Child Development and Education Research

The Child Development and Education research stream at CCDE looks at the broad field of developmental health, particularly as it relates to brain development and early education. Growing bodies of evidence in recent years have shown that both 'nature' and 'nurture' in the earliest years of life significantly influence brain development and the wiring of neural pathways that have broad ranging impacts across the entire lifespan.  It follows then, that that good early child development programs can vastly improve outcomes for children's behaviour, learning and health in later life, leading to enhanced overall life opportunities and outcomes. 


Data Linkage

Government departments and services all gather data about their clients. These confidential data are used separately by each department for policy, planning and research purposes.

Data linkage projects aim to merge these separate records on individuals so that the “big picture” can also be seen. For example it is known that low birthweight babies tend to do less well at school; this can only be studied and understood if children’s health and education records are linked.

The data linkage process is carefully designed to preserve the privacy of individuals: There are also strict controls on the reporting of data to prevent any risk that individuals or small communities could be identified.

Our data linkage projects have all been close collaborations with the data providers; this helps to ensure that they inform policy development and program delivery as well as producing scientific findings. 


NHMRC Partnership Project:” Improving the developmental outcomes of Northern Territory children

Our NHMRC partnership project has developed from earlier data linkage projects undertaken by the CCDE.

The NT Early Childhood Development Demonstration Project was designed to establish the feasibility and technical requirements for NT administrative datasets being used for data linkage research. For more details see 'past projects' below.

The demonstration project’s success led to the establishment of the Child Development and Education Research Partnership (CDERP, 2014-2016), a formal collaboration between the NT Departments of Health, Education, Children and Families and the Menzies School of Health Research. Established in 2014, the partnership’s aim is to develop the scientific capacity for and appropriate use of de-identified data-linkage research in the NT. 

CDERP has recently been significantly expanded thanks to a successful National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Partnership Grant (2015-2017). The Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance NT (AMSANT) has joined the partnership and we now have sufficient capacity and resources to assemble a team of 15 researchers from a variety of disciplines ranging from child development specialists to health economists and criminologists.  

This team will undertake a program of research to advance scientific, policy and community understanding of the main drivers of developmental disadvantage in the Northern Territory, and to enable integrated service planning and monitoring of outcomes maximising collective efficacy in reducing gaps between Indigenous and other children’s health, education and other life outcomes.




SA - NT Data Linkage 

Collaboration between the Northern Territory (NT) and South Australia (SA) Governments enabled the establishment of the SA NT DataLink facility in 2009. With the support of the Population Health Research Network (PHRN), part of the Australian Government’s National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS), the Education Investment Fund Super Science Initiative, and a range of other stakeholders, the SA NT Datalink was established to support important research to inform many areas of policy and service development within the NT, SA and nationwide.  

SA NT DataLink has high-level data security processes and de-identification practices that meet NHMRC standards which ensure that the privacy of individuals is protected at all times. It provides a legal and ethically sound means of access to accurate and unbiased information held by Government agencies and other organisations that can be used to better inform research, policies and practices. Integration of unit-record information linked from different administrative datasets has many research advantages:

  • Studies based on data linked for large or entire populations are much more inclusive, representative and unbiased, and also more cost effective and efficient than conventional studies based on sampling.
  • The linkage of administrative and clinical datasets provides an evidence base for researchers and policy makers to better understand and monitor the population health and wellbeing impacts of policy and investment decisions. 
  • Data-linkage can enable types of research and policy analysis not previously possible to assist the development of government strategic planning and the systematic evaluation of the outcomes of policy, programs and new interventions.

NT Early Childhood Development Demonstration Project (2010-2014)

The NT Early Childhood Development Demonstration Project was designed to establish the feasibility and technical requirements for NT administrative datasets being used for data linkage research. The study documented: a) the approvals required from the data custodians of each dataset being linked; b) the human rights and ethics committee (HREC) approvals necessary for such projects; c) the security requirements for all stages of data management; d) the effectiveness of SA NT Datalink’s probabilistic methods of unit-record linkage, and; e) the technical feasibility of the data-linkage methodology to support scientific and policy relevant population-based research.  

Data about each of us is held in a variety of unconnected databases such as education and health records. This project joined the dots between departmental records so that researchers and planners could see the big picture without compromising individuals’ privacy. Privacy is assured by ensuring that the team linking the data is separate from the data analysts. One group sees the names, birth dates etc. but no sensitive data (e.g. health status, school grades), while the other sees the data but no identifying information.

Our project has linked data on approximately 60,000 NT children; birth and immunisation records, their Australian Early Development Index (AEDI) results as well as school enrolment, attendance and National Assessment Program: Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) test results. We have also included publically available community-level data such as community size, housing overcrowding and measures of remoteness.   

Unlike most Australian jurisdictions the NT has a very high proportion of children who are Indigenous (40% vs 5% nationally) and from (very) remote locations (49% vs 3% nationally) so we have a unique opportunity to improve our understanding of the development paths of such children.

Early data analysis is already generating important policy-relevant findings. For example teenage pregnancy and maternal smoking have very significant effects on the child’s AEDI and NAPLAN results. Overcrowded housing is a very strong predictor of high levels of school absenteeism.


Executive Summary SANT Data Link Demonstration Project 

Detailed Report SANT Data Link Demonstration Project



Australian Early Development Index (AEDI) - now known as Australian Early Development Census (AEDC)

The Australian Early Development Index (AEDI) is a national census of all Australian children collected in the first year of full-time school.

The AEDI is collected every three years and measures children’s progress in five areas or ‘domains’ of development:

  • physical health and wellbeing
  • social competence
  • emotional maturity
  • school-based language and cognitive skills
  • communication and general knowledge

The AEDI is an adaptation of a Canadian census that has been validated as appropriate for Australian (including Indigenous) children.  The AEDI is a valuable tool planning community action to improve children’s lives.

In 2009 the AEDI was completed nationally for the first time. Using the 2009 NT data CCDE analysed patterns development in order to get a picture of how local children are developing. We found that in general Alice Springs and Darwin achieved the best results. The areas with the highest levels of developmental vulnerability were the Tennant Creek - Barkly  and remote communities. A report of this work is available at

These data provide strong evidence that Indigenous children in the NT, particularly remote ones, need enhanced support if they are to be successful in their early years of schooling.

We are doing this work again with the data from the 2012 census. It will be completed in partnership with the NT Department of Education.

Video presentations:

Click here for video presentation to view "Experiences Build Brain Architecture"

Click here for video presentation to view "Serve & Return Interaction Shapes Brain Circuitry"

click here for video presentation to view "Toxic Stress Derails Healthy Development"

Assessment of Student Competencies (ASC)

The Assessment of Student Competencies (ASC) is used to evaluate all NT children in their first year of school. It consists of a checklist of skills useful to each child at school and in everyday life. It had proven valuable as a screening test for children who might need further special needs assessments but it was unclear how useful it could be as an evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of five year old children generally.

The CCDE, in partnership with specialists in the NT Department of Education, undertook an evaluation and restructuring of the ASC to improve and validate its usefulness. The initial ASC had 56 items grouped into 11 “developmental domains” each with between 2 and 7 items.

Psychometric analysis techniques (Rasch analysis and factor analysis) were applied to previous ASC collections to assess each item and domain. Sixteen individual items and all of the domains were identified as performing poorly.

We restructured the ASC (to ASC2), retaining 8 domains and 48 items (including 5 new ones).  Measurement models were used to verify the much improved performance of the ASC2 (omitting the new items). Improvements included less item bias, much improved domain performance, better balanced domains and simpler use.

The ASC2 was adopted in 2014 as the standard assessment instrument for children starting school in the NT. We hope to verify the full ASC2 (including the new and modified items) in a follow up project.



Child health experts recognise internationally that developmental care is vital to improve long-term health and wellbeing outcomes. A key challenge to the provision of quality developmental care in remote Australian Aboriginal communities has been the absence of culturally appropriate, structured developmental screening tools. Also, Aboriginal health workers (AHWs), recognised as key staff in this context, and a high proportion of other remote health practitioners, do not have adequate training in the area of early childhood development (ECD).

The TRAK study demonstrated that the cross cultural adaptation of the Ages and Stages Questionnaire developmental screening tool (the ASQ-TRAK) was considered highly acceptable and relevant to Aboriginal parents, Aboriginal Health Workers and Early Childhood Development (ECD) experts. The customised training program was delivered successfully and valued by all participants with demonstrated improvements in practitioner skills, knowledge, competence and confidence to identify and manage developmental difficulties and promote child development.

Despite the acceptability and value of the developmental screening tool and the ECD training, the integration of the ASQ-TRAK into routine health service did not occur as intended. Challenges to the uptake and ongoing use of the adapted tool were identified in three broad themes: leadership and governance, workforce support, and health centre structures.

Following on from this study, a validation study has commenced, through the University of Melbourne, to further explore the psychometric properties of the ASQ-TRAK questionnaire. 



Mobile Preschool Evaluation

Project Manager: Georgie Nutton
Project Start/Finish Dates: 2008 - 2011
For more information, please contact:     
parents making play dough with childrenWhat is the Mobile Preschool Program Evaluation?

The Mobile Preschool Program evaluation is a two year, NHMRC funded study designed to examine whether the Mobile Preschool model increases developmental outcomes and school readiness for children living in remote Indigenous communities. The study examines health and school readiness indicators of 5 year-olds from 30 remote communities, with data from schools, clinics, carers, teachers and community profiles. It's the first research of its kind to be conducted in Australia and the findings will play an important role in shaping early childhood services and policy for remote children.

What is the Mobile Preschool program?

The Mobile Preschool Program is a service delivery model used by the Northern Territory's Department of Education and Training to provide preschool to children aged 3 - 5 years who live in remote communities. The model is characterised by the use of a roaming (or mobile) preschool teacher who provides regular support and professional development to teachers from communities. Preschool is delivered 5 days a week for 2.5 – 3 hours a day

Newsletters from the Mobile Preschool Program:

Strong Start – Bright Futures (SSBF) Evaluation

The SSBF evaluation was undertaken by Menzies School of Health Research on behalf of the NT Department of Education and Children’s Services.

Researchers from CCDE conducted a participatory evaluation of implementation and effectiveness of the SSBF program - an innovative ‘college’ model of education in a number of sites across remote NT.  The SSBF program seeks to extend the range of service provided through schools, particularly in the years before school and in the transition to employment or further education.

CCDE researchers have a ‘critical friend’ role in the design and implementation of SSBF. They have developed a mixed method system to analyse data collected from staff and the community for ongoing monitoring of the initiative both by the department and the host communities.

More information about the evaluation project and the research dataset, is available from Research Data Australia. 



ABRACADABRA (ABRA) is a free, online interactive computer tool that was designed to help teachers teach basic literacy skills to young children. It has previously been systematically trialled in Canada, where it was first developed.

We conducted the three year ABRA Project in Northern Territory government primary schools, beginning with a pilot study in 2008 to establish the feasibility of using ABRA in an Australian, largely Indigenous context. The results of the pilot were encouraging and we followed it in up 2009 with a quasi-experimental study in six schools, this time including a control group of students who were not instructed using ABRA. In 2010, the final year of the project, we conducted a multisite randomised controlled trial (RCT) to test the hypothesis that ABRA would improve student literacy significantly more than traditional instruction alone.  We also carried out an ethnographic case study in the same year to learn how teachers were likely to use ABRA when they were not receiving intensive support.

We found that children who received instruction with the help of ABRA performed consistently and significantly better on phonological awareness (awareness of English language sounds) and phoneme-grapheme (sound-letter) correspondence than children who had not used ABRA. This was the case across all schools, for children of varying ages. We also found that ABRA was equally effective for Indigenous and non-Indigenous students.    

Both the RCT and ethnographic case study confirmed that teachers needed a high level of support when they first began using ABRA. We would need to do further research to find out about ABRA’s long term impact when used by teachers receiving less support; and to understand how best to sustain interventions such as ABRA over the long term.