School Mental Health

, Volume 10, Issue 4, pp 402–416 | Cite as

Profiles of Mental Health Competence and Difficulties as Predictors of Children’s Early Learning

  • Elodie O’Connor
  • Meredith O’Connor
  • Sarah Gray
  • Sharon GoldfeldEmail author
Original Paper


There is increasing acknowledgement of the importance of the early years of school in laying the foundations for children’s learning pathways, and interest in the role of mental health in promoting positive early learning experiences. Understanding child mental health requires consideration of both mental health competence and mental health difficulties. The aim of this paper was to determine how profiles of competence and difficulties relate to children’s early learning skills in their first year of school. Cross-sectional data from a population census was used to explore whether children’s mental health profile (the combination of competence and difficulties) predicted key domains of early learning. In 2015, the Australian Early Development Census (a teacher-rated measure of child development) was completed for 96.5% of Australian children in their first year of schooling (N = 302,003; M = 5 years, 7 months of age). Logistic regression analyses revealed that mental health profiles were strongly related to two key domains of early learning: language and cognitive skills, and communication skills and general knowledge. Anything less than the optimal high competence with low difficulties profile was associated with substantially poorer early learning skills (OR 2.17, p < .001 to OR 67.75, p < .001). These results suggest that profiles of mental health competence and difficulties are a salient factor as children begin school, and illustrate the importance of recognising both competence and difficulties when considering the mental health of young children.


Australian Early Development Census (AEDC) Australian Early Development Index (AEDI) Competence Dual continuum Early learning Mental health 



This paper uses data from the Australian Early Development Census (AEDC). The AEDC is funded by the Australian Government Department of Education and Training. The findings and views reported are those of the author and should not be attributed to the Department or the Australian Government. There are a number of key groups to be acknowledged for their support of the AEDC: including all schools, principals, and teachers across Australia that participated in the AEDC; and each of the State and Territory AEDC Coordinators and their Coordinating Committees who helped to facilitate the AEDC data collection in their respective jurisdictions. We appreciate their time and commitment. Personnel support for this analysis was funded by the Australian Government, and was supported by the Victorian Government’s Operational Infrastructure Support Program. Prof Goldfeld is supported by Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Career Development Fellowship 1082922. The authors would also like to thank Dr Amanda Kvalsvig for her contribution to earlier versions of this paper, and Dr Alana Deery and Dr Emily Incledon for their input into early analytic and conceptual work informing our current approach.


Personnel support for this analysis was funded by the Australian Government and was supported by the Victorian Government’s Operational Infrastructure Support Program.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

Dr E O’Connor declares that she has no conflict of interest. Dr M O’Connor declares that she has no conflict of interest. Dr Gray declares that she has no conflict of interest. Prof Goldfeld declares that she has no conflict of interest.

Ethical Approval

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Informed Consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Elodie O’Connor
    • 1
  • Meredith O’Connor
    • 1
    • 2
  • Sarah Gray
    • 1
  • Sharon Goldfeld
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  1. 1.Centre for Community Child Health, Murdoch Children’s Research InstituteRoyal Children’s HospitalMelbourneAustralia
  2. 2.Department of PaediatricsUniversity of MelbourneMelbourneAustralia

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