What we know

The early years are a critical period where the pathways to a child’s lifetime social, emotional and educational outcomes begin. Although early experiences do not determine children’s ongoing development, the patterns laid down early tend to be very persistent and some have lifelong consequences.

  • Australian and international studies have shown that children’s literacy and numeracy skills at age 4–5 are a good predictor of academic achievement in primary school.
  • Social gradients in language and literacy, communication and socio-emotional functioning emerge early for children across socioeconomic backgrounds, and these differences persist into the school years.
  • According to Australian Early Development Index (AEDI) data for 2009, the majority of Australian Indigenous children are developmentally on track on the AEDI domains, with the exception of the language and cognitive skills domain.
  • Indigenous children and economically disadvantaged families are less likely to attend an early childhood program than their non-Indigenous and more advantaged peers.
  • Indigenous families want a culturally safe environment for their children in the years before school education and care programs.

What works

  • Children at risk of poor developmental and educational outcomes benefit from attending high-quality education and care programs in the years before school.
  • Early learning programs that are supported by the community, provided by educators who are qualified, well-attended, well-resourced, and evidence-based are a key contributor to good early childhood outcomes.
  • Helping families and communities to be supportive and effective in their roles in children’s lives is a key protective factor for the early years and a key component in the design and delivery of high-quality, effective early years programs.
  • Uptake of early learning programs by Indigenous families is enhanced by community partnerships, culturally relevant practice that values local Indigenous knowledge, and appropriate teacher training and support.

What doesn’t work

  • Children attending early learning programs of poor quality show poorer outcomes at school entry, particularly when poor quality programs are combined with long hours of attendance or poorer home learning environments.
  • Service delivery approaches that are too narrowly targeted can miss many of the children and families who need support.
  • Programs that lack stability and continuity of staffing, and/or do not integrate families’ access to programs, reduce the potential benefits for children.
  • Early learning programs that do not reflect the culture and knowledge of the Indigenous community are not seen as culturally safe and tend not to be used by families in that community.

What we don’t know

  • While there are some data available on enrolment, there are limited publicly available national data on the attendance rates of children in early learning programs in the years before entering formal schooling. Data on children in remote locations are particularly problematic.
  • There have been no rigorous trials or evaluations of early childhood programs in Australia, particularly programs for Indigenous and at-risk children.
  • There is no Australian research that has examined:
    • the relative benefits of targeted and universal programs for early learning - the long-term effects of attending an early learning program through a cost-benefit analysis.
  • Due to the problematic definition and measurement of quality, there is little cohesive and definitive Australian or international research that has evaluated the components, characteristics and determinants of high-quality early learning programs for young children.
  • There is limited Australian research on how to address the challenge of low use of early learning programs by Indigenous and disadvantaged families.