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Time to put research into action

17 December 2013

Time to put research into action - Professor Stephen Zubrick

The key to improving the future health and welfare of children across WA is to find ways to better delivery mental health services and to ensure good school attendance and nutrition, says Professor Steven Zubrick.

That change in these areas is needed, especially in disadvantaged communities, is well known, but we now need to “drill down” and work out exactly how to go about making a difference, he says.

“A key question is, how do we get developmental opportunities and expectations closer to the children of WA, because that will protect their health and wellbeing and prevent them from falling into categories that require large-scale public assistance or help,” he says.

School attendance

It is well recognised that regular attendance at school is fundamental to a child’s development — the challenge now is to get every child across WA going to school each day, Professor Zubrick says.

“Children spend 12,000 hours at school – it is the biggest developmental dose they get and it is actually organised to change their lives,” he says.

“There is no safe threshold of being absent – every single day counts, according to research we have just published.

“We know with complete confidence that the quality of the education a child gets matters, however if attendance is poor, the benefits are lost.”

There is an urgent need, particularly in disadvantaged communities, where schools often lack resources, to get parents involved in devising strategies to prioritise school attendance and also, to advocate to improve facilities and the quality of education available.

“We need to work out how to get disadvantaged families engaged to enhance the quality of education within their schools and to build some community advocacy so politicians begin to hear,” he says.

Mental Health

Professor Zubrick says the National Mental Health Survey of Children and Youth, being directed by his team at TICHR, will deliver a comprehensive snapshot of the mental wellbeing of children in 2014, after interviewing more than 5,000 families across Australia.

As well as providing information about whether mental distress and illness has increased in Australian children in the past 15 years, the survey will look at the impact of immigration, the Internet and changing work styles and family life on mental wellbeing and the capacity of people to find the help they need.

“Our priority will be to explain whether we need to be making changes to what we are doing to support the mental health of families and children,” Professor Zubrick says.

The results will help policy makers, service providers and communities to better deliver help where needed and, with economic efficiency.

Tackling obesity

It was time to examine and clarify messages about the role of specific dietary factors, such as the consumption of hidden sugars in processed foods, in the development of childhood obesity, Professor Zubrick says.

His recent research has challenged broad claims that sugar cannot be a big culprit in expanding the waistlines of our children because less raw sugar and sugar cane is now being refined in Australia.

While Australian sugar production has indeed dropped, there has been a significant increase in the importation of cheap, sugar syrups that are now incorporated in manufactured foods.

“We actually think there has been a shift in where the sugar is coming from —research shows it is now coming from other sources, such as the importation of sugar syrups,” he says.

“We are tired of wringing our hands about obesity, we are now interrogating the reasons for it, which is what the public health messages say we should be doing.”

Fundamentals for good child development

Good biology, expectations and opportunities are the basic ingredients for good child development, Professor Zubrick says.

“It isn’t an endless list,” he says.

“The extra bonuses that facilitate development include an easy-going temperament, an average level of intelligence, good language development and emotional support in the face of challenge.

“Someone to say ‘Ok you got knocked down – get up and try it again, no matter what I will love you.’”

Things that pull down development include social exclusion, being bullied and social inequality — where better resources, expectations and opportunities only go to certain people.

Unmitigated, high levels of family or community stress and chaos could also get in the way of establishing, regular, good, dependable, developmental opportunities.