In remote communities in northern Australia Aboriginal cultures and languages remain strong and vibrant. However, the rich cultural and language learning environment in which many Aboriginal children grow up is often not well recognised by those outside these communities. For example, developemental assessments and interventions can fail to discrimate between ‘difference’ and ‘deficit’ and policies and programs do not always recognise cultural strengths and priorities in child development and parenting. In this paper we will discuss the role of cultural knowledge and practice in promoting healthy child development and well-being in one remote community context.
This longtidinal qualitative study (2013-2018) involves Yolŋu (Aboriginal) and non-Aboriginal researchers working collaboratively to explore the skills and knowledge that Yolŋu families consider important and the strategies they use to promote their development. Six case studies have been conducted involving children (aged between 1 month and 2 years at commencement) and their extended families. The study combines video ethnography, in which everday activities of the children are recorded, with collaborative interpretation of the video data with family members and Yolŋu researchers and in-depth interviews.
Themes emerging from the first three years of the study include: the strong focus from birth on developing the child’s understanding of their identity and connections to people, place and other elements of the natural world; intensive interaction with, and nurturing by, a wide range of both female and male extended family members; robust stimulation of verbal and non-verbal communication development and recognition of the child as actively engaged in communication from birth. Many aspects of children’s development are closely monitored and sometimes purposefully ‘tested’ although the focus and process of assessment is very specific to the cultural context. Developmental expectations are not age-related and differences in development between children are recognised but accepted and valued as individual attributes rather than as deficits requiring external intervention.
Western values and practices continue to dominate early childhood policies as well as approaches to assessment and intervention in remote communities. However, a deeper understanding of diverse cultural strengths and priorities in early child development is crucial to ensure these are recognised, valued and supported.