigenous adults are themselves more often faced with disadvantage when compared to non-Indigenous adults (AIHW, 2011). This is true in areas of financial wellbeing, employment, education, health, and social and emotional wellbeing. Disentangling the different causes of disadvantage is not explored here, nor are the links between different indicators of disadvantage. The goal of the chapter is to describe the family circumstances of children to help build our understanding of the lives of Indigenous children in non-remote parts of Australia.

The circumstances of Indigenous families are likely to influence their children's development. Previous research has clearly identified that compared to non-Indigenous children, Indigenous children are more often faced with risk factors that can be detrimental to the achievement of good developmental outcomes (Daly & Smith, 2005). Certainly the poorer wellbeing of Indigenous children is well documented for Australia (AIHW, 2011; Daly & Smith, 2005; Zubrick, 2004; Zubrick et al., 2004). Further, poorer outcomes for Indigenous children have been shown using LSAC data (e.g., Leigh & Gong, 2009; Ou, Chen, Hillman, & Eastwood, 2010; Priest, Baxter, & Hayes, 2012).

Various measures of child wellbeing are explored in this chapter, making use of information from the first four waves of LSAC. Parents' and children's reports are incorporated to gain insights from different perspectives. The sample size for Indigenous children does not allow very comprehensive analyses of these data, but the extent to which the relatively poor outcomes of Indigenous children may be related to their being over-represented in households of lower socio-economic position (SEP) is considered.

To summarise, the key research questions explored in this chapter are:

  • How do the family circumstances of Indigenous and non-Indigenous children compare?
  • What are the differences between Indigenous and non-Indigenous children in terms of how they are progressing in their physical, social-emotional and cognitive wellbeing?
  • To what extent does the socio-economic position of families of Indigenous children explain any differences in developmental outcomes?

The research questions are explored for children at different ages from 0-1 years through to 10-11 years.

10.2 Data

This chapter uses Waves 1 to 4 and both cohorts of LSAC. The identification of children as being Indigenous or non-Indigenous is based on parents' reports at Wave 1 of whether the child is of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander origin.

A significant limitation of this analysis is the size of the subsample of Indigenous children in LSAC. The small number of Indigenous children affects sample errors and the ability to undertake very detailed analyses (Hunter, 2008). Significance tests (and the presentation of confidence intervals) have been used in this chapter to show when associations or differences were statistically significant.2

At Wave 1, there were 230 Indigenous children in the B cohort and 187 in the K cohort. This number decreased considerably in later waves, with attrition being relatively high among families with Indigenous children (see Table 10.1; and, e.g., Daraganova & Sipthorp, 2011). For example, in the B cohort, across the whole sample, 83% of children (4,242 out of 5,107) from Wave 1 remained in the sample at Wave 4. Among Indigenous children who were in Wave 1 of the B cohort, only 63% remained in the sample at Wave 4 (145 out of 230). These proportions were similar in the K cohort.

In addition to this attrition causing potential difficulty with sampling errors that increase due to the diminishing size of the sample, there may be biases introduced if the responding Indigenous children at Wave 4 have different characteristics to those responding at Wave 1. This is, of course, a challenge for all analyses of later waves of longitudinal studies. The sample weights (which are used throughout these analyses) take some account of attrition and non-response bias. Nevertheless, care still needs to be taken in analysing the data at later waves, as change may be observed simply because of the changing characteristics of the sample. For this reason, when using the longitudinal data to compare across ages of children, those who provided valid responses (to the specific item being examined) at each of the relevant waves were included.3

Table 10.1: Sample distribution of Indigenous and non-Indigenous children in LSAC, B and K cohorts, Waves 1-4
(Wave 1) (Wave 2) (Wave 3) (Wave 4)
% No. of observations % No. of observations % No. of observations % No. of observations
B cohort 0-1 years 2-3 years 4-5 years 6-7 years
Indigenous children 4.5 230 3.9 180 3.4 149 3.4 145
Non-Indigenous children 95.5 4,877 96.1 4,426 96.6 4,237 96.6 4,097
Total 100.0 5,107 100.0 4,606 100.0 4,386 100.0 4,242
K cohort 4-5 years 6-7 years 8-9 years 10-11 years
Indigenous children 3.7 187 3.4 153 2.9 124 2.8 118
Non-Indigenous children 96.3 4,794 96.6 4,309 97.1 4,205 97.2 4,049
Total 100.0 4,981 100.0 4,462 100.0 4,329 100.0 4,167

Note: These figures are unweighted.

For many of the analyses of socio-economic and family circumstances, only Wave 1 data have been used, as these give the largest and more representative sample. However, when highlighting how children's outcomes compare as they grow up, data from the other waves have also been incorporated. In addition, Wave 4 of the K cohort has been used to compare Indigenous and non-Indigenous children's self-reports on a number of indicators of wellbeing.

Given the small sample sizes, multivariate methods have not been used; so where differences are observed between Indigenous and non-Indigenous children, it is not possible to state whether such differences are entirely due to the Indigenous status of the child, or due to other characteristics. However, as will be discussed later, in some analyses of children's outcomes, the comparisons by Indigenous status also incorporate information on the socio-economic status of families, which allows some consideration of whether differences by Indigenous status may, at least in part, be related to the different socio-economic positions (SEP) of Indigenous and non-Indigenous families.

10.3 Family circumstances of Indigenous and non-Indigenous children

This section examines the family circumstances of Indigenous and non-Indigenous children. For most of the analyses presented in this section only Wave 1 data were used.

Indigenous status and language of children and parents

Households may include a mix of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, and for Indigenous children this might mean they are living with parents (or others) who are not themselves Indigenous.4 Of children who were identified as being of Indigenous origin in Wave 1 (combining the two cohorts, as percentages are similar in each):

  • 18% lived in a family with an Indigenous mother and an Indigenous father;
  • 25% lived in a family with an Indigenous mother and non-Indigenous father;
  • 20% lived in a family with a non-Indigenous mother and Indigenous father;
  • 25% lived in a family with an Indigenous mother and no father;
  • 11% lived in a family with a non-Indigenous mother and no father; and
  • 1% lived in a family with a non-Indigenous mother and non-Indigenous father.

Fewer than 1% of children who were identified as not being Indigenous were living with an Indigenous mother and/or father.

This parental information for Indigenous children draws attention to the fact that their families are not all the same, and the simple identification of families in LSAC as being those of an Indigenous (or non-Indigenous) child hides this diversity. This is necessary, however, due to the small sample sizes for Indigenous children.

One important point to note for these analyses is that LSAC does not provide information about the way in which cultural diversity is experienced within Indigenous families. One indicator of this, however, could be the language that parents speak at home. In LSAC (B and K cohorts combined, Wave 1), 92% of Indigenous mothers and 90% of Indigenous fathers stated that English was the main language that they spoke at home. Given the small sample sizes, it is not possible to report specifically on the languages spoken by the remaining 8-10%, but the languages spoken are very diverse, with only a very small number reporting to mainly speak an Indigenous language. The same is true if the languages of the children are examined, with 95% of Indigenous children mainly speaking English at home (K cohort, Wave 1 only, since some of the B cohort at Wave 1 were not yet talking), and the balance including a small number speaking Indigenous languages, and others speaking a diverse range of non-Indigenous languages.5

In using a population-based study such as LSAC to examine children raised within a particular cultural framework, it is important to recognise that the meaning of certain questions, while tried and tested on the population as a whole, may have a somewhat different meaning in specific cultural groups. This may apply in the case of using LSAC to study the lives and wellbeing of Indigenous children. The fact that the vast majority of the children and parents mainly speak English at home leads us to think that it is appropriate to assume that the questions and concepts will not be completely foreign to most of the Indigenous families in the study. However, with these data, it is not possible to explore whether there were cultural nuances in the interpretation and meaning of the questions for the Indigenous children that might have affected the responses.

Residence

In LSAC, there is a considerable difference in the residential location of Indigenous and non-Indigenous children. Indigenous children are more likely to be living in regional areas (62% of each of the B and K cohorts at Wave 1), with the balance (38%) living in metropolitan areas of Australia. In comparison, non-Indigenous children more often live in metropolitan areas: 68% of the B cohort live in metropolitan areas and 32% in regional areas, while 65% of the K cohort live in metropolitan areas and 35% in regional areas. As already discussed, the more remote areas of Australia were excluded in the initial selection of families for LSAC. An important source of information about Indigenous children living in remote parts of Australia is LSIC.

These regional differences are consistent with population data for Australia, with the 2006 Census data showing that a higher proportion of non-Indigenous children aged under 10 years live in major cities (69% of non-Indigenous children compared to 32% of Indigenous children), somewhat fewer live in inner regional (20% compared to 23%) or outer regional areas (10% compared to 22%), and a much smaller proportion live in remote or very remote areas (1% compared to 23%).6

Household and family composition

This subsection addresses the first research question of this chapter, to explore how the family circumstances of Indigenous and non-Indigenous children compare. It builds on prior research on the lives of Indigenous Australians by focusing on families with young children, and allowing direct comparisons with information about families with non-Indigenous children.

First, Table 10.2 shows various aspects of family and household characteristics at Wave 1. These data show that 81-85% of non-Indigenous children lived with their two parents and no other adults. Another 5-6% lived with two parents and other adults. For Indigenous children a smaller percentage lived with their two parents and no other adults (55% for the B cohort and 59% for the K cohort), while the percentage living with two parents and other adults was similar (6% and 8% respectively). Indigenous children were more likely than non-Indigenous children to be living with a single parent, though it was quite common for these children to also have another adult in the household. For the B cohort, 23% of Indigenous children were living with a single parent and no other adult and 16% were living with a single parent and one or more other adults. The K cohort was similar. For non-Indigenous children, overall a much smaller percentage lived with one parent as opposed to two parents, but it was not uncommon for these single-parent families - especially for the younger cohort - to have another adult resident in the household.

Table 10.2: Household and family composition, by children's Indigenous status, B and K cohorts, Wave 1
Indigenous children (%) Non-Indigenous children (%) Indigenous children (%) Non-Indigenous children (%)
Family composition (adults) a B cohort (0-1 year) *** K cohort (4-5 years) ***
Two parents only 55.0 84.7 59.4 80.6
Two parents plus other adults 6.4 6.2 7.9 5.1
One parent only 22.7 5.8 22.0 11.9
One parent plus other adults 15.8 3.4 10.7 2.4
Total 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0
Other adults in the home B cohort (0-1 year) K cohort (4-5 years)
Has other adults in the home 22.2 9.5 *** 18.6 7.5 ***
Grandparent: 13.3 6.3 ** 7.5 4.2 *
Grandmother 11.6 5.8 ** 7.2 3.8 *
Grandfather 6.9 4.0 2.6 2.1
Aunt/uncle 10.9 3.9 *** 7.6 2.1 ***
Other relative 2.9 0.4 *** 4.8 0.4 ***
Other non-relative 6.9 1.7 2.1 1.8
Number of co-resident siblings of study child b B cohort (0-1 year) *** K cohort (4-5 years) ***
0 30.5 41.2 9.3 12.6
1 32.0 35.9 34.8 48.1
2 16.1 16.0 28.4 26.3
3 11.3 4.5 14.6 9.1
4+ 10.2 2.4 13.0 4.0
Total 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0
Relationship between study child and siblings B cohort (0-1 year) K cohort (4-5 years)
Has co-resident biological siblings 53.6 54.7 78.9 83.8
Has co-resident half-siblings 27.7 8.9 *** 29.9 10.5 ***
Has co-resident step-siblings 0.0 0.1 1.1 0.1
Has other non-sibling children < 15 years living in household 1.7 5.0 *** 1.0 6.7 ***
No. of observations 230 4,877 187 4,794

Note: a "Parents" includes adults who were listed as not having a parental relationship with the child, including biological and non-biological (step-) parents. "Other adult" does not include grown-up siblings of the study child. b "Siblings" includes children recorded as biological, foster/adopted, half- or step-siblings. Tests were done for family composition, each of the indicators of having (versus not having) other adults in the home, the number of co-resident siblings, and each of the indicators of having (versus not having) co-resident siblings of different relationships. Within each cohort chi-square tests were used to test for differences by Indigenous status. Percentages may not total exactly 100.0% due to rounding. Statistically significant differences are noted: * p < .05; ** p < .01; *** p < .001.

In describing the family composition of Indigenous families, it is important to acknowledge that they may have different ways of thinking about family relationships than is typical in non-Indigenous families. In Indigenous families, the broader family, including grandparents, aunts and uncles, are likely to be considered part of the family network that is responsible for raising children. Families tend to be larger, and resident children may be related to each other in diverse set of ways. This may have implications for capturing details of relationships within the household, especially if children are considered to be brother or sister to each other without being related by a common parent. Further, Indigenous families may also be less clearly defined in terms of who is usually resident within a household (which is the basis of household information in LSAC), with more movement occurring between households. These data do not attempt to reflect this more dynamic nature of Indigenous families, and may not fully capture the complexity of family relationships. LSIC will be particularly valuable for the examination of such matters. (For more discussion of this issue, refer to Daly & Smith, 2005; Morphy, 2006; and Silburn et al., 2006.)

At Wave 1, 22% of the B cohort and 19% of the K cohort families with Indigenous children had one or more adults (not including grown-up siblings of the study child) other than a parent living in the household. This compared to 10% and 8% for families of non-Indigenous children. These other residents, for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous children, were quite diverse in their relationship to the LSAC study child, though the two most common were grandparents and aunts or uncles.

Table 10.2 shows that Indigenous children live with a greater number of siblings when compared to non-Indigenous children. This is especially apparent in relation to the proportion with three or more co-resident siblings. These findings provide one explanation for the higher incidence of overcrowding in Indigenous housing (Steering Committee for the Review of Government Service Provision, 2011).

These data also highlight the greater complexity of Indigenous families. While the percentages of Indigenous and non-Indigenous children who had biological siblings were somewhat similar, Indigenous children were considerably more likely to be living with half-siblings (28-29%) than non-Indigenous children (9-11%). Virtually no children were reported to have step-siblings at age 0-1 or 4-5 years. Indigenous children were more likely than other children to have children (aged less than 15 years) other than siblings (e.g., cousins) living in their household - 5% of Indigenous children in the B cohort and 7% of the K cohort, compared with fewer than 2% of non-Indigenous children.

It is well documented that Indigenous families face more economic disadvantages than non-Indigenous ones (see also the following subsection). More generally, this is related to Indigenous men and women having relatively low education levels and relatively low levels of participation in the labour market (Daly & Smith, 2005; Silburn et al., 2006; Steering Committee for the Review of Government Service Provision, 2011). In these data, this is also related to the finding from Table 10.2 that many families with Indigenous children do not include two resident parents.

Socio-economic position and educational attainment

Patterns of relative socio-economic disadvantage among families of Indigenous children are apparent in the LSAC data from Wave 1 (shown in Table 10.3). It is important that these differences are outlined here, to provide context to the analyses of children's outcomes explored in this chapter.

Table 10.3: Socio-economic characteristics of families, by children's Indigenous status, B and K cohorts, Wave 1
Indigenous children (%) Non-Indigenous children (%) Indigenous children (%) Non-Indigenous children (%)
Mothers' educational attainment B cohort (0-1 year) *** K cohort (4-5 years) ***
Less than Year 10 19.6 4.1 18.4 5.5
Year 10 or 11 31.3 15.7 29.9 20.1
Year 12, diploma or certificate 45.6 54.5 47.5 54.1
Bachelor degree or higher 3.5 25.7 4.2 20.3
Total 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0
No. of observations 229 4,871 182 4,756
Employment status of parent(s) B cohort (0-1 year) *** K cohort (4-5 years) ***
Either (or only) parent employed 45.7 87.1 55.6 86.5
No parent employed 54.3 12.9 44.4 13.5
Total 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0
No. of observations 227 4,758 168 4,493
Socio-economic position of family B cohort (0-1 year) *** K cohort (4-5 years) ***
Lowest quartile (<= 25%) 69.2 28.5 55.8 30.1
2nd quartile (26-50%) 21.4 23.9 26.3 24.3
3rd quartile (51-75%) 7.8 22.7 15.0 22.5
Highest quartile (>= 76%) 1.6 24.8 3.0 23.1
Total 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0
No. of observations 225 4,867 179 4,784
Financial hardships experienced by family in previous 12 months B cohort (0-1 year) K cohort (4-5 years)
Experienced one or more hardships 36.2 13.5 *** 40.5 13.6 ***
Type of hardship experienced:
Adults or children have gone without meals 5.4 2.4 * 7.8 2.0 ***
Unable to heat or cool your home 10.5 3.8 *** 8.3 4.1
Pawned or sold something 15.5 7.0 *** 23.0 6.8 ***
Sought assistance from a welfare or community organisation 26.5 6.1 *** 26.4 6.5 ***
No. of observations 228 4,873 186 4,784
Age of mother at birth of the child B cohort (0-1 year) K cohort (4-5 years)
Mother aged less than 20 years 18.3 3.8 *** 13.1 3.5 ***
No. of observations 225 4,864 176 4,733

Note: Within each cohort, chi-square tests were used to test for differences by Indigenous status. Tests were done for mothers' educational attainment, parental employment, socio-economic position of the family, each of the indicators of experiencing (versus not experiencing) overall and specific financial hardships, and age of mother at birth of the child. Percentages may not total exactly 100.0% due to rounding. Statistically significant differences are noted: * p < .05; *** p < .001.

First, considering educational attainment, mothers of Indigenous children were much more likely to have incomplete secondary education (around 50%) than mothers of non-Indigenous children (20-25%). In fact, almost one in five mothers of Indigenous children had an educational attainment of lower than Year 10, compared to around one in twenty for mothers of non-Indigenous children.7

An extension of this educational attainment information relates to parents' expectations for the educational attainment of their children (data not shown). For example, in the K cohort at Wave 2 (when the children were aged 6-7 years), parents were asked how far they thought their child would go in education. Few parents expected that their child would not complete secondary education (4% for Indigenous children compared to 2% for non-Indigenous children). Parents of Indigenous children, however, were more likely than parents of non-Indigenous children to think their child's education would finish at secondary school (29% for Indigenous children compared to 16% for non-Indigenous children) or a trade or vocational education (24% for Indigenous children compared to 16% for non-Indigenous children). Parents of Indigenous children were also less likely than parents of non-Indigenous children to expect their child to achieve a degree or higher (43% for Indigenous children compared to 67% for non-Indigenous children). When comparing the educational attainment of parents with the percentages expecting their children to achieve higher levels of education, there was an expectation among parents of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous children that their children would achieve higher levels of education than that of the parents themselves.

Families of Indigenous children very often had no parent employed (54% of families of 0-1 year olds and 44% of 4-5 year olds), compared to much lower rates of parental joblessness in families of non-Indigenous children in both cohorts (13-14%) (Table 10.3). High rates of joblessness contribute to the relatively low socio-economic position of families with Indigenous children. In the B cohort in Wave 1, for example, fewer than 10% of the families of Indigenous children were in the highest two quartiles (the top 50%) of the distribution for socio-economic position, compared to 48% of non-Indigenous families.

The experience of financial hardship by parents illustrates how these characteristics may flow through to the lives of Indigenous and non-Indigenous children. For the B cohort at Wave 1, for example, 36% of families of Indigenous children had experienced a financial hardship in the previous 12 months, with the most common hardship being having sought assistance from a welfare or community organisation (27%). Relatively high percentages reported that, because of lack of money, they had pawned or sold something (16%) or were unable to heat or cool their home (11%). Table 10.3 shows that the percentages for all indicators of financial wellbeing were lower for the families of non-Indigenous children, among whom 14% in the B cohort at Wave 1 experienced at least one financial hardship. Results for the K cohort at Wave 1 followed a similar pattern.

Some of these differences in socio-economic position reflect that Indigenous children, on average, are born to younger mothers than non-Indigenous children. Table 10.3 shows that a higher percentage of mothers of Indigenous children, compared to non-Indigenous children, were aged less than 20 years old at the birth of the child (for the B cohort, 18% of Indigenous children and 4% of non-Indigenous children).

Physical and social-emotional wellbeing of parents

Indigenous men and women disproportionately face disadvantage in the areas of social-emotional and physical health (ABS, 2010). When parents have such disadvantages, this may then have implications for the outcomes of children. Table 10.4 shows selected aspects of parental wellbeing that are pertinent to the wellbeing of children, using Wave 1 data.

Table 10.4: Selected parental and family health indicators, by children's Indigenous status, B and K cohorts, Wave 1
B cohort (0-1 year) K cohort (4-5 years)
Indigenous children (%) Non-Indigenous children (%) Indigenous children (%) Non-Indigenous children (%)
Cigarette smoking        
Mother smoked during pregnancy (occasionally or most days) a 39.8 13.7 *** 36.0 15.0 ***
Mother currently smokes (at least once a day) 37.1 15.1 *** 35.5 16.9 ***
One or more person currently smokes inside 22.6 9.5 *** 29.6 11.2 ***
No. of observations 230 4,877 187 4,794
Someone in the household had drug/alcohol problem in last year 10.4 4.1 *** 17.0 4.9 ***
No. of observations 155 4,129 131 4,041
Primary carer at high risk of mental health problems (K6) 7.9 2.6 *** 10.6 3.7 ***
No. of observations 155 4,153 133 4,063

Note: a For smoked during pregnancy, those who could not say whether they had smoked during pregnancy were coded as not having smoked in pregnancy, so these estimates are likely to underestimate the percentage smoking during pregnancy. Within each cohort, chi-square tests were used to test for differences by Indigenous status. Tests were done for mother smoking (versus not smoking or don't know) during pregnancy, current smoker (versus non-smoker/< one-a-day smoker), one or more person smoking inside (versus no one smoking inside), household drug/alcohol problem (versus no drug/alcohol problem), primary carer has (versus has not) high risk of mental health problems. Statistically significant differences are noted: *** p < .001.

Rates of cigarette smoking are higher in the Indigenous population than the non-Indigenous population (AIHW, 2011), and this is apparent in the LSAC sample also. Mothers of Indigenous children were more likely than other mothers to have smoked during pregnancy (40% compared to 14% in the B cohort and 36% compared to 15% in the K cohort) and to be smokers at the time of the Wave 1 study (37% compared to 15% in the B cohort and 36% compared to 17% in the K cohort). It is not surprising to see that at Wave 1 this translated into Indigenous children being more likely than non-Indigenous children to be living in a household in which one or more person smoked inside (23% compared to 10% in the B cohort and 30% compared to 11% in the K cohort).

Table 10.4 also shows the proportion reporting that they or someone in the household had a drug or alcohol problem in the previous year. Again, this was more common in families of Indigenous children. In particular, for the K cohort at Wave 1, this was said to be true for 17% of families of Indigenous children, compared to 4% of families of non-Indigenous children. The rate in the B cohort was similar for non-Indigenous children (4%), and for Indigenous children was a little lower than the older cohort, at 10%.

A higher risk of having mental health problems was also apparent in families of Indigenous compared to non-Indigenous children. Based on the Kessler K6, which is a measure of non-specific psychological distress (Kessler et al., 2002), those with a score of 13 or more on a scale of 0 to 24 were classified as having a high risk of mental health problems. At Wave 1, 8% and 11% (in the B and K cohorts respectively) of primary carers in families of Indigenous children had a high risk of mental health problems. This compared to lower rates of 3% and 4% for families of non-Indigenous children.

Family functioning and parenting style

For all children - whether Indigenous or non-Indigenous - the quality of family functioning is important to the positive development of their social and emotional wellbeing (Smart, Sanson, Baxter, Edwards, & Hayes, 2008; Walker & Shepherd, 2008). This subsection considers this from the perspective of the parenting styles of mothers and fathers, and the degree to which parents or other adults in the household are involved in a range of activities with their child. These indicators provide some insights into family functioning, though clearly a fuller range of measures would need to be examined to gain comprehensive insights on the family functioning of Indigenous compared to non-Indigenous families. (See also Silburn et al., 2006, for further discussions and analyses of the role of family functioning in child wellbeing.)

Parenting style

To explore whether Indigenous and non-Indigenous children experience differences in the way in which they are parented, we first examine mothers' and fathers' parenting, as measured on scales of warmth, hostile/angry parenting and consistency. These measures in LSAC are each captured on a scale, based on questions asked of parents about their parenting behaviours. For parental warmth, parents are asked about how often they display warm affectionate behaviour towards their child. The hostile parenting and angry parenting scales include questions about parents being angry with their child or raising their voice or shouting. Consistent parenting is captured by the extent to which parents follow through to check children have done something they were instructed to do, and how consistent and effective they are in their punishment of children who are doing something they should not be doing.

For these analyses, mothers and fathers were classified according to whether they had the lowest scores on warmth and consistency and the highest scores on hostility/anger. To do this, the distribution of each of these scales was used (at each cohort and wave separately) to determine whether each person's score was in either the top 20% (for hostile/angry parenting)8 or the bottom 20% (for warm or consistent parenting) of the distribution. This allows us to see if there are differences in the percentage falling into these groups for parents of Indigenous and non-Indigenous children. Note that these groups identify those with less warm, less consistent and more hostile parenting relative to others in the sample, but this does not mean that their parenting styles would be deemed problematic from a clinical perspective.

Table 10.5 shows that for the percentage with lower parenting warmth, there was not a significant difference between Indigenous and non-Indigenous children, for mothers or fathers.

Table 10.5: Parenting styles of mothers and fathers, by children's Indigenous status, B and K cohorts, Wave 1
Parenting style B cohort (0-1 year) K cohort (4-5 years)
Indigenous children (%) Non-Indigenous children (%) Indigenous children (%) Non-Indigenous children (%)
Mothers (if present)        
Least warm parenting 19.7 23.3 21.6 21.4
Most hostile/angry parenting 18.9 18.7 20.9 12.7 **
Least consistent parenting - - 38.4 22.5 ***
No. of observations 228 4,844 183 4,717
Fathers (if present)        
Least warm parenting 21.6 24.7 23.6 25.6
Most hostile/angry parenting 18.7 16.4 24.2 16.6
Least consistent parenting - - 39.4 24.6 *
No. of observations 83 3,570 73 3,325

Note: Sample sizes vary slightly for the different measures of parenting styles (but do not vary by more than 10 from the numbers shown). Hostile/angry parenting is measured on the "hostile parenting" scale in the B cohort and "angry parenting" in the K cohort. For each scale, the distribution in that cohort and wave was used to identify those in approximately the lowest (for warm and consistent parenting) and highest (hostile/angry parenting) quintile. Consistent parenting was not measured for the B cohort at Wave 1. Within each cohort chi-square tests were used to test for differences by Indigenous status. Tests were done for least (versus not least) warm parenting, most (versus not most) hostile/angry parenting, and least (versus not least) consistent parenting. Statistically significant differences are noted: * p < .05; ** p < .01; *** p < .001.

In relation to hostile parenting, for the K cohort, mothers of Indigenous children were somewhat more likely to have higher hostile parenting styles compared to mothers of non-Indigenous children. However, there was no statistically significant difference in hostile parenting for K cohort fathers or for mothers or fathers in the B cohort according to whether or not their children were Indigenous.

Using the K cohort Wave 1 data, for both mothers and fathers, less consistent parenting was found for parents of Indigenous rather than non-Indigenous children. Consistent parenting was not measured for the B cohort at Wave 1 as the underlying items are not appropriate for this age of child.

These measures are based on parents' responses, and while they are not objective measures, they provide some insights, suggesting especially that the consistency of parenting may be one difference in considering the functioning of families with Indigenous versus non-Indigenous children. Prior ethnographic research comparing parenting approaches of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal mothers likewise found that the style of parenting used by Aboriginal mothers tended to be less supervisory and vigilant (Malin, Campbell, & Agius, 1996). This approach, however, was related to these mothers having aspirations for their children to grow up more resilient and independent.

Engagement in family activities

Another perspective examined here is that of what parents (or other adults in the household) do with their children. Table 10.6 shows the percentage of children who engaged in a range of activities with an adult in their household every day (6-7 days) in the previous week. These data were not available for the B cohort at Wave 1, and so instead are shown for the B cohort at Wave 2, when the children were aged 2-3 years. They are also shown for Wave 1 of the K cohort.

Table 10.6: Parents' daily involvement in children's home activities, by children's Indigenous status, B cohort Wave 2 and K cohort Wave 1
An adult in the household: B cohort (2-3 years) K cohort (4-5 years)
Indigenous children (%) Non-Indigenous children (%) Indigenous children (%) Non-Indigenous children (%)
read to child from a book 34.3 59.2 *** 28.0 45.6 ***
told child a story, not from a book 10.7 11.6 14.5 11.3
drew pictures, or did art or craft with child 17.4 24.6 17.6 21.4
played music, sang songs, danced or did other musical activities with child 39.0 41.7 33.7 26.9
played with toys or games indoors, like board or card games 46.0 53.5 18.5 21.6
involved child in everyday activities at home, such as cooking or caring for pets 43.7 46.3 49.4 40.5 *
played games outdoors or exercised together, like walking, swimming and cycling 24.4 27.4 32.8 22.3 **
No. of observations 180 4,426 187 4,791

Note: Within each cohort, chi-square tests were used to test for differences by Indigenous status. Tests were done for each of the indicators of adult involvement, measured as involved every day versus involved less often than every day. Statistically significant differences are noted: * p < .05; ** p < .01; *** p < .001.

These data indicate that sizable proportions of Indigenous as well as non-Indigenous children were undertaking a range of potentially enriching activities with adults in their household every day. One activity that was quite different for Indigenous and non-Indigenous children was that of reading to the child from a book. A much smaller percentage of Indigenous children were read to every day (34% at 2-3 years and 28% at 4-5 years) compared to non-Indigenous children (59% at 2-3 years and 46% at 4-5 years). On the other hand, the 4-5 year old Indigenous children were more likely to have been involved in everyday activities (like cooking or caring for pets) with an adult every day (49%) than were the non-Indigenous children (41%), and they were also more likely to have played outdoors or exercised with an adult in their household every day (33% compared to 22% for non-Indigenous children).

10.4 Wellbeing and development of Indigenous and non-Indigenous children

This section now turns to the second and third research questions. The second research question concerns differences between Indigenous and non-Indigenous children in physical, social-emotional and cognitive wellbeing and development. The third research question concerns how socio-economic differences contribute to any observed differences in wellbeing and development between these groups. Using the LSAC data, Indigenous and non-Indigenous children are compared on a number of outcomes, at specific ages. Using the B and K cohorts, and Waves 1 to 4 of LSAC, outcomes can be compared from age 0-1 year through to 10-11 years, and where possible this has been done here. Where the data allow, the longitudinal data are used to track how children's wellbeing changes as they grow, to see whether there is evidence of a narrowing or widening gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous children. It is not always possible to do these analyses, with measures changing or only being relevant at certain ages; and where this applies, a selection of key measures have been used. In the case of outcomes at 10-11 years, these analyses include some findings based on the children's own perspectives on aspects of health, social-emotional wellbeing and learning.

This section first examines children's physical health, then social-emotional wellbeing, and finally their cognitive development.

In the first subsection, comparisons of the physical health of Indigenous and non-Indigenous children at different ages are presented. In the subsections on social-emotional wellbeing and cognitive development, additional analyses are incorporated to consider to what extent differences (if they exist) are related to the socio-economic position of the families (the third research question explored in this chapter). These analyses are not included in the health subsection, as it was found that standard errors were always too high to draw any conclusions about how socio-economic position contributed to any differences between Indigenous and non-Indigenous children.9 This is not to say that socio-economic factors are not likely to be important when looking at health disparities for Indigenous children (Shepherd, Li, & Zubrick, 2012).

Lower socio-economic position was derived by identifying families who were in the bottom 25% of the overall distribution of this variable at Wave 1 of the study, calculated separately for each cohort. In some analyses, the measure for non-Indigenous and Indigenous children was compared within this lower group. Where longitudinal analyses were done (presented in the figures), the sample sizes were too small to separate Indigenous children according to their socio-economic position, so all Indigenous children were compared to non-Indigenous children with a lower socio-economic position and with a moderate/high socio-economic position. The inclusion of socio-economic position in these analyses provides some indication of the role of socio-economic factors in explaining differences between Indigenous and non-Indigenous children; however, these analyses cannot be said to completely take account of such differences. Even within the group of families with a lower socio-economic position, there are likely to be differences in socio-economic factors between families of Indigenous and non-Indigenous children.10

Additional analyses of socio-economic position were not conducted when a significant difference in outcomes according to Indigenous status was not apparent.

Children's physical health and development

Previous research has consistently found that, on average, the health outcomes of Indigenous children are worse than those of non-Indigenous children. For example, mortality rates are higher for Indigenous children, as are rates of hospitalisation. Indigenous children are also at greater risk of being of low birth weight and suffering a range of childhood illnesses (AIHW, 2011; Steering Committee for the Review of Government Service Provision, 2011; Zubrick et al., 2004).

This subsection looks at a range of indicators of physical health and development. It begins with parents' reports of concerns over their child's physical wellbeing, and then parents' overall assessments of their children's health. Together, these data span the ages of 0-1 year through to 10-11 years, and so allow us to consider whether any health disparities (according to Indigenous status) change as children grow older. Reports made by 10-11 year olds themselves on some health-related questions are then presented, followed by information on the weight status of children.

Table 10.7 shows, at different ages of children, parents' reports of concerns about their child's physical development. At age 0-1 year and 2-3 years, parents reported on whether they were concerned about their children's fine motor skills, gross motor skills and weight. Almost all parents said they had no concerns in relation to fine and gross motor skills at these ages, with no differences according to the Indigenous status of the child.11 At 4-5 years and 6-7 years, parents were asked if they had any concerns about their child's physical health. Responses at both these ages also did not show significant difference between Indigenous compared to non-Indigenous children, with most parents saying they had no concerns about their child's physical health.

Table 10.7: Parental concerns about children's physical wellbeing at different ages, by children's Indigenous status
Indigenous children (%) Non-Indigenous children (%)
0-1 year olds
No concerns about child's fine motor skills 97.5 99.1
No concerns about child's gross motor skills 97.8 97.7
Not concerned at all about child's weight 89.6 88.7
No. of observations 230 4,874
2-3 year olds
No concerns about child's fine motor skills 95.1 97.7 *
No concerns about child's gross motor skills 95.5 97.3
Not concerned at all about child's weight 83.1 84.9
No. of observations 173 4,312
4-5 year olds (B cohort)
No concerns about child's physical health 68.3 71.3
No. of observations 149 4,236
4-5 year olds (K cohort)
No concerns about child's physical health 64.6 68.7
No. of observations 187 4,793
6-7 year olds (B cohort)
No concerns about child's physical health 78.2 74.1
No. of observations 145 4,094

Note: Within each cohort chi-square tests were used to test for differences by Indigenous status. Tests were done for each of the indicators of parent being concerned about physical health (versus no or fewer concerns). Statistically significant differences are noted: * p < .05.

Continuing to look at subjective assessments of child health, parents were asked about their perceptions of their child's overall health. Examining both cohorts at each wave of LSAC provides a longitudinal analysis of this measure. For non-Indigenous and Indigenous children alike, parents very often reported that their children's health was "excellent" or "very good". The percentage giving these responses is shown in Figure 10.1 for those Indigenous and non-Indigenous children who have been in LSAC for four consecutive waves. While differences are not statistically significant, there is some indication that parents of Indigenous children are less likely to report that their child's health is excellent or very good according to these data, even with the large confidence intervals around the estimates for Indigenous children (largely due to the small sample sizes).

Figure 10.1: Longitudinal analyses of children's overall excellent or very good health, parent reports, by children's Indigenous status, B and K cohorts, Waves 1-4

Longitudinal analyses of children's overall excellent or very good health, parent reports, by children's Indigenous status, B and K cohorts, Waves 1–4 - as described in accompanying text.

Note: Only includes children present and with parent reports on child health available at all four waves. For non-Indigenous children, n = 3,872 for the B cohort, and n = 3,828 for the K cohort; for Indigenous children, n = 121 for the B cohort, and n = 105 for the K cohort. The "I" bars indicate 95% confidence intervals.

Another perspective on children's health can be gained directly from the 10-11 year old children, who themselves reported on a range of health and other indicators in Wave 4 of LSAC. Table 10.8 shows these children's responses to two questions: "Do you enjoy being physically active?" and "Have you felt fit and well in the last week?". On both of these questions, the responses did not differ significantly for Indigenous and non-Indigenous children. The majority of children said they liked being physically active "a lot" or "quite a lot". This is important, because liking physical activity is associated with engagement in physical activity (see Mullan & Maguire, Chapter 9 of this volume). Around two-thirds of Indigenous and non-Indigenous children said they felt extremely or very fit and well in the last week. Data such as these remind us that even though some health disparities may remain, there are many Indigenous children who are doing quite well on a range of indicators. Of course, being collected at Wave 4 of LSAC, and given that there are higher rates of attrition for Indigenous compared to non-Indigenous children, these data may be biased toward the Indigenous children who are doing relatively well.

Table 10.8: Children's reports of enjoyment of physical activity and feeling fit and well, by children's Indigenous status, K cohort Wave 4
Indigenous children (%) Non-Indigenous children (%)
Enjoy being physically active?
A lot 64.9 64.3
Quite a lot 25.0 29.0
Not very much or not at all 10.1 5.7
Total 100.0 100.0
Felt fit and well in the last week?
Extremely 34.5 29.1
Very 30.0 38.6
Moderately 19.5 22.5
Slightly or not at all 16.0 9.8
Total 100.0 100.0
No. of observations 112 3,968

Note: Within each cohort chi-square tests were used to test for differences by Indigenous status. Neither was statistically significant.

A more direct indicator of children's health is their weight status. Here, this is measured using the body mass index (BMI), which is used to examine the percentage of Indigenous and non-Indigenous children who are either underweight or overweight/obese at each age. To examine differences across ages of children, these analyses (shown in Figure 10.2) include only those children in the B cohort who were in three consecutive waves (BMI categories were not calculated at 0-1 years), and in the K cohort for four consecutive waves.

Figure 10.2: Longitudinal analyses of children's weight status (BMI categories), by Indigenous status, B cohort Waves 2-4, K cohort Waves 1-4

Figure 10.2: Longitudinal analyses of children's weight status (BMI categories), by Indigenous status, B cohort Waves 2-4, K cohort Waves 1-4- as described in accompanying text.

Note: Only includes children with weight status available at each of these waves. For non-Indigenous children, n = 3,729 for the B cohort, and n = 3,650 for the K cohort; for Indigenous children, n = 119 for the B cohort, and n = 90 for the K cohort. The "I" bars indicate 95% confidence intervals.

The percentage underweight was low for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous children, with no statistically significant differences between these children across all ages. Note that this contrasts with information on the percentage of children who were underweight at birth (low birth weight) (data not shown). For the B cohort, 12% of Indigenous children and 5% of non-Indigenous children were of low birth weight (significantly different, p < .001). Differences were not statistically significant for the K cohort, with 9% of Indigenous children and 7% of non-Indigenous children classified as being of low birth weight.

For the B cohort, no differences were apparent in the percentage overweight/obese at ages 2-3 years through to 6-7 years according to Indigenous status. In the K cohort, while the confidence intervals overlap due to the relatively small sample size of Indigenous children (meaning differences are not significant at the 5% level), there is some indication that compared to non-Indigenous children, Indigenous children were more likely to be overweight/obese at all ages after 4-5 years. The percentage who were overweight increased with age for both groups of children from 6-7 years through to 10-11 years.

These analyses have perhaps shown a narrower gap in health outcomes according to Indigenous status than has been reported elsewhere (AIHW, 2011; Steering Committee for the Review of Government Service Provision, 2011; Zubrick et al., 2004). In part this may be due to the focus on non-remote areas of Australia in LSAC, with health outcomes for Indigenous children in more remote areas often (though not always) being poorer than those in city areas (see, for example, health data shown for Western Australia in Zubrick et al., 2004). Further, the attrition from Waves 1 to 4 means that it is possible that children with poorer health outcomes are not fully represented in the analyses of later waves (including the longitudinal analyses). While this is also true for non-Indigenous children, the higher attrition for Indigenous children (as shown in Table 10.1) may mean this has a stronger effect on measures derived for Indigenous children than for non-Indigenous children.

Various factors highlighted in this chapter (such as family socio-economic position and parental smoking behaviours) are likely to have negative implications for children's health, and so this will be an important area to continue to monitor in regard to children's outcomes. Children's own reports of their health and enjoyment of physical activity are positive areas to build on to facilitate good outcomes for children's health.

Children's social-emotional wellbeing

The social-emotional development of children is measured in various ways in LSAC in order to account for the developmental changes in children as they grow. Here, the analyses focus on social-emotional wellbeing from age 2-3 years onward. As discussed previously, in this subsection and the one that follows, the role of socio-economic factors in contributing to any apparent differences is examined.

At age 2-3 years, social-emotional outcomes are measured using the Brief Infant Toddler Social Emotional Assessment (BITSEA), with a subscale for competence and a subscale for problems (Briggs-Gowan, Carter, & Schwab-Stone, 1996). The BITSEA subscales are derived in LSAC from parents' responses to questions about the extent to which their child has shown certain competencies and problem behaviours in the previous month. (See Smart, 2011, for more information and analyses of BITSEA using LSAC.) At 2-3 years, Indigenous children already had a higher average score on the problems subscale compared to that of non-Indigenous children (Table 10.9). Indigenous children also had a lower average score on the competence scale, when compared to non-Indigenous children. If the analyses are restricted to families with a lower socio-economic position, significant differences according to Indigenous status remain, despite the considerably smaller sample size. However, the gap is lessened within the group of families with the lowest socio-economic position, with non-Indigenous children in this group having mean scores that approach those of the Indigenous children.

Table 10.9: Children's mean social-emotional wellbeing scores at different ages, by socio-economic position and Indigenous status
All children Lowest socio-economic position
Indigenous children (mean score) Non-Indigenous children (mean score) Indigenous children (mean score) Non-Indigenous children (mean score)
2-3 years
BITSEA problems scale (higher = more problems) a 32.5 30.5 *** 33.0 31.7 *
BITSEA competence scale (higher = more competence ) b 27.7 28.6 *** 27.4 28.1 *
No. of observations 170 4,298 105 962
4-5 years (K cohort Wave 1)
SDQ total difficulties (higher = more difficulties): c 12.7 9.5 *** 13.5 11.3 ***
Emotional difficulties 2.5 1.7 *** 2.7 2.0 **
Peer problems 2.3 1.7 *** 2.6 2.1 **
Inattention/hyperactivity 4.4 3.6 *** 4.5 4.2
Conduct problems 3.5 2.5 *** 3.6 3.0 **
No. of observations 179 4,772 94 1,254
10-11 years, parent reports
SDQ total difficulties (higher = more difficulties): c 11.3 8.3 *** 11.9 10.2
Emotional difficulties 2.7 2.0 ** 3.1 2.5
Peer problems 2.2 1.6 ** 2.3 2.1
Inattention/hyperactivity 4.0 3.3 ** 3.9 3.8
Conduct problems 2.3 1.4 *** 2.7 1.8 *
No. of observations 111 3,994 50 915
10-11 years, child reports
SDQ total difficulties (higher = more difficulties): c 13.7 10.7 *** 14.9 12.1 *
Emotional difficulties 3.8 3.1 ** 4.2 3.5
Peer problems 2.3 1.7 ** 2.4 2.2
Inattention/hyperactivity 4.1 3.7 4.4 3.9
Conduct problems 3.2 2.1 *** 3.9 2.5 **
No. of observations 113 4,006 52 931

Note: a BITSEA problems: scale = 20-54. b BITSEA competence: scale = 13-33. c SDQ total difficulties: scale = 1-40; all SDQ subscales: scale = 1-10. The identification of the lowest socio-economic position is based on being in the lowest quartile at the first wave of LSAC. Significance thresholds from two-tailed mean comparison t-tests: * p < .05; ** p < .01; *** p < .001.

At ages 4-5 years and older, a commonly used tool for analysing social-emotional wellbeing is the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ) (Goodman, 2001). The SDQ measure is based on ratings of how often in the previous 6 months children had exhibited a range of behaviours. These behaviours align with the areas of conduct problems (e.g., often fights with other children or bullies them), inattention and hyperactivity (e.g., constantly fidgeting or squirming), emotional symptoms (e.g., nervous or clingy in new situations, easily loses confidence), and peer problems (e.g., rather solitary, tends to play alone). (Again, refer to Smart, 2011, for details and other analyses of this measure using LSAC.) Responses have been summarised for each of these areas (subscales) and also summarised into a total difficulties score, and the mean values are shown in Table 10.9. To capture some indication of age-related differences, data are presented for the parent-reported measures for K cohort children when they were aged 4-5 years and then when they were aged 10-11 years. These SDQ measures are also shown for the 10-11 year old children, calculated from the children's own reports of their social-emotional wellbeing.

At 4-5 years old, Indigenous children had significantly poorer social-emotional wellbeing overall and on each of the subscales of the SDQ scales. Even when restricted to families with a lower socio-economic position, significant differences were apparent for all but inattention/hyperactivity.

According to parents' reports at 10-11 years, Indigenous children (despite being a smaller sample) had poorer average social-emotional wellbeing than non-Indigenous children. This is apparent for the SDQ total difficulties score and on all subscales except inattention/hyperactivity. It is interesting to find that children's own reports at this age resulted in the same findings. When these analyses were done for the low socio-economic position group, only one of the subscales remained statistically significant (for parent and child reports) - that of conduct problems, with Indigenous children having more conduct problems, on average, than non-Indigenous children. The lack of statistical significance will in part be related to these estimates being derived from smaller sample sizes, but they also reflect that children's difficulties are associated with socio-economic status.

To gain some insights into the developmental progress of Indigenous and non-Indigenous children in relation to social-emotional wellbeing, Figure 10.3 uses the samples of children for whom parent-reported SDQ total difficulties scores were available at all relevant waves (B cohort Waves 3 and 4, and K cohort Waves 1 to 4). These analyses compare all Indigenous children with non-Indigenous children in families with the lowest socio-economic position, and with non-Indigenous children in families with a moderate/high socio-economic position. At all time points, the means for the Indigenous children are similar to those of the non-Indigenous children in the lowest socio-economic position, as indicated by the overlapping confidence intervals for these groups. This reinforces the links between social-emotional wellbeing and family socio-economic disadvantage. In the B cohort, the total difficulties score is significantly higher for both Indigenous children and lower socio-economic position non-Indigenous children at 4-5 and 6-7 years, compared to other non-Indigenous children. There did not appear to be any trends according to ages of children. In the K cohort, across the ages 4-5 years through to 10-11 years, it was the youngest children who had the higher average difficulties, though the trend is not as clear for Indigenous children, given the wide confidence intervals on the estimates.

Figure 10.3: Longitudinal analyses of SDQ total difficulties scores, parent reports, by socio-economic position and Indigenous status, B cohort Waves 3 and 4, K cohort Waves 1-4

Longitudinal analyses of SDQ total difficulties scores, parent reports, by socio-economic position and Indigenous status, B cohort Waves 3 and 4, K cohort Waves 1–4 - as described in accompanying text

Note: The identification of the lowest socio-economic position is based on being in the lowest quartile at the first wave of LSAC. Only includes children present and with an SDQ total difficulties score available at each of these waves. Non-Indigenous moderate/high SEP children: n = 2,812 in the B cohort, and n = 2,626 in the K cohort; non-Indigenous low SEP children: n = 698 in the B cohort, and n = 676 in the K cohort; Indigenous children: n = 102 children in the B cohort, and n = 81 children in the K cohort. The "I" bars indicate 95% confidence intervals.

Social-emotional wellbeing can be assessed in other ways. For example, at age 10-11 years, child reports of self-concept were measured using the Self-Description Questionnaire I (Marsh, 1990). Two related aspects of self-concept were examined here. One was that of general self-concept, which refers to items such as "I feel that my life is very useful". The other was the peer relations self-concept, which refers to items such as "I get along with kids easily". Each scale is derived from the mean of eight underlying items. The range for each is between 1 and 5, with a higher value indicating more positive self-concept. The means on each of these scales did not vary for Indigenous compared to non-Indigenous children: for the sample of 115 Indigenous children, the mean general self-concept score was 4.08 and the mean peer relationship score was 3.89. For non-Indigenous children (n = 3,978), the means for these were 4.14 and 3.88 respectively.

On most measures examined here, Indigenous children had more social-emotional difficulties than non-Indigenous children, beginning at a very young age. This is related to the relative socio-economic disadvantage of the families of Indigenous children. However, even among the poorer families, some differences according to Indigenous status were apparent. The most persistent of the difficulties appears to be related to conduct problems, for which poorer outcomes were apparent across the age groups and also within the lower SEP group. Despite these findings, on the measures of self-concept taken when children were aged 10-11 years old, differences according to Indigenous status were not apparent. Specifically, Indigenous and non-Indigenous children did not score differently on their general self-concept or peer relations self-concept.

Children's cognitive development.

Poorer learning outcomes for Indigenous children are apparent on a range of indicator variables, such as the proportion achieving minimum standards for reading, writing and numeracy at different school levels (Steering Committee for the Review of Government Service Provision, 2011; Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority, 2010; Zubrick, 2004).

Learning, or cognitive, outcomes are assessed in LSAC at different ages using different instruments. School readiness (Who Am I), receptive vocabulary (Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test; PPVT), non-verbal intelligence (Matrix Reasoning) and academic rating scores (literacy and numeracy) are the different measures used in this subsection. (Details of these measures are outlined in Chapter 1 of this report; see also de Lemos & Doig, 1999; Dunn & Dunn, 1997; Rothman, 2009.) As with the above analyses, these measures were compared for Indigenous and non-Indigenous children. Further analyses included consideration of whether families had relatively low socio-economic status in order to see whether differences according to Indigenous status can be, to some extent, explained by differences in socio-economic position.

Table 10.10 shows the mean of each of the learning measures for Indigenous and non-Indigenous children at different ages, for all children, and then for the lower socio-economic status families. As indicated by the significance tests for all children, on every measure presented, Indigenous children had poorer learning outcomes than non-Indigenous children. These measures covered general school readiness at age 4-5 years, receptive vocabulary at age 4-5 years, non-verbal intelligence at age 6-7 years, and teacher ratings of language/literacy and maths at age 6-7 years.

Table 10.10: Children's mean cognitive outcome scores at different ages, by socio-economic position and Indigenous status, B cohort Waves 3-4, K cohort Waves 1 and 2
All children Lowest socio-economic position
Indigenous children Non-Indigenous children Indigenous children Non-Indigenous children
Mean score No. of observations Mean score No. of observations Mean score No. of observations Mean score No. of observations
School readiness, 4-5 years a
K cohort 60.7 169 64.1 *** 4,693 59.7 87 62.5 ** 1,221
B cohort 61.4 139 65.4 *** 4,050 61.5 78 62.7 884
Receptive vocabulary, 4-5 years b
K cohort 61.7 140 63.9 ** 4,252 61.0 75 61.8 1,078
B cohort 61.7 140 64.8 *** 4,119 61.4 79 62.1 904
Non-verbal intelligence, 6-7 years c
K cohort 8.6 144 10.3 *** 4,256 8.1 71 9.6 *** 1,028
B cohort 8.6 112 10.5 *** 3,980 8.4 51 9.6 ** 926
Language and literacy, 6-7 years d
K cohort 2.8 119 3.6 *** 3,492 2.7 59 3.3 *** 803
B cohort 2.9 111 3.5 *** 3,307 2.8 68 3.2* 687
Mathematical thinking, 6-7 years e
K cohort 2.8 120 3.5 *** 3,478 2.7 60 3.2 ** 798
B cohort 3.0 111 3.4 *** 3,294 2.8 68 3.1 687

Note: a Who Am I; range in the sample = 30 to 97. b PPVT; range in the sample = 28 to 106. c Matrix Reasoning; range in the sample = 1 to 19. d Academic rating scale; range in the sample = 1 to 5. e Academic rating scale; range in the sample = 1 to 5. The identification of the lowest socio-economic position group is based being in the lowest quartile at the first wave of LSAC. Comparisons were made by Indigenous status, for all children and for children in the low socio-economic position group. Significance thresholds from two-tailed mean comparison t-tests: * p < .05; ** p < .01; *** p < .001.

When the analyses are limited to children in lower socio-economic position families, the gaps in learning outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous children are reduced, though there are still some significant differences.

One learning outcome that seems closely related to socio-economic status is receptive vocabulary, which differs significantly overall between Indigenous and non-Indigenous children, but does not differ between these groups within families with a lower socio-economic position. In fact, if the PPVT scores of children are tracked across waves (for only those who have a score at each of the waves), then Figure 10.4 shows that non-Indigenous children who are not in lower socio-economic position families continue to have better receptive vocabulary as they grow, when compared to Indigenous children overall, and compared to non-Indigenous children from lower socio-economic position families. The gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous children remains the same over the ages of children shown here.

Figure 10.4: Longitudinal analyses of children's receptive vocabulary (PPVT), by socio-economic position and Indigenous status, B cohort Waves 3 and 4, K cohort Waves 1-3

Longitudinal analyses of children's receptive vocabulary (PPVT), by socio-economic position and Indigenous status, B cohort Waves 3 and 4, K cohort Waves 1–3 - as described in accompanying text.

Note: The identification of the lowest socio-economic position group is based on being in the lowest quartile at the first wave of LSAC. Only includes children present and with an SDQ total difficulties score available at each of these waves. Non-Indigenous moderate/high SEP children: n = 3,067 in the B cohort, and n = 2,757 in the K cohort; non-Indigenous low SEP children: n = 792 in the B cohort, and n = 794 in the K cohort; Indigenous children n = 121 children in the B cohort, and n = 96 children in the K cohort. The "I" bars indicate 95% confidence intervals, using unweighted data (not using survey commands).

In the same way, Figure 10.5 tracks children's outcomes as measured on Matrix Reasoning, and the academic ratings scales (language/literacy and maths). These data show a gap in outcomes, even when comparing Indigenous children with non-Indigenous children from lower socio-economic position families. The non-Indigenous children from moderate/high socio-economic position families had better learning outcomes than both these groups, across the ages 6-7 years through to 10-11 years. So in terms of these measures, socio-economic status contributes to poorer outcomes for Indigenous children, but it appears that Indigenous children are further disadvantaged in ways that matter to their learning outcomes. Clearly, more research is needed in order to understand what may be contributing to this gap.

Figure 10.5: Longitudinal analyses of children's selected learning outcomes, by socio-economic position and Indigenous status, K cohort Waves 2-4

Longitudinal analyses of children's selected learning outcomes, by socio-economic position and Indigenous status, K cohort Waves 2–4

Note: The identification of the lowest socio-economic position group is based on being in the lowest quartile at the first wave of LSAC. Each figure only includes children present and with that score at each of these waves. Non-Indigenous moderate/high SEP children: n = 3,067 for matrix reasoning (MR), 1,778 for language and literacy (LL), 1,745 for numeracy (Num); non-Indigenous low SEP children: n = 806 (MR), 428 (LL), 417 (Num); Indigenous children n = 101 (MR), 63 (LL), 62 (Num). The "I" bars indicate 95% confidence intervals.

Finally, it is interesting to consider the 10-11 year old children's views on school and learning. Table 10.11 shows the percentage of Indigenous and non-Indigenous children who gave more positive responses for a related set of questions about school engagement. The vast majority of 10-11 year old children were positive about school and about learning, and this applied equally to Indigenous and non-Indigenous children. For example, 85% of Indigenous children and 87% of non-Indigenous children agreed that the work they do in school is interesting. For "I like learning", 86% of Indigenous children and 84% of non-Indigenous children agreed or strongly agreed with this statement, when thinking about their school.

Table 10.11: Children's reports of school liking, by Indigenous status, K cohort Wave 4
Indigenous children (%) Non-Indigenous children (%)
Agreed or strongly agreed that "My school is a place where …":
I always try to do my best 92.6 96.0
I feel safe and secure 83.0 91.0 *
I enjoy what I do in class 82.7 87.6
I get enjoyment from being there 88.1 87.4
The work we do is interesting 84.5 86.9
I like learning 85.6 84.0
I find that learning is a lot of fun 79.2 75.1
I like to ask questions in class 78.2 72.7
I really like to go to each day 72.1 72.6
I get excited about the work we do 72.5 69.5
I like to do extra work 39.8 41.1
Answered "yes" or "sometimes" that:
I am good at my school work 87.3 95.5 **
I like reading and writing activities at school 94.6 91.0
I like maths and number work at school 87.0 88.9
I enjoy reading at home that is not part of my school work 79.1 87.1 *
No. of observations 115 3,978

Note: Due to the poor psychometric properties of the school liking scale, individual item analysis was used in the table. Sample sizes vary slightly across items. Chi-square tests were used to test for differences by Indigenous status for each of the indicators of school liking. For the first block, this compares the percentage saying "agree" or "strongly agree", versus "false", "mostly false", "sometimes false" or "sometimes true". For the second block, this compares the percentage saying "yes" or "sometimes", rather than "no". Statistically significant differences are noted: * p < .05; ** p < .01.

There were only three items for which the proportion giving the more positive response was significantly different for these groups. Indigenous children were less likely than non-Indigenous children to agree that their school was a place where they felt safe and secure (83% compared to 91%) less likely to say "I am good at my school work" (87% compared to 96%), and less likely to say that they enjoyed reading at home, when that reading was not part of school work (79% compared to 87%).

Though these child reports reveal very little difference between Indigenous and non-Indigenous children, this subsection on learning outcomes has shown some clear differences in terms of children's academic scores on a number of measures. The gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous children in these areas are to some extent related to different levels of socio-economic disadvantage, which reinforces the importance of addressing the possible effects of such disadvantage among Indigenous as well as non-Indigenous children.

10.5 Summary and discussion

This chapter has used the LSAC data to provide a comparison of Indigenous and non-Indigenous children who are living in non-remote parts of Australia. While the relatively small sample of Indigenous children in LSAC created some restrictions on the analyses that could be undertaken, the findings have helped to build a picture of how the lives of Indigenous children compare to those of non-Indigenous children.

The Longitudinal Study of Indigenous Children will provide valuable opportunities to look in more detail at these issues for remote, regional and metropolitan areas, using a study that is specifically designed for this population.

The analyses confirmed that there is more socio-economic disadvantage among families with Indigenous children than families with non-Indigenous children, with considerable differences found in parents' education levels, parental employment rates and experiences of financial disadvantage. This is likely to be related also to the higher rate of families of Indigenous children being without two resident parents. As shown in this chapter, the level of socio-economic disadvantage does matter. When we put aside differences in socio-economic position by just focusing on those in the lowest quartile, then for some of the child outcome measures explored, the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous children lessens.

While the effects of socio-economic disadvantage have been a recurrent factor throughout this chapter, it is important to highlight that these analyses did not consistently find Indigenous children as being disadvantaged in every way relative to non-Indigenous children. Indeed, when examining the activities children do with adults in their household, Indigenous children had higher percentages undertaking everyday activities, or playing outdoors or exercising with an adult in their household every day in the previous week. Generally, parents reported quite high rates of involvement with their children's activities for Indigenous as well as non-Indigenous children. It was also apparent that parents of Indigenous children had quite high expectations for their children's likely educational achievement, if considered in the context of these parents' own educational attainment. Further, Indigenous children more often live with an extended family than do non-Indigenous children. While this, along with the greater number of siblings, may result in some difficulties for children finding a quiet place to read or to study, it may create more opportunities for the development of close relationships with a larger network of family members.

There were measures also presented here that did not vary according to the Indigenous status of children. This was apparent, for example, in relation to parents' reports of being concerned about aspects of their child's health. It was also apparent, using Wave 4 of the K cohort (the 10-11 year olds), that Indigenous and non-Indigenous children did not differ on a range of measures of physical health and wellbeing, general self-concept, peer relations self-concept and school liking.

While these findings may reflect the relatively small sample of Indigenous children involved, the exclusion of remote parts of Australia from the LSAC sampling frame, and selection biases related to attrition from Waves 1 to 4 of LSAC, it is also a reminder that Indigenous children do not always have poorer outcomes than their non-Indigenous peers. In fact, even though we do find that gaps persist on some outcome measures, there is still considerable diversity among Indigenous as well as non-Indigenous children. Some children do well, and some do not, and there will be a range of factors, other than whether or not children are Indigenous, that matter to these different outcomes.

Just as is the case for non-Indigenous children, it is important to continue to look closely at the outcomes of Indigenous children of Australia, in order to identify and build on those factors that lead children to do well. By comparing Indigenous and non-Indigenous children in this sample, we have identified some of the differences between these groups of children, highlighting some of the risks and protective factors these children face. Further research will be needed, using studies such as LSIC, to understand how these protective factors can be engaged to enhance the development of Indigenous children.

10.6 References

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Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2011). The health and welfare of Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people: An overview Canberra: AIHW.

Briggs-Gowan, M., Carter, A., & Schwab-Stone, M. (1996). Discrepancies among mother, child, and teacher reports: Examining the contributions of maternal depression and anxiety. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 24(6), 749-765.

Daly, A., & Smith, D. (2005). Indicators of risk to the wellbeing of Australian Indigenous Children. Australian Review of Public Affairs, 6(1), 39-57.

Daraganova, G., & Sipthorp, M. (2011). Wave 4 weights (LSAC Technical Paper No. 9). Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.

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Zubrick, S., Lawrence, D., Silburn, S., Blair, E., Milroy, H., Wilkes, T. et al. (2004). The Western Australian Aboriginal Child Health Survey: Vol. 1. The health of Aboriginal children and young people. Perth: Telethon Institute for Child Health Research.

Endnotes

1 For example, according to the 2006 Census, of Indigenous children aged under 10 years, 77% live in non-remote parts of Australia (32% in major cities, 23% in inner regional areas and 22% in outer regional areas), 8% in remote parts and 15% in very remote parts (author's calculations using 2006 Census data, Tablebuilder, Australian Bureau of Statistics [ABS]).

2 In some analyses, if statistically significant results were based on very small cell sizes (i.e., a sample size of 5 or fewer children), these results have not been reported as being statistically significant.

3 That is, for these longitudinal analyses, balanced samples are used.

4 A small percentage of Indigenous children do not live with their parents. For example, at Wave 1, 97% of Indigenous children lived with their biological, adoptive or foster mother and 3% with a grandparent or aunt. For ease of presentation, the grandparents and aunts are included in any analyses referring to mothers. The same approach is taken in any analyses of fathers. For non-Indigenous children, 99% lived with their biological, adoptive or foster mother.

5 These percentages are comparable with those reported by the ABS (2010) for Indigenous people living in non-remote parts of Australia.

6 Author's calculations. See footnote 1 for the source of these data.

7 Only mothers' educational attainment has been reported here, since fathers are not present in a high proportion of families of Indigenous children. Among fathers who were present, their educational attainment was relatively low when compared to fathers of non-Indigenous children (e.g., at Wave 1, the percentage with a bachelor degree or higher among resident fathers of Indigenous children was 4% in the B cohort and 8% in the K cohort; for fathers of non-Indigenous children the respective percentages were 28% and 27%).

8 Note that in the K cohort the distribution of the hostile parenting measure did not allow the top 20% to be identified. The "most hostile/angry parenting" category presented for the K cohorts includes 13% of the sample.

9 Physical health was measured as percentages falling into particular categories, and the confidence intervals around these percentages tended to be very large. Social-emotional wellbeing and cognitive outcomes measures were analysed as means rather than percentages, and the confidence intervals on those estimates, while often still large, were such that comparisons could be made with the socio-economic position of the families.

10 For example, at Wave 1 in the families of Indigenous children with the lowest socio-economic position, 44% experienced a financial hardship, compared to 25% of families of non-Indigenous children with the lowest socio-economic position.

11 Only one difference was statistically significant (fine motor skills at age 2-3 years), but this was marginally significant (p = .049), and based on a cross-tabulation in which one cell size had a sample of 7 respondents.

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