Understanding Children's Perspectives on Wellbeing: The Australian Child Wellbeing Project: Phase One Report

Jen Skattebol, Myra Hamilton, Grace Skrzypiec, Tammy Burnstock, Gerry Redmond, Bridget Jenkins and Kirk Dodd

The Australian Child Wellbeing Project is a child-centred study in which young people’s perspectives are being used to design a major nationally representative survey of wellbeing among 8-14 year olds, and to interpret findings from that survey. The overall project is divided into six major phases which include the development and conduct of a nationally representative school based survey among young people in school years 4, 6 and 8, to be carried out in school term three, 2014.

This document reports on Phase One of the project, involving focus groups and in-depth interviews with young people in six groups who are often seen as experiencing high levels of marginalisation or as having particular experiences and needs, including young people living in out of home care and young people living with disability. The purpose of this phase of the research was firstly to explore in an open-ended way the dimensions of wellbeing viewed as important by young people from the six marginalised groups as well as those considered to be from the ‘mainstream’. This approach asks: “What things do children from each of the target groups think are important to ‘having a good life’?” Secondly, to extend the knowledge of how different groups of Australian children conceptualise their wellbeing; how they facilitate cultural, social, and economically-specific concepts of well-being.

The report explains the methodology used and provides a short background on the situation of young people in the six groups in Australia, including young people in out of home care. In Australia in 2011, 7.4 in every 1,000 children aged under 18 years were living in out of home care, a number and rate that had doubled since 1997. Children and young people in out of home care are those living away from their family home, or the home of their birth parents, because their parents are unwilling or unable to provide the care they require. As the young people in the age range for this project would not be placed in independent living arrangements in Australia, and residential care is in decline in the country and currently sits at less than five per cent of children placed in out of home care, the report highlights that the focus of this project is on young people in foster care and kinship care. In 2009, 95% of children in formal out of home care arrangements in Australia were in home-based care, with about half of these in foster care, and the other half living with relatives or kin.

Like all other groups, young people in out of home care proposed that family was the most important influence on wellbeing. Participants conceptualized family, firstly in terms of a traditional nuclear model of parents and siblings, and then inclusive of extended family members such as grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins. It is useful to note that they did not include carers or other people who were not biologically related. Participants in the out of home care group spoke very little about the relational qualities of their family life. Indeed, in stark contrast to the other groups, little information was volunteered about the structure of families, views on normative family functioning, or the relational dimensions of family life in group activities. Strong, supportive and safe friendships were stressed as important by children in out of home care. While young people in other groups often mentioned the activities they did with friends, this was hardly mentioned by young people in this cohort. They were focussed on friendship dynamics and the qualities they wanted in their friends. Friends were named as peers who could be trusted, who they could help, who would listen, with whom they could share secrets and personal information, and who would, if there were fights, “get over them quick”.

The workshops served to corroborate key themes from existing research on young people in their middle years, while also allowing new themes to emerge. Although researchers attempted an open-ended approach, where young people could raise any issues they felt appropriate as important to their wellbeing, it is perhaps not surprising that most raised issues that could be easily situated within domains that are familiar to policymakers:

  • Family
  • Friends
  • School
  • Community
  • Health
  • Feeling good about yourself
  • Money and material wellbeing

However, this overall conclusion that the ‘traditional’ domains capture the concerns of ‘marginalised’ and ‘mainstream’ Australian young people needs to be nuanced in several respects. First, it was possible to identify a number of cross-cutting themes relevant to many of the domains:

  • Bullying
  • Guidance and rules
  • Learning
  • Safety
  • Stress

Second, the young people clearly prioritise the domain of family as more important than any other domain in their lives. This suggests that a survey should devote more effort to understanding family relationships, pressures and dynamics than it might devote to other key domains. This is important for policy. Although family is clearly outside of the education policy framework, there is little doubt that family environments, relationships and dynamics can have a profound impact on young people’s formal learning.

Each group without exception consistently ranked family as the most important domain, although definitions and perceptions of what family meant, differed considerably between individuals and groups. Although we did not ask specifically about whom the young people lived with, it was clear that not all people who they saw as ‘family’ lived in the same household. Moreover, young people in the Aboriginal and culturally and linguistically diverse groups (and some other children) tended to refer to family in terms of an extended network of parents, siblings, grandparents, aunties and uncles, and cousins. Children living in out of home care did not refer to foster carers as family, but referred instead to parents and siblings.

The research described in this report provides the basis for developing a child-centred survey instrument that can be meaningful not only to young people in the mainstream, but also to young people at the margins of Australian society.


©Flinders University of South Australia, the University of New South Wales, and the Australian Council for Educational Research