A new study has found that most Australian children report high levels of wellbeing, but wellbeing varies by background, especially for a quarter of children who identify as marginalised. Petra Lietz examines the findings.
Most young people are satisfied with their lives and report positive school experiences, but older and marginalised children also tend to report lower levels of school satisfaction, teacher support, and parental interest in school, among other aspects of their school experience. These are some of the findings from the Australian Child Wellbeing Project (ACWP), released on 25 February in Canberra.
The ACWP research was undertaken by a team of researchers at Flinders University, the University of New South Wales and the Australian Council for Educational Research with Australian Research Council funding through a Linkage Grant. The research received further support from the Commonwealth Departments of Education and Social Services, as well as the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare and the Australian Bureau of Statistics. The ACWP holistically studied young people’s wellbeing by researching their experiences with their family, school, health, friends, communities and other important aspects of their lives.
The ‘best possible’ life and school experiences
Surveying roughly 5500 young people aged eight to 14 years – in Years 4, 6 and 8 – from a representative sample of 180 schools across all Australian states and territories in the second half of 2014, the ACWP study found that four in five students considered their life to be close to or the ‘best possible’ life for them. Year 4 students are more likely than those in Years 6 and 8 to consider their life as the ‘best possible’.
While most young people enjoy going to school, and feel safe at school, positive school wellbeing in general tends to decline with student age, with Year 8 students in general reporting lower levels of wellbeing related to school experiences than young people in Years 4 and 6. For example, students’ perceptions of their own school success declines over the middle years – with Year 8 students reporting that they are doing less well in school compared to their peers, than those in Years 4 and 6.
Considering wellbeing factors related to school, younger students report more frequently experiencing different forms of bullying by peers compared to older students. However, older students report that when bullying does occur, it is most likely to occur within the school, whereas larger proportions of younger students report that bullying also occurs outside of school.
School wellbeing also varies by student background and for marginalised students. For example, students with disabilities and students in rural and remote areas also report lower levels of perceived teacher support, compared with their peers, and students from schools in high socioeconomic areas report more frequently doing homework and having lessons outside of school than those in schools from lower socioeconomic areas.
Marginalisation and wellbeing
In the design of the ACWP study, marginalisation referred to young people who reported:
- living with disability
- experiencing material disadvantage
- being from a culturally and linguistically diverse background
- being from rural and remote areas, or
- living in out-of-home care.
During the course of the study, carers of a family member with a health issue were considered an additional group.
Some 25 to 30 per cent of all young people in the survey identify as being in one or more of these marginalised groups – such as disability, carer or materially disadvantaged – and while not every young person who identifies as being in a marginalised group reports low wellbeing, the probability of having lower wellbeing is higher for marginalised young people than it is for their non-marginalised peers.
The ACWP study also undertook in-depth qualitative research by speaking with marginalised young people to better understand the link between their experiences and their wellbeing. For example, some marginalised young people who participated in in-depth interviews as part of the study stated that they sometimes did not go to school because their family had no money for food. Others recounted being teased at school for the way their uniform looked.
Asked to rank family, health, friends, school, neighbourhood and money/things, young people in the ACWP survey consistently considered family to be the most important factor for having a good life, and neighbourhood and money/things to be the least important for having a good life. Interestingly, younger students tend to rank the various aspects similarly high while older students are more differentiating.
According to the ACWP research, young people’s family networks and home environment strongly influence their wellbeing, particularly to do with health and school engagement. For one quarter of all young people who report having family members with disability, mental illness or drug/alcohol addiction issues also report high levels of health symptoms, a marker of stress.
On the other hand, young people’s family networks and home environment also protect and foster their wellbeing. The overwhelming majority – 90 per cent – of young people report being very close to their mother and 80 per cent report being very close to their father. According to the report, young people in families with a high level of family cohesion and an extensive network of close relationships, have higher wellbeing.
The ACWP findings indicate that wellbeing in one domain, such as school, is often associated with wellbeing in other domains, such as health or family. Many young people have high wellbeing across the domains of health, school, family and peer relationships, but a sizeable proportion – more than a tenth – also report low levels of wellbeing across all these domains.
The holistic nature of wellbeing has significant policy implications, since policies and service provision that address child wellbeing are unlikely to be the sole responsibility of any one agency or sector, and policies to address young people’s wellbeing need to be integrated across the domains of health, school and family.
The study also identifies things everyone can do to improve wellbeing. For example, young people who report having more fun with their families tend to find that they have ‘a good life’ regardless of marginalisation.
In addition, while the research implications underscore the need for policy responses to be more comprehensive, they also indicate that policy responses must target student need, as study results highlight how different aspects of wellbeing vary by children’s development and experiences of marginalisation. The study results aim to provide policymakers and service providers with useful evidence to better target and differentiate programs for improving children’s wellbeing in an Australian context. ■
The Australian Child Wellbeing Project: Final Report is published on the ACWP website.