Canterbury researchers funded to tackle child health challenges

University of Canterbury researchers are leading innovative studies to research and improve child health in Aotearoa New Zealand.

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A Better Start, one of the country’s 11 National Science Challenges, and Cure Kids, New Zealand’s largest national child health research charity, are co-funding the new $4 million projects, which are all aimed at making a real-world difference for tamariki and their whānau.

The research projects are centred on three key research areas – healthy weight, mental health and resilience, and early learning and literacy – and all focus on equitable outcomes for Māori and Pasifika children.

The prevalence of autism has markedly increased recently with estimates suggesting 1 in 59 people are on the autism spectrum. Service demand exceeds capacity in many regions, with lengthy waitlists and an unmet need for culturally appropriate support.

Children on the autism spectrum demonstrate challenges in communication, behaviour and learning and, along with their caregivers, are at greater risk for mental health conditions. Access to early intervention and support that optimises caregiver mental health and children’s development is critical in mitigating these risks.

This project, led Associate Professor Laurie McLay of the University of Canterbury, will investigate the benefit of evidence-based interventions to improve child learning and behaviour and adult wellbeing – delivered by way of telehealth (using information communication technology).

Researchers will evaluate whether the integrate both web-based content and online virtual coaching interventions have an impact on social communication and behaviour and caregiver mental health and wellbeing, and also the acceptability of these approaches for Māori and Pasifika.

This new model of telehealth-delivered, parallel parent/child intervention could transform the way services are delivered for children with autism, and increase timely access to critical support for families who otherwise face long waits, resulting in collateral gains across many aspects of child and family functioning.

  • University of Canterbury Professor John Everatt is leading the project: ‘Phonics instruction for teachers to help children learn literacy’

Present research involves interventions that can be implemented by teachers to enhance literacy and improve wellbeing.

These procedures were developed in previous research and found to be effective to support acquisition of literacy in primary school children. Trained Research Assistants provided that intervention, whereas in this project, primary school teachers will be trained to implement the intervention, to examine whether the same positive results can be obtained.

Literacy difficulties can affect all areas of education, reducing achievement and restricting job opportunities. Difficulties during the initial years of school can damage self-concept and cause behavioural problems. Although literacy learning difficulties are found across all groups, there is a greater incidence among students from lower socio-economic backgrounds and individuals from non-majority or immigrant backgrounds, particularly if their primary language differs from the language used in education.

This research, led by Professor John Everatt from the University of Canterbury, focuses on ways to support development of reading and writing, using a culturally responsive intervention to reduce the negative impact that poor educational experiences have on children’s wellbeing.

The project will help children to develop word-decoding skills and vocabulary, and provide strategies that motivate children to read text suitable for their chronological age. The research will measure whether engagement and experiences of success improve self-concept and self-efficacy, reduce negative behaviours, and increase resilience.

The research will focus on children in later primary school years who have experienced literacy learning difficulties.

  • UC academic Dr Matt Hobbs is also part of the research team conducting the ‘Geospatial study of environmental effects on mental health of children’

Mental health is one of the biggest health challenges facing New Zealand. One in four NZ young people will experience a mental health issue before they turn 18 years old. Inequities in mental health issues and care are persistent and worsening, with Māori and Pasifika over-represented.

The determinants of mental health are multiple and complex, and increasingly the influence of the environment in which young people grow up is the subject of research to better understand mental health.

Nicholas Bowden of the University of Otago is leading this study, which aims to understand the interplay between mental health and the environments in which NZ young people grow up. More specifically, it seeks to determine whether young people have better mental health if they grow up in areas with more ready access to healthy environmental features such as green and blue spaces (e.g. parks and rivers), compared to unhealthy environmental features such as gaming venues, takeaway shops, and liquor outlets.

The study also aims to empower communities to advocate for change (e.g. support positions concerning liquor licence submissions and preservation of natural spaces), inform policy processes and interventions to improve health-enhancing environments, and inform subsequent research to develop culturally specific environmental measures to reflect health-enhancing environments for Māori and Pasifika.

The diverse and dynamic group of researchers undertaking this research has wide-ranging relationships with policy makers, health providers, and community groups that will be crucial to ensure the research has its intended impact of improving the mental health of young people in NZ.

About A Better Start and Cure Kids funding

The A Better Start and Cure Kids contestable funding round was launched in November 2020 to seek research proposals that would lead to better ways to promote healthy weight, improve early literacy, and help improve mental health and resilience in children and young people. This is the second time Cure Kids and A Better Start have collaborated to create a contestable funding round – in 2017 they funded 10 child health research projects to a total of $2.8 million.

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