The early childhood years are a time when children begin to learn to communicate and get along with others, as well as adapt their behaviour, emotions and attention (CDCHU 2014). These developmental skills play an important role when a child transitions to primary school, and establish the foundations for academic and life success (Pascoe & Brennan 2017).

This page presents information on the development and school readiness of children in Australia by the time they reach primary school, using data from the 2018 Australian Early Development Census (AEDC).

What is the Australian Early Development Census?

The AEDC was introduced nationally in 2009 to define and measure the developmental vulnerability of children every three years. Data is collected by teachers using the Australian version of the Early Development Instrument. They assess children in their initial year of formal schooling. Participation is voluntary (AEDC 2016).

The AEDC measures school readiness across five domains:

  • Physical health and wellbeing—physical independence, motor skills, energy levels, ability to physically cope with the school day.
  • Social competence—self-control and self-confidence, ability to work and play well with others, respect for others, responsibility, ability to follow instructions.
  • Emotional maturity—absence of anxious and fearful behaviour, ability to concentrate, ability to provide assistance to other children.
  • Language and cognitive skills (school-based)—interest and ability relating to literacy, numeracy, memory.
  • Communication skills and general knowledge—communication with children and adults, articulation, ability to tell a story (AEDC 2016).

The AEDC scores are grouped into three categories:

  • developmentally on track (above the 25th percentile)
  • developmentally at risk (between the 10th and 25th percentile)
  • developmentally vulnerable (below the 10th percentile).

Who participated in the AEDC 2018?

In 2018, 309,000 children participated in the AEDC, 96% of the estimated number of eligible children at the time. The proportion of eligible children participating has remained fairly constant since 2009 (97% in 2015, 97% in 2012 and 98% in 2009).

The average age of children in the 2018 AEDC was 5.6 years, consistent with previous years. Mean age differed by state and territory, reflecting the different ages at which children start their first year of full-time school. The highest mean age was 5.9 years in Tasmania, while the lowest was 5.3 years in Western Australia (AEDC 2019).

How many children were developmentally vulnerable?

The proportion of children classified as developmentally vulnerable on one or more domain(s) in 2018 was 22%, while the proportion classified as developmentally vulnerable on two or more domains was 11%. Developmental vulnerability has remained relatively stable since 2009 (Figure 1).

The line graph shows a slight decline in the number of children classified as vulnerable on AEDC domains. Children classified as vulnerable on one or more domain(s) was highest in 2009 (23.6%) and lowest in 2018 (21.7%). Children classified as vulnerable on two or more domains was highest in 2009 (11.8%), decreased in 2012 (10.8%) and remained steady in 2015 (11.1%) and 2018 (11.0%).

Some changes took place in the proportion of children considered to be developmentally vulnerable across the five AEDC domains. Between 2009 and 2018, the proportion of children developmentally vulnerable on:

  • physical health and wellbeing increased from 9.3% to 9.6%
  • social competence increased from 9.5% to 9.8%
  • emotional maturity decreased from 8.9% to 8.4%
  • language and cognitive skills decreased from 8.9% to 6.6%
  • communication skills and general knowledge decreased from 9.2% to 8.2% (Figure 2).

The line graph shows variation in the proportion of children classified as developmentally vulnerable on the five AEDC domains. Physical health and wellbeing increased slightly (2009: 9.3%, 2012: 9.3%, 2015: 9.7%, 2018: 9.6%).  Social competence varied but increased overall (2009: 9.5%, 2012: 9.3%, 2015: 9.9%, 2018: 9.8%). Emotional maturity varied on each reporting year (2009: 8.9%, 2012: 7.6%, 2015: 8.4%, 2018: 8.4%). Language and cognitive skills (school‑based) varied but decreased overall (2009: 8.9%, 2012: 6.8%, 2015: 6.5%, and 2018: 6.6%). Communication skills and general knowledge gradually decreased (2009: 9.2%, 2012: 9.0%, 2015: 8.5%, 2018: 8.2%).

The developmental vulnerability of children also differed across demographic factors.

Sex

In 2018, boys were around twice as likely to be developmentally vulnerable on one or more and two or more domains than girls.

Boys were also more likely to be developmentally vulnerable across each domain than girls. This sex difference has been consistent in the AEDC since 2009 (Figure 3). The AEDC has noted that sex differences in academic performance resolve by Year 9; however, data is not available on the outcomes of early sex differences in social and emotional development in Australia (AEDC 2014).

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australian status

Indigenous children were twice as likely to be developmentally vulnerable as non-Indigenous children in 2018.

In 2018, 41% of Indigenous children were developmentally vulnerable on one or more domain(s). The proportion of developmentally vulnerable Indigenous children declined between 2009 and 2018 (Figure 3).

Socioeconomic area

Children living in low socioeconomic areas were more likely to be developmentally vulnerable on one or more domains than children living in other socioeconomic areas.

In 2018, 32% of children in the lowest areas were developmentally vulnerable, compared with 15% of children in the highest areas. This was consistent between 2009 and 2018 (Figure 3).

Remoteness area

Children living in Very remote areas were more likely to be developmentally vulnerable than children in other remoteness areas.

In 2018, 46% of children in Very remote areas were developmentally vulnerable, compared with 21% of children living in Major cities (Figure 3).

The line graph shows the proportion of boys classified as developmentally vulnerable on one or more AEDC domains declined slightly over time (from 30.2% in 2009 to 27.9% in 2018). Fewer girls were classified as developmentally vulnerable (16.8% in 2009 and 15.3% in 2018).

Where do I go for more information?

For more information on transitioning to primary school, see:

References

AEDC (Australian Early Development Census) 2014. Research snapshot—Gender differences in the AEDC and into the school years. Melbourne: AEDC.

AEDC 2016. Australian Early Development Census national report 2015. Melbourne: AEDC.

AEDC 2019. Australian Early Development Census national report 2018. Melbourne: AEDC.

CDCHU (Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University) 2011. Building the brain’s ‘Air Traffic Control’ system: How early experiences shape the development of executive functioning: Working paper no. 11. Viewed 17 January 2019.

Pascoe S & Brennan D 2017. Lifting our game: Report of the review to achieve educational excellence in Australian schools through early childhood interventions—December 2017. Melbourne: State of Victoria. Viewed 17 January 2019.