Instead of focusing on the negative, we need a strength-based approach to the health of First Nations children

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First Nations children represent the future of the world’s oldest surviving culture. Of the 66,000 Victorians who identified themselves as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander at the 2021 census, a third were under the age of 15.

First Nations children in Victoria are doing well in several health aspects, as our recent report found. This report provides valuable insight into the diet, physical activity and well-being of First Nations children living in the Victoria region.

Our survey found that more than 300 First Nations elementary school children adhere to guidelines for physical activity, healthy eating and screen time. Those who met these guidelines also had higher health-related quality of life.

However, our study is rare. Prior to our report, no information was available on the diet and physical activity of primary school-age First Nations children in Victoria.

More evidence is needed on the health of First Nations children in Victoria. And it needs to be strengths-based rather than deficiencies-based.



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A strengths-based approach

To study the health of First Nations children, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal researchers from Deakin University worked with the Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organization (VACCHO). This organization is the umbrella organization representing Victoria’s Aboriginal controlled health sector.

VACCHO’s nutrition team works to improve food security and nutritional outcomes in Aboriginal communities across Victoria. Indigenous community-controlled organizations like these provide culturally safe care and support self-determination.

In our research, we found that health data can stigmatize First Nations peoples by focusing on negative outcomes rather than progress. To avoid this, we focused our data collection on measuring positive health outcomes (like healthy weight) rather than measuring “problems” (like obesity).

We were interested in identifying factors that contribute to positive well-being. This strengths-based approach recognizes and celebrates the strength of First Nations children.



Read more: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations have increased, but the census lacks details on other facets of Aboriginal life


Many First Nations children meet health guidelines

Our results show that many of the children surveyed adhered to the diet and exercise guidelines.

For most of these measures, there was no significant difference between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal children in the survey.



Read more: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations have increased, but the census lacks details on other facets of Aboriginal life


Its a lot to do

Our survey found that Aboriginal children are more likely to say they comply with vegetable eating guidelines than their non-Aboriginal classmates. However, only 21% of the participating Aboriginal children reported eating the recommended amount of vegetables each day.

While 53% of Aboriginal children were of healthy weight, nearly half were not. Non-Aboriginal children were more likely to be at a healthy weight and had, on average, a lower body mass index than Aboriginal children.

This could be addressed through the development of a national First Nations diet plan. This plan would need to address issues such as food security and workforce capacity, while also directing funds for community-controlled First Nations feeding programs.

A group of young First Nations children prepare to dance.  They wear ocher on their faces.
Indigenous children’s health data needs to steer away from negative biases by aligning outcomes with the progress of each community.
Dan Peled/AAP image


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Linking physical health with social and emotional well-being

Our survey also assessed perceived physical, social, emotional, and school-related well-being. This was measured using the Pediatric Quality of Life Inventory.

We found that non-Aboriginal children in our survey had significantly higher average health-related quality of life scores compared to Aboriginal children. This underscores the importance of promoting children’s mental health and social and emotional well-being alongside healthy eating and physical activity.

It is important to recognize the connection between physical health (e.g. body weight) and health behaviors (diet, physical activity, screen time and sleep) with social and emotional well-being.

This view of health is defined by the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organization as “not just the physical well-being of an individual, but the social, emotional and cultural well-being of the community as a whole”. This is why culturally appropriate research conducted in partnership with Aboriginal organizations is so important and something we have prioritized in our work.

We hope that our findings can be used by health services to plan culturally appropriate health promotion programs for First Nations children in Victoria. Ideally, governments can use these findings to better support the health organizations controlled by the Victorian Aboriginal community in implementing these programs.

Our strengths-based approach should be replicated in future First Nations child health surveys. Importantly, Aboriginal health must be in the hands of the Aboriginal people.

Holly Beswick from the Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organization (VACCHO) contributed to this article.

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