By ERWIN CHLANDA
Denying children stimulation – talking with them, reading to them, praising them – very early in their life is more serious than either sexual abuse or physical abuse in terms of impact on life long health and well being.
Donna Ah Chee (at right) quoted these findings by the Harvard Centre on the Developing Child this morning in her keynote address to the national health conference in Alice Springs.
“By age four children in the most well off families had been exposed to 32 million more words than children in welfare dependent families,” she said.
“In addition to this, children in the most well off families had been exposed to 560,000 more positive affirmations than negative, whereas in the welfare families children had 160,000 more negative affirmations than positive. This is a staggering difference of 720,000 from a supportive environment towards a discouraging one.”
Ms Ah Chee is the CEO of the $40m a year Central Australian Aboriginal Congress which, not surprisingly, has early childhood care as its top priority.
“The next generation of young people, who are likely to be impulsive, have unhealthy brain development leading to poor school performance, develop alcohol and other drug addictions, be violent on the streets and incarcerated, are already there.
“We must do better at preventing this from occurring and early childhood is key.”
Congress has runs on the board. It is one of the oldest Aboriginal NGOs in town, founded in 1973.
“We [Aboriginal people] controlled it from the beginning, and still do,” she says.
“In some ways we had no choice. Our health status was very poor as you can see from the infant mortality rate and Life Expectancy figures in 1973 when Congress started.
“The mainstream health system had completely failed us.”
There was a heavy dose of politics to get the point across. Congress was the key organiser of the first land rights rally here (pictured above) “as the newly formed organisation was clear about the connections between health, control, land, culture, employment, shelter and so on long before we started to use the language of ‘Social Determinants of Health’.”
Congress has had a role in an improving health system that has had many big players, not least the NT and Federal governments: Infant mortality in the mid ’70s was 120 per 1000 live births. Now it is 10. Life expectancy for men was 52 – now 63; and 54 for women – now 70.
The organisation now looks after 12,000 people a year, including 2000 bush visitors.
“Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man,” Ms Ah Chee quotes the 17th century saint Francis Xavier.
“Children who start behind tend to fall further behind. Babies are born with 25% of their brains developed, and there is then a rapid period of development so that by the age of three their brains are 80% developed.”
Ms Ah Chee quotes epidemiologist Sir Michael Marmot, former chair of the Commission on Social Determinants of Health, producer of “Closing the Gap in a Generation” in 2008 and currently presenting the Boyer Lecture series on the ABC.
She says he published the results of a British study on 70,000 children all born in 1970.
“He showed that brain development by age four is highly dependent on being read to every day, conversational language in the home, going to bed at the same time every night, being part of a good playgroup and being physically active – that is responsive parenting,” says Ms Ah Chee.
“Such programs can help some children to “leapfrog” out of the intergenerational disadvantage that they are otherwise destined to.
“They can reverse the large social gradient seen in this graph. In the second Boyer lecture Professor Marmot describes one such program that has achieved this in the poorest part of London – in Hackney,” she says.
“Yet in spite of all the evidence for the effectiveness of early years interventions this is how most OECD countries spend their funds – it is the inverse of what is needed,” flicking the graph (at left) on the screen.
She says more than 70% of Aboriginal mothers who have accepted participating in the Congress early childhood program “are significantly educationally disadvantaged so it is reaching the right families.
“Corresponding with the educational disadvantage is the reality that 80% are not working and have incomes of less than $500 per week.
“The program is clearly accessing some of the most disadvantaged families in Alice Springs with whom it will have it greatest impact.”
She says there needs to be one carer for every four children “but the carers can be community people trained on the job. This is another advantage to this approach as it provides employment for local Aboriginal people who want to care for kids.”
The primary health care sector through “its antenatal care and healthy kids checks establishes supportive relationships with mothers, families and children in the critical period from conception to age three.
“The education sector should continue to take responsibility for pre-school from age three and primary education. This is how the two sectors should work together in partnership to ensure all children get the best possible start to life.”
Little kids have the key to our future
By ERWIN CHLANDA