Young children who have a chronic disease at the time they start formal education are up to 34 per cent more likely to experience developmental delays and lag behind their peers in a range of school-ready skills, new Australian research shows.
A West-Australian study, published in the journal Pediatrics today, finds that children who live with an ongoing chronic illness might be at a disadvantage when they start school, experiencing delays in their social, emotional, language and cognitive skills, communication and general knowledge, and physical wellbeing.
The research, from the University of Western Australia (UWA) and Telethon Kids Institute, also states that young chronically ill children with two or more diagnoses could also have an 85 per cent chance of falling behind in the classroom and in life.
Lead paper author, Megan Bell from UWA, says developmental delays could increase over time, especially if they are present at the start of a child’s educational life.
Chronically ill children with two or more diagnoses could also have an 85 per cent chance of falling behind.
“Early childhood is a period of rapid growth in abilities which form the foundation for future academic success,” Ms Bell says.
“If chronic illness interrupts a young child’s development, they may start school not ready to learn, and they will struggle to meet the demands of school.
“We know that, without intervention, children who start school with low levels of school readiness continue to lag behind their peers.
“Therefore, the effects of chronic illness on development have the potential to be long-lasting, even if the child’s health recovers.”
Although past studies have documented the impact chronic illness can have on a child’s educational abilities, this research is the first to determine that a child’s future – inside and outside the classroom – could be impacted by a diagnosis in early life.
“We looked at the child more broadly and examined early development in the sense of physical, social, emotional, language and communication abilities, because these aspects are highly interrelated in early childhood and throughout life,” she says.
The researchers conducted the study, comparing the developmental skills of children with and without chronic illness as they started formal schooling, between age five and six.
They used the Australian Early Development Census (AEDC) results of 23,000 West Australian children and data from hospital and WA Cancer Register to determine the impact of a diagnosis on development in early life.
The results showed that children with a chronic illness were more likely to be ‘at risk’ or ‘vulnerable’ to experiencing development delays.
“It is clear that a child with any chronic disease is at risk of falling behind and it is essential that there is support available.”
The three most common chronic conditions recorded were infection of the middle ear (chronic otitis media), chronic respiratory disease, and epilepsy.
The three most common chronic conditions recorded were infection of the middle ear (chronic otitis media), chronic respiratory disease, and epilepsy. However, no specific disease had a greater impact on development.
Ms Bell stresses that the study looks at the health and holistic development of school-age children at a particular point in time. However, she adds, health concerns can resolve as children age and multidisciplinary interventions could relieve development delays experienced.
A literature review conducted in 2014, examining the school functioning of children with additional health and developmental care needs in the primary years also suggests that young students with illnesses be given holistic support – not just medical care.
“We don’t know yet what will happen with these children as they get older but if parents are concerned and their child has a chronic illness, then they should seek advice from a medical professional or allied health professional,” says Ms Bell.
“But the multidisciplinary approach to care is what we are stressing here: not just a medical approach as the symptoms are holistic.”
Ms Bell says more research is needed to determine whether the difference in development continues into the later years of education.