18. Social & emotional wellbeing

Visualisation not available for printing

Why is social and emotional wellbeing important?

Social and emotional wellbeing focuses on the individual social and emotional strengths of children, rather than simply the absence of mental ill health. A key feature is the focus on the strengths of families, schools and communities and the influence that these environments have on children’s social and emotional wellbeing (Hamilton & Redmond 2010).

Viewing social and emotional wellbeing through an ecological frame can help identify individual internal and relational characteristics of social and emotional wellbeing. These influences include proximal environments (such as the home, early childhood education and care settings and school), as well as more distal one (such as the wider community and society at large). Social and emotional wellbeing involves interactions between these multiple environments (home, school and community), as well as the individual and relational characteristics of the child.

Social and emotional wellbeing emphasises the experience of positive behaviours and emotions, as well as how the individual adapts and copes with daily challenges (through resilience and coping skills) while leading a fulfilling life. These skills are dynamic in that they form the social and emotional foundations of future behaviours, emotions, and abilities to adapt.

Does social and emotional wellbeing vary across population groups?

The second Australian Child and Adolescent Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing (also known as the ‘Young Mind Matter Survey’), found that in 2013–14, the proportion of individuals classified in the ‘abnormal’ range on the SDQ (Strengths and Difficulties Questionanaire) scale increased with age, with 7.3% of 4-6 year olds classified as ‘abnormal’ compared with 12% of 10-12 year olds. The survey also reported that girls have a substantially lower ‘abnormal’ classification rate (7.7%) than boys (13%). Overseas-born children also have a lower rate of ‘abnormal’ classification (6.2%) relative to those born in Australia (11%).

Socioeconomic position is strongly associated with the rate of ‘abnormal’ classification: those in the most disadvantaged quintile have a rate of 16%, while the least disadvantaged have a rate of 7.2%. The family composition of the child’s household is also related to the rate of ‘abnormal’ classifications with a higher rate observed for step-families, blended families, and families with one parent or carer (16%, 18% and 18%, respectively) relative to families with two parents or carers, and original families (8.6% and 7.3%, respectively).

Has there been a change over time?

No trend data is available. The results of the second Australian Child and Adolescent Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing are not comparable to the first Australian Child and Adolescent Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing as different instruments were used.


In 2011–12, the AIHW were funded by the then Australian Government Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs to develop a Children’s Headline Indicator for Social and Emotional wellbeing. The process undertaken involved:

  • conceptualising social and emotional wellbeing — defining its scope, theoretical basis, and main elements
  • reviewing the literature on social and emotional wellbeing and children’s outcomes
  • identifying possible indicators by reviewing indicator frameworks and reports
  • consulting key experts and stakeholders.

The process was supported by the Headline Indicator Data Development Expert Working Group, with a Social and Emotional Wellbeing Workshop convenved to engage as many key stakeholders as possible to guide the development process.

An information paper was produced by AIHW, in consultation with experts and key stakeholders, which strongly supported the use of the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ) as the most appropriate tool for measuring social and emotional wellbeing in children (AIHW 2012). This instrument has been extensively validated and is used widely as a population measure, both internationally and in Australia. The Children’s Headline Indicator for social and emotional wellbeing is defined as the proportion of children scoring ‘of concern’ (also known as ‘abnormal’) on the SDQ.

The Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ) consists of a brief behavioural screening questionnaire comprising five subscales of five items each. Items in four of these subscales —  emotional problems, conduct problems, hyperactivity and peer problems — are combined to generate a total difficulties score. Scores are assigned a category of 'normal', ‘borderline' and 'abnormal' which are reported here. Scores in the ‘abnormal’ range indicate substantial risk of clinically significant problems. The SDQ was designed so that approximately 10% of children and adolescents will fall into the ‘abnormal’ range on the total difficulties score.

The Young Minds Matter Survey SDQ component used for this indicator consists of two questionnaires — one completed by the child (child-report) and one by the parent/carer (parent-report) (Lawrence et al. 2015). The parent-report is used for this CHI analysis, as it was completed for a larger age range (4–17 relative to 12–17), with 3,607 parent-report SDQs for children aged 4–12. Furthermore, several important psychometric properties of the parent-report are as good as or better than the youth-report version, including for retest stability, correlation with teacher reports, and internal reliability (Goodman 2001). 

The survey was designed to be nationally representative — the number of respondents from each state reflects the population of that state. The number of respondents from small states and territories is therefore quite low, and so precludes disaggregation by jurisdiction. Indigenous status is not available due to the size and geographic extent of the sample, as Very remote areas were not included in the survey — the sample was not designed to provide a separate estimate for Indigenous children.

The intention of this indicator is as a measure of positive social and emotional wellbeing. The SDQ measures something akin but not identical to this concept; nonetheless it is used as there is no other robust national data source closer aligned to this concept.


  • AIHW (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare) 2012. Social and emotional wellbeing: development of a Children’s Headline Indicator. Cat. no. PHE 158. Canberra: AIHW.
  • Goodman, R. 2001. Psychometric properties of the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 40(11):1137-1345.
  • Hamilton M & Redmond G 2010. Conceptualisation of social and emotional wellbeing for children and young people, and policy implications. Canberra: ARACY & AIHW.
  • Lawrence D, Johnson S, Hafekost J, Boterhoven De Haan K, Sawyer M, Ainley J & Zubrick SR 2015. The Mental Health of Children and Adolescents. Report on the second Australian Child and Adolescent Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing. Canberra: Department of Health.