News Policy Education
Mar 25, 2019 — Australian Financial Review
Written by Jeff Borland and Yi-Ping Tseng
If we are to help address childhood trauma with all its adverse social and economic
consequences, we will need to fundamentally rethink and redesign traditional
approaches to early childhood development and service provision. Children exposed
to extreme adversity need intensive treatment if they are to overcome their
experiences and lead happier and productive lives, not just an extra dose from a
universally available childcare early years learning program. The prospective returns
on society’s investment in intensive support for children whose development has
been disrupted are very large.
Experts now agree that children who experience extreme adversity in their early
years are launched on a lifetime trajectory of disadvantage and poor opportunities.
Experiences such as prolonged exposure to neglect or abuse, or living in a highly
stressful family environment with violence or a parent with mental health problems,
cause major impairments to children’s long-term brain and physiological
Consequences for these children include lower education attainment and workforce
participation, involvement in risky behaviours including criminal activity, and
lifelong physical and mental health problems.
The case for policy interventions and programs to prevent and remedy impacts from
extreme adversity in childhood is compelling.
Through sound policy interventions, these affected children can be given a realistic
chance of an emotionally and materially better quality of life. Though it might not
seem so when they first receive support services, the outlook for even those children
exposed to extreme trauma and stress is not necessarily hopeless.
From a self-interested taxpayer’s point of view, intensive programs for children
suffering extreme adversity can be effective in reducing the budgetary costs that
otherwise would be incurred in treating their mental health conditions and antisocial
behaviour later in life.
A relatively small group in the population accounts for large shares of the costs of
government health, welfare and justice services – and there is a strong association
between being in that small group and having experienced extreme adversity in
Taking account of the full monetary costs and the monetary and broader societal
benefits of successful targeted early intervention programs overseas, benefit-cost
ratios from 2.5:1 to 10:1 have been achieved.
Intensive and adaptable
But the successful early years care and education programs are both intensive and
adaptable to the particular circumstances and needs of each child.
What are the essential features of successful programs?
First, the program must address brain development. Harvard educationalist Jack
Shonkoff has summarised this requirement well: what is needed is to link highquality
education "to interventions that prevent, reduce, or mitigate the disruptive
effects of toxic stress on the developing brain".
Toxic levels of stress and poverty hurts the developing brain. Paul Jones
Second, the program must be able to deal with complexity. It needs to be broad
enough to encompass children with many different sources of and responses to
adversity, and flexible enough to meet their differing needs.
Third, the program must be able to engage effectively with families experiencing
high levels of stress in order to maintain day-to-day participation of their children.
Crucially, it is not sufficient simply to give larger amounts of universal childcare and
early years programs to children experiencing extreme adversity. Rather, to be
effective it is necessary to provide services designed for and delivered separately to
Here in Australia we have been testing these design features in an actual program.
Individualised care plans
For the past decade, as part of a multi-disciplinary team of researchers in
partnership with the Children’s Protection Society, we have been undertaking a
randomised controlled trial of a centre-based intensive early years care and
education program, the Early Years Education Program (EYEP).
EYEP and the trial were initiated by the Children’s Protection Society. The program
was designed by Associate Professor Brigid Jordan and Dr Anne Kennedy in
collaboration with the Children’s Protection Society. The trial has been funded by the
Children’s Protection Society, many commonwealth and state government
departments, the Australian Research Council and philanthropic organisations.
EYEP combines theory-informed practices intended to promote children’s brain
development with an education curriculum based on the Australian and Victorian
early learning frameworks. Individualised education and care plans are tailored to
the needs of each child. Children who participate in EYEP are offered three years of
care and education, comprising 50 weeks per year, five hours per day each week.
Key features of EYEP are high staff-child ratios, qualified and experienced staff and
an infant mental health consultant as a member of the staff.
The ultimate objective of EYEP is to ensure that at-risk and vulnerable children
realise their full potential and arrive at school developmentally equal to their peers
and equipped to be successful learners.
So far, the results from the trial of EYEP are promising. About a year ago we released
a report on the impact of EYEP on children after 12 months in the program. At that
time the program showed a large and statistically significant impact on children’s
intellectual development – especially for boys. Soon we will be able to share more
findings when we release our research on impacts after 24 months. The results will
be crucial to the prospects of alleviating the terrible problem of extreme childhood
adversity in Australia.
During the EYEP trial period the Children's Protection Society changed their organisation name to Kids First Australia.
Jeff Borland is Professor of Economics at the University of Melbourne. Yi-Ping
Tseng is Senior Research Fellow at the Melbourne Institute. They presented last
week at the Melbourne Economic Form on poverty, which is supported by the
The link to the AFR article is https://www.afr.com/news/policy/education/saving-kids-from-toxic-lives-curbs-future-poverty-and-crime-20190325-p517dq