2. Measuring what matters most for children

Measuring child well-being is not always straightforward. Well-being in general is a multi-faceted concept that requires careful measurement of people achievements and satisfaction regarding multiple aspects of their lives (Boarini, Johansson and Mira d’Ercole, 2006[1]; OECD, 2011[2]; OECD, 2020[3]). Measuring the well-being of children carries additional difficulties and considerations.

Part of the challenge lies in the lack of a single unifying definition or common approach to children’s well-being and how it should be measured. Child well-being is studied in a range of scientific disciplines, including psychology, medical sciences, economics and sociology. Each produces valuable insights, but each also brings their own methods, approach and understanding of the issue. Moreover, some child well-being concepts differ depending on social and cultural context (Amerijckx and Humblet, 2014[4]; Ben-Arieh et al., 2014[5]; Perron et al., 2019[6]). As a result, the concept of child well-being remains blurred and the boundaries have not been fixed.

A second challenge lies in the critical importance of childhood for human development and well-being throughout life. Child well-being measurement must take into account both children’s lives in the present (the “here and now”), and their lives in the future (laying the foundations for future well-being). This future-orientation is relevant for people of all ages, but is of critical importance when looking at children, given the strong consequences of development during childhood on outcomes later in life.

A third challenge comes from the ways in which the children’s well-being is tightly connected to their environments. Childhood and adolescence are periods of life when one’s sense of self gradually develops through actions, feelings, experiences and interactions with others. Especially in early childhood, children’s well-being depends heavily on their parents or carers; later in childhood, it increasingly depends on the way they connect with peers and wider society. For children, more than for adults, to get a full picture of well-being, measurement must account for a number of social and environmental influences – including children’s family and home life, their school life, and their neighbourhood and physical environment – as well as children’s outcomes in various areas of life.

This chapter outlines a conceptual framework for child well-being measurement. It starts in section 0 with a discussion of conceptual considerations important when looking to measure child well-being, and by outlining a series of conceptual “principles” that are used as building blocks for the framework. Moving from these principles, section 2.3 outlines the framework itself. The aim and intention of the framework is to guide data collection, allow for the mapping of cross-national differences, and facilitate policy-relevant comparisons. The framework is also used to guide the data review in later chapters of this report.

The key conceptual principles underlying the framework are as follows:

  • Child well-being measurement should be multi-dimensional: The notion of child well-being is multifaceted, in all senses of the word. It encompasses a range of aspects of children’s lives, including the things they have and own, their health, their education and learning, and their personal and social lives. It brings together objective and subjective components, such as children’s moods and emotions, their satisfaction with life, and their sense of purpose. Multi-dimensional measurement, while complicated, is the best way to capture such a complex concept; it can provide a rich and detailed picture of well-being, enhancing, among other things, usefulness in informing policy.

  • Child well-being measurement should reflect children’s lives today and tomorrow: Child well-being is about both the present and the future. While, historically, child well-being research has tended to focus on either one or the other, modern work looks to find a middle ground. Children’s well-being in the here-and-now matters, and is important in and of itself. However, so too does their future well-being and their ability to sustain well-being over time. Child well-being measurement should look to cover what is important for children’s lives right now, and what is important for them once they grow up and reach adulthood.

  • Child well-being measurement should be age-sensitive: Child well-being is a developmentally-situated concept. What children need, want, and should be able to achieve changes as they move through childhood. Children’s cognitive, social and emotional skills develop in different ways at different ages. They are also responsive to certain environmental factors at some ages more than others. Child well-being measurement should be sensitive to children’s age (or stage of development) and use age- (or stage-) appropriate variations in measures where needed.

  • Child well-being measurement should integrate children’s views and perspectives: Asking children for their views, perceptions and perspectives on different aspects of the lives can help ensure that key dimensions of children’s well-being are properly understood and taken into consideration. Children's perceptions of their environment are also important as they shape how they self-regulate emotions, learn, and engage with others. Children’s perspectives on risks and issues that may affect their well-being now or in the future are also important for designing engaging and effective policies. Measurement should therefore look where and when possible to make use of children’s own views and perspectives and children’s self-report data. This includes measures of children’s over-arching subjective well-being, but also other types of self-reported data covering children’s views on other more specific aspects of their lives.

  • Child well-being measurement should capture children’s environments: Child well-being is tied to and shaped by the environments and settings in which children grow up. Families, schools, neighbourhoods and communities can all impact on children’s lives, in various and at times in contradictory ways. They can act as a resource for well-being, providing children with the materials, support and opportunities needed to thrive. They can also carry risks and dangers. These environments do not operate as separate worlds; rather they are interconnected. To a large extent, children’s well-being depends on the quality of interconnections developed across children’s spheres of life. Measurement should look to capture the many important aspects of children’s environments, alongside and in addition to child well-being outcomes.

  • Child well-being measurement should include child-related public policies: Children’s lives can also be shaped strongly by public policies. Policies can influence the resources available for children at home. They can help support parents in providing care and education for their children, by for example, offering financial support or a right to time away from work. Policies can also shape children’s lives at school and in the community. Measurement should look to integrate indicators of child-related public policies, again alongside and in addition to child well-being outcomes.

Taken together, these elements build up to a framework for child well-being measurement that can be used to guide better and more comprehensive child data collections. A summarised version of the framework is given in Figure 2.1, with the full framework presented later in section 2.3. The framework is multi-dimensional and multi-level. It consists of four “levels”, covering, in turn, children’s well-being outcomes (Level A), child activities, behaviours and relationships (Level B), children’s settings and environments (Level C), and public policies for child well-being (Level D). Each level contains a series of thematic “areas”, which are further sub-divided into well-being dimensions (see section 2.3).

Child well-being can be defined, thought about, and measured in different ways. Many experts would agree that child well-being is, at heart, about children living a good life, “doing well”, and reaching their full potential to the best of their abilities. Beyond this, however, there is room for debate on exactly how the issue should approached. For some researchers, (child) well-being is rooted principally in people’s mental states and what they think and feel about their lives. Other factors matter, but mostly only for the ways in which they feed into mental states. For others, child well-being is more about whether or not children’s basic needs or rights are being met, or whether they are developing the skills and abilities they will need in later life (Pollard and Lee, 2003[7]; Ben-Arieh and Frønes, 2007[8]; Ben-Arieh et al., 2014[5]; Cho and Yu, 2020[9]).

For the purpose of this report, child well-being is framed primarily in terms of the things that children need and should be able to do in order to live a good life (Ben-Arieh et al., 2014[5]). Building on insights from needs-based-, capability-, and developmental approaches to well-being, and drawing on Raghavan and Alexandrova (2015[10]), the basic underlying principle is that, for children, good well-being means both being able to live a “good” childhood in the here-and-now and being able to develop the skills, abilities and competencies needed for a good future, given their circumstances (Raghavan and Alexandrova, 2015[10]). Put slightly differently, children should both be enjoying a good childhood today, and be “flourishing” in age- (or stage-) and context-appropriate ways that set them up well for tomorrow (Kraut, 2009[11]; Ben-Arieh et al., 2014[5]).

Importantly, both normative standards like the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC, 1990[12]) and scientific research suggest that children have a range of needs and capabilities that should be met in order for them to “flourish” and live a good childhood. Good child well-being rests on meeting these needs and fulfilling these capabilities. These needs and capabilities stretch far beyond those necessarily for basic survival. In broad terms, they range from material goods and activities to things like physical health, mental health, social and emotional security, gender, sexual and cultural identities, and learning and skill development. They involve both objective and subjective factors, with the latter including, among other things, children’s satisfaction with life, the presence of positive moods and emotions and the absence of negative ones, and a broader sense of purpose and fulfilment in life. In some cases, children’s needs and capabilities can differ with their personal circumstances (e.g. children with disabilities, maltreated children). Some needs may also vary with their environments.

The remainder of this section expands on these and other conceptual considerations important when looking to measure child well-being. The discussion outlines a series of conceptual building blocks – labelled as “principles” – that are later used to guide the construction of the proposed conceptual framework (section 2.3). Each sub-section covers a separate principle, and briefly discusses their practical implications for child well-being measurement.

The concept of well-being captures the notion that people’s lives are complex, and that living a good life depends on a range of different things, each bringing their own value and meaning (Boarini, Johansson and Mira d’Ercole, 2006[1]). It is built on the idea that people’s quality of life is determined not only by their income or the things they own, but also, among other things, by their physical and mental health, their skills and abilities, their social lives, and their connections with others.

Well-being’s multi-dimensional nature creates challenges for measurement. How to capture something so complex? One approach is to strip everything back and measure well-being simply in terms of the person’s over-arching self-reported subjective well-being; to directly ask people about how they see their well-being, overall (see Box 2.4). This approach not only allows people to express their own well-being, but also avoids complicated decisions about which life dimensions should be measured, which type of indicators to use, and so on. However, there are limitations, especially when applied to children. One is that younger children cannot easily respond to such questions. A second is that over-arching measures can obscure the ways in which well-being can vary and interact across different aspects of people’s lives. While global measures can be highly informative, there is also value in measuring and monitoring how children are doing in specific areas of domains of life (Ben-Arieh et al., 2014[5]; Andresen, Bradshaw and Kosher, 2019[13]; Rees, 2017[14]; Dinisman and Ben-Arieh, 2016[15]), such as, for instance, their satisfaction with regards to their family, school and social life (Huebner, 1991[16]; Seligson, Huebner and Valois, 2003[17]; Dinisman and Ben-Arieh, 2016[15]; Rees, 2017[14]).

A second common approach is to look to capture well-being through multi-dimensional measures. In practice, this means multiple indicators reflecting different aspects of people’s lives. This sometimes includes over-arching self-reported measures of subjective well-being similar to those above, but in combination with other (objective and subjective) domain-specific measures of well-being. Where data allows, the multi-dimensional approach can help provide a rich and detailed picture of well-being and the ways that people live their lives.

Reflecting the idea that child well-being is a multi-dimensional concept, this report identifies the most salient child well-being outcomes (Box 2.1 and section 2.3).

The second foundational principle of the framework is that it should take a “forward-looking” approach to child well-being. It should acknowledge that children have rights, including to a good childhood, but also that they are future adults and that their development is important. In short, the framework should recognise that child well-being is about children’s lives both today and tomorrow.

Historically, the literature on child well-being has emphasised two major perspectives on what makes for a good life for children: the “developmental” perspective, and the “child’s rights” perspective (OECD, 2015[21]). The developmental perspective stresses the importance of children’s futures (Ben-Arieh et al., 2014[5]). While not the only concern, this approach emphasises that today’s children are tomorrow’s adults, and highlights the importance of children collecting the skills and resources needed for a good adulthood. The developmental approach often leans heavily on insights from the child development literature (Box 2.2) to identify key aspects of good child well-being. The child’s rights approach to child well-being, in contrast, places stronger emphasis on children’s well-being in the “here-and-now” (Casas, 1997[27]; Ben-Arieh et al., 2014[5]). The rights-based approach stresses the importance of viewing children as human beings who have a right to a ‘‘good’’ childhood, independent of their futures. This approach frequently relies on children’s direct input on what makes for a good childhood and for the selection and construction of measures of child well-being (see Principle 4).

Modern work on child well-being often looks to find a middle ground between the two (Raghavan and Alexandrova, 2015[10]; Ben-Arieh et al., 2014[5]). Children’s well-being in the here-and-now matters, and is important in and of itself. However, so too does their future well-being, and their ability to sustain well-being over time and when they reach adulthood. In many cases, aspects of children’s current and future well-beings are likely to be aligned. Indeed, in some cases, the two cannot be separated. For example, evidence suggests that emotional well-being and self-control in childhood as well as early-life adversity are key determinants of adult physical health and other well-being outcomes (Poulton, Moffitt and Silva, 2015[28]; Clark et al., 2019[29]; Flèche, Lekfuangfu and Clark, 2019[30]; Lansford, 2018[31]). In other areas, however there are potential trade-offs. Child well-being then becomes a matter of balancing concerns about the present ("well-being") with those relating to the future ("well-becoming") (Ben-Arieh and Frønes, 2007[8]; Clark et al., 2020[32]). Such a perspective might be labelled a “forward-looking” approach to child well-being (Raghavan and Alexandrova, 2015[10]; Conti and Heckman, 2014[33]).

Use of a forward-looking approach has a couple of implications for child well-being measurement. One is that, in addition to capturing whether children are living good lives today, child well-being measurement should also look to monitor children’s development. Childhood is a period of rapid and important growth and development, both mentally and physically, and children’s progress along the “development trajectory” can have major, long-lasting and possibly cumulative effects on outcomes in later life (Rutter, 1989[34]; Settersten, McClelland and Miao, 2014[35]; Torche, 2019[36]; Clark et al., 2019[29]). Development is not the only determinant of children’s lives and their future well-being, but it is one important driver. Children’s development can be monitored through measures of age- (or stage-) appropriate achievements and the reaching of milestones (see later chapters for more detail).

A second is that, measurement should also cover aspects of children’s lives that may impact on their future well-being. This includes in particular the attitudes, actions, aspirations and behaviours that develop through childhood and may impact on well-being outcomes in later life. One example is regular physical activity, which is found to be predictive of adolescent mental health and social inclusion (Eime et al., 2013[37]). Another is substance use, which contributes to a higher risk of dropping out of school early and lower school achievements, while also increasing the likelihood of mental disorders (Hall et al., 2016[38]).

The third foundational principle of the conceptual framework is that child well-being, and the measurement of child well-being, should be sensitive to children’s age (or stage of development) and reflect the changing nature of what children need, want, and should be able to achieve as they move through childhood.

“Children” are not a single lump. What it means for children to have a good life at, say, age 1 or age 2 is very different to what it means to have a good life at age 16 or 17. There are, of course, some aspects of child well-being that are relatively constant across childhood, at least in general terms. All children, like all adults, need access to (age-appropriate) food, clothing and housing, for example. But many aspects of child well-being are relevant mostly or only to children in certain age groups or at certain stages of development.

Children’s needs provide one such example. Broadly speaking, children's needs evolve along the following sequence as they move through childhood:

  • Pregnancy and infancy (Pregnancy to about age 2): During the first few years of life, children require a physically and nutritionally healthy start to life, low stress during pregnancy, secure attachment with a parent or a caregiver, and appropriate stimulation and movement to support brain-, nervous system-, and muscular development. Sleep and the sleeping routine is central, as at this age, a considerable amount of brain “wiring”, immune functioning, and physical growth occur during sleep.

  • Early childhood (roughly, 3- to 5-year-olds): For children in early childhood a stable routine is important, including a regular sleep pattern. Good quality nutrition, and opportunities for physical and educational play support healthy development. Secure relationships and safe and good quality housing are also important during early childhood. Access to good quality early childhood education and care can also be beneficial, especially for children from disadvantaged backgrounds (see Chapter 6).

  • Middle childhood (roughly, 6- to 12-year-olds): For children in middle childhood, the brain is still developmentally flexible enough for children to “catch up” on learning if they have missed out on opportunities earlier in life. In addition to reading, writing and numeracy, other fundamental skills such as language, reasoning, behavioural and social skills all develop during this stage of childhood. Children’s appetite for learning requires that they are intellectually stimulated. Children’s peer relationships are developing and different emotional and physical developments take place, all of which build on children’s need to be listened to, respected and socially recognised.

  • Late childhood (or adolescence; roughly, 13- to 17-year-olds): A range of new needs emerge as children reach late childhood and adolescence. The challenges of becoming more independent from parents, of achieving qualifications and of new relationships all begin to emerge. This is also a time when hormonal changes are affecting how young people think, behave and react. Sharing collective values and feeling respected by others grows in importance, as does risk-taking.

Child development provides a second example. Research on child development suggests that, while many aspects of development have their roots in early childhood, some are more responsive or experience deeper changes during particular stages of childhood (Box 2.3). One example is the development of self- and social identity, much of which occurs during adolescence (see Chapter 5). There is also evidence to suggest that, at certain ages, particular well-being outcomes or behaviours are more sensitive to variations in the environment and settings in which children live (Gardner et al., 2018[66]; OECD, 2019[61]).

In practical terms, treating child well-being as age (or stage-) sensitive means that, where needed, measurement should make use of age- (or stage-) appropriate variations in measures and/or age- (or stage-) specific measures in order to capture what is most important to children’s lives at each stage of childhood. Put differently, measurement should be responsive to children’s age and development, and should not discount or exclude aspects or measures of well-being that are important on the grounds that they are not relevant to all age groups. A further implication is that, where possible, measures that apply across childhood should be disaggregated by child age.

The fourth foundational principle of the conceptual framework is that children’s own views and perspectives matter, and these views and perspectives should be taken into account, where relevant and possible, when measuring child well-being.

There are two related but separate concerns when it comes to integrating children’s voices, views and perspectives into measurement. The first is whether children should be consulted in the identification of key aspects, dimensions and measures of well-being. The core argument here is that, while children’s well-being is an obvious concern to adults (especially their parents), adults’ perceptions of what is important for children often differs from that of children's (Bradshaw and Rees, 2017[85]; Doek, 2014[86]).

Involving children as active participants in the construction of child well-being measurement raises some issues. One is that children are not a uniform group: what is important to children themselves is likely to differ strongly with age, for instance, but also potentially by other demographic and socio-economic markers. A second challenge is that it is difficult to involve young children in this kind of consultative process. For new-borns and the very youngest, it is impossible.

The second issue is the relevance of using self-reported assessments for measuring child well-being outcomes. Children’s social well-being provides one example where self-report data is highly valuable. Children, like adults, are social-beings. They have a great need for social relationships and interactions, and to feel like they are a part of society. The feeling of being fairly treated by family members, teachers or friends is important for children’s perception of their well-being (Kowal et al., 2002[87]; Pretsch et al., 2016[88]; Mameli et al., 2018[89]; Gini et al., 2018[90]; Main, 2019[91]). Conversely, experiences of discrimination or bullying, which undermine children’s sense of belonging and interactions with others, can be damaging for self-image, and leave children feeling socially excluded and isolated (Arseneault, Bowes and Shakoor, 2010[92]; Arseneault, 2017[93]; Oexle et al., 2020[94]; Priest et al., 2013[95]). These, and other important aspects of children’s lives, can only be monitored properly by listening to children and through self-reported data from children themselves.

On top of self-assessments, many researchers also see value in listening to children’s thoughts and views on various specific aspects of their lives. The Children’s Worlds surveys, for instance, ask children not just for their thoughts about themselves, but also their home, their possessions, and their neighbourhood, among other things (Children’s Worlds, 2020[96]). Child self-report data like this can help shed light on to the degree to which they needs and preferences are being properly met in many different well-being areas, including their home life, their school life, and their life in the community.

A third issue has to do with the use of “subjective well-being” measures (Box 2.4) which provide broad assessments of how life is going overall; feelings and emotions; or purpose. In recent years, a number of OECD countries have introduced measures of subjective well-being into their well-being monitoring activities (Exton and Shinwell, 2018[97]), including in some instances child well-being monitoring activities. (See for example, the child well-being measures used by the United Kingdom (ONS, 2018[98])).

Subjective and self-report child data do come with limits and caveats. Some of these are general and apply to subjective data collected from adults, too. They include, for example, potential frame-of-reference effects – where differences in life experiences and the way respondents see themselves relative to others influence the way they formulate answers – and adaptation effects – where the initial boost to subjective self-assessments delivered by positive life events, and the damage delivered by negative life events, diminishes over time (OECD, 2013[99]). For children, there may be additional concerns around their ability to fully express themselves. Techniques such as visual methods and vignette or story-based methods can help overcome the latter issue (Rees, Andresen and Bradshaw, 2016[100]; Lam and Comay, 2020[101]), and initiatives like the Children’s Worlds surveys have shown that, at least for children above a certain age, it is possible to collect self-report and subjective child data in a reliable way (Casas, 2017[102]; Casas and Rees, 2015[103]; Bradshaw, 2019[104]). Nonetheless, as the OECD recommends for subjective well-being data more generally (OECD, 2013[99]), subjective and self-report child data should be interpreted with some degree of caution, and may be best used to complement rather than replace other measures of child well-being (Raghavan and Alexandrova, 2015[10]).

Integrating children’s views and perspectives has two main practical implications for child well-being measurement. First, to the extent possible, children’s thoughts and views should be used to help inform the identification of aspects and dimensions of child well-being for measurement. This can help ensure measurement remains meaningful to children themselves. Second, where relevant, measurement should use indicators based on self-reported data from children, alongside other forms of data. This includes measures of “subjective well-being” but also other types of self-report data covering children’s views on other (more specific) aspects of their lives, to be used where relevant in combination with other types of data (e.g. objective measures, parent-reported data) to provide a rounded view of the issue.

The fifth foundational principle of the conceptual framework is that children’s environments are central to child well-being, and should be fully integrated into well-being measurement. Measurement should reflect the resources that children can draw on, and the risks they are exposed to, at home, at school, and in the community, and how these risks and resources differ across children.

Environments are important for everyone’s well-being, but the well-being of children, as dependent members of society, is particularly strongly embedded in the settings and environment in which they live (Box 2.5). Families, schools, neighbourhoods and communities can all impact on children’s lives. Especially in the early stages of childhood, children’s well-being depends heavily on their parents or carers. By early adolescence, it increasingly depends on the way they connect with peers and wider society.

Children’s environments can impact child well-being in potentially contradictory ways. Good environments can act as a resource for well-being, providing children with the materials, support and opportunities needed to thrive. A positive school environment, for example, can help to promote not just children’s learning, but also their socio-emotional well-being (Box 2.5). Conversely, bad environments can carry risks for children’s well-being. These environmental risks and resources – and differences in the distribution of environmental risks and resources across children – are one important mechanism for the transmission of inequalities across generations (OECD, 2018[60]).

Informed in large part by Bronfenbrenner’s (1979[62]; 1989[105]) "ecological" approach to human development (see Box 2.2), in recent years, a number of child well-being measurement activities have looked to better integrate children’s environments into well-being measurement. For example, in their most recent Report Card on child well-being (UNICEF, 2020[24]), UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre adopted a “multi-level” measurement framework that reflects the layers of influences that surround children and impact on outcomes. An “ecological” conception of child well-being also underpins the national child well-being activities or measurement frameworks used by Australia (AIHW, 2020[106]), New Zealand (DPMC, 2019[107]), and to some extent Ireland (DCYA, 2014[108]).

In practical terms, adopting an “ecological” approach and integrating children’s environments into the measurement of well-being means the environmental factors should be measured alongside and in addition to child well-being outcomes. To the extent possible, measurement should provide information on children’s families and home life, on the school and classroom environment, and on the broader neighbourhood and communities in which children live. It should capture inequalities in environments across children, and how, from the start, different children have access to, and are exposed to, different environment risks and resources. Importantly, measurement should make clear that these environmental measures do not capture children’s well-being outcomes in themselves; instead, they are environmental drivers that have the capacity to influence children’s well-being outcomes.

The sixth and final foundation principle of the conceptual framework is that public policy can and does matter for child well-being and that, similar to children’s environments, child-related public policies should be integrated into the measurement of children’s well-being.

A large research literature, including from the OECD (OECD, 2009[20]; OECD, 2011[148]; Thévenon, 2018[149]), has built up around the links between public policies, legal frameworks, and children’s well-being outcomes. The ways in which these factors can shape children’s lives are far reaching. Childcare policies and other measures to support the reconciliation of work and family life are one example. These policies can help support parental employment, for instance, and provide parents with time at home to care and educate children. Child support systems that set the rules for financial transfers and for child custody when parents separate are another, even if the rules are enforced, are not always adapted to the complexity of families’ situations (Miho and Thévenon, 2020[150]). Family and parenting support services also help vulnerable families to develop positive family functioning and parenting practices (Acquah and Thévenon, 2019[151]). The way health systems provides care to children from birth, monitor children's health, promote standards of nutrition, immunisation, or health behaviours are also important institutional elements impacting child health and possibly other dimensions of child well-being (OECD, 2009[20]; Lo, Das and Horton, 2017[152]; WHO, UNICEF and World Bank, 2018[153]).

The laws and legislation of a country perform a fundamental duty towards child well-being as far they provide for children’s rights and lay out obligations on behalf of parents and the state. However, they also carry with them an intrinsic value; for instance, children’s awareness of their rights and their perception that adults respect their rights seems to bring higher levels of subjective well-being (Casas, González-Carrasco and Luna, 2018[154]).

Many cross-national multi-dimensional child well-being studies do not cover public policies as part of well-being measurement (UNICEF, 2007[18]; Bradshaw and Richardson, 2009[19]; OECD, 2009[20]; OECD, 2015[21]). However, especially when looking to examine and compare children’s being across countries, it is difficult, if not impossible, to get a full picture without integrating policy supports in some form.

This section outlines the conceptual framework for child well-being measurement. Using the foundational principles laid out in the previous section as its building blocks, the framework builds on and extends the OECD’s existing approach to child well-being measurement. It provides a renewed structure and set of guidelines detailing which aspects of children’s lives should be measured, and how, in order to better monitor child well-being and its determinants.

The full measurement framework is shown in Figure 2.2. In line with the principles outlined in the previous section, the key features of the framework’s structure and thematic content are as follows:

  • Multi-dimensional: The framework adopts a multi-dimensional approach to child well-being measurement. It looks to monitor how children are doing in many different areas of life, with multiple indicators used to capture a range of aspects of child well-being.

  • Forward-looking: The framework is built around the idea that children should be able to both enjoy a “good” positive childhood in the here and now, and have the opportunity to develop skills and abilities that set them up well for the future.

  • Age- and stage-sensitive: The framework looks to reflect the changing nature of children’s needs across childhood. It recognises not just the child well-being measures and indicators should be age- (or stage-) sensitive, but also that, in some cases, the concepts or aspects to be measured themselves change as children grow up.

  • Multi-level: In line with several recent child well-being measurement initiatives (e.g. UNICEF (2020[24])), the framework adopts an “ecological” or “multi-level” structure that acknowledges and integrates important (potential) influences on children’s outcomes (Bronfenbrenner, 1979[62]; 1989[105]; Minkkinen, 2013[110]). The framework contains four “levels” in total, organised according to the proximity to the child: child well-being outcomes; children’s activities, behaviours and relationships; children’s settings and environments; and child-relevant public policies.

In addition to these structural and thematic features, the framework also specifies a series of properties for the measures and indicators that would, ideally, be used to populate the framework. These properties imply that, where relevant and as far as possible, measures and indicators should:

  • Be child-centred: As is now common in child well-being research, child well-being measures and indicators should be child-centred wherever possible, with children (not families or households) used as the unit of analysis.

  • Reflect children’s views: Children’s voices should be heard throughout the measurement process, including both in the indicators design and selection stage (in order to reflect what matters most to children themselves), and in the measures themselves, through the use self-report and subjective child data.

  • Reflect contemporary childhoods: Related to the above, indicators should be relevant to and meaningful for children growing up in OECD countries today. They should reflect what is important for contemporary childhoods in OECD countries, accounting for changes in the way that children live their lives, and reflecting the opportunities and risks faced by children today.

  • Be age- and stage-sensitive: In addition to framework content being age- (or stage-) appropriate, in many cases, child well-being indicators should also be sensitive to children’s age and/or or stage of development, with age- (or stage-) appropriate (variations in) measures used where relevant.).

  • Capture inequalities: Indicators should capture not just average levels of well-being in a given area of children’s lives, but also the distribution of well-being across children, including through measures of inequalities and disparities across different groups of children (e.g. by sex, by living arrangement, and by migrant background).

  • Capture stability, change, and transitions: In addition to “static” measures of children’s well-being, indicators should where relevant look to capture stability, change and transitions in important areas of children’s lives, as well as the persistence and duration of children’s exposure to important risk (and protective) factors.

  • Be responsive to the needs of children in vulnerable positions: Indicators should where possible be flexible and responsive to the challenges faced by children in vulnerable positions.

The following two sub-sections provide more detail on the structure and thematic content of the framework, and on its guidelines for indicator selection and measurement, respectively.

The framework’s first and central level, Level A, covers children’s well-being outcomes. This is the core of the framework. The aspects covered at this level capture how children are doing in life. They aim to reflect whether children are enjoying a good childhood today, and whether they learning, growing and developing in ways that set them up well for tomorrow, given their circumstances.

As outlined earlier in Box 2.1, the framework focuses on children’s well-being outcomes in four (inter-related) thematic areas (Figure 2.2): material outcomes, physical health outcomes, social, emotional and cultural outcomes, and cognitive development and educational outcomes. Each of these areas contains a range of more specific outcome dimensions. Following the framework’s foundational principles, these dimensions are age-sensitive rather than strictly universal (Principle 3), and include outcomes that are relevant both to children’s well-being in the here-and-now, and their well-being in future (Principle 2). Measurement can be either objective (e.g. educational attainment), subjective (e.g. children’s satisfaction with their learning), or both, depending on the exact outcome in question (Principle 4).

The conceptual and empirical bases for each of the framework’s four outcomes areas are outlined in Box 2.1 and discussed in detail in the corresponding later chapters of this report. As a brief summary, the four outcomes areas are:

  1. A1. Material outcomes, which covers children’s access to material resources, including essential or important goods, services and activities. This includes their access to basic necessities like food, clothing and housing, but also other material goods and activities (e.g. a computer and the internet) that, depending on age, are important for children growing up in OECD countries today (see Chapter 3).

  2. A2. Physical health outcomes, which covers children’s health status and physical development. In broad terms, this area covers outcomes relating to whether children are healthy, free from illness, injury and disease, and developing and functioning well, given their background and circumstances (e.g. presence of disabilities) (see Chapter 4).

  3. A3. Social, emotional and cultural outcomes, which covers outcomes relating to children’s behaviours, emotions, and thoughts and feelings towards themselves and others, as well as related outcomes tied to social and cultural identities. This area covers many of the more “subjective” aspects of children’s well-being, ranging from basic emotional security and their sense of safety, to their sense of identity (e.g. sexual, gender and cultural identities) and belonging and over-arching life satisfaction. It also covers children’s socio-emotional skills, mental health, and overall psychological functioning and well-being (see Chapter 5).

  4. A4. Cognitive development and education outcomes, which covers outcomes relating to children’s learning, knowledge, and cognitive skill and ability development. This are includes measures of children’s cognitive development – including early cognitive development outcomes for younger children, such as emerging literacy and numeracy – as well as their progression through the education system, their educational attainment, and their satisfaction with their learning (see Chapter 6).

Moving from outcomes to influences, the framework’s second level, Level B, covers child-level factors that have important links to children’s well-being outcomes (Figure 2.2). These are the things that children do or are involved in that can contribute to, or detract from, their well-being. They include children’s activities, such as play, exercise, and studying, their behaviours, like healthy eating, and their relationships with parents, friends and peers, and other important adults, such as teachers. Children’s attitudes and aspirations, including their attitudes to school, are also included at this level.

Importantly, while these child-level factors directly involve children, they are not always under children’s full control. Indeed, in many cases, children’s activities, behaviours, attitudes and relationships are shaped by the decisions and actions of family and friends, as well as the wider environment around them (Minkkinen, 2013[110]; UNICEF, 2020[24]). In some cases, especially (but not only) for younger children, certain activities and behaviours are determined wholly by the choices of, and the opportunities provided by, parents and wider society. Many of the environmental factors covered later in the framework (Level C) are also important in shaping the things that children can do or engage in.

The framework focuses on children’s activities, attitudes, behaviours and relationships in five thematic areas (Figure 2.2): family activities and relationships; health behaviours; social, leisure and civic activities and relationships; learning activities, attitudes, behaviours and relationships; and digital activities and behaviours. These five areas are not tied explicitly to one particular well-being outcome area. Certain activities or behaviours may, of course, be more relevant or more important for some outcomes than for others. However, as discussed in Box 1.2, the inter-connected nature of well-being means that few activities, behaviours or relationships are relevant only to one specific outcome or outcome area.

Level B’s five thematic areas are:

  1. B1. Family activities and relationships, which includes children’s time and activities with parents (or caregivers) and the family, as well the strength and quality of child-parent (or child-caregiver) and child-family relationships. Children’s time and activities with caregivers and the quality of child-caregiver relationships is central to healthy development in several areas. This includes children’s social-emotional development, especially (but not only) during early childhood (Chapter 5), as well as their learning and early cognitive development (Chapter 6).

  2. B2. Health behaviours, which covers a number of risky and protective child health behaviours that may impact on well-being now or in future. Key risk behaviours include smoking, substance use, alcohol use, and practicing unsafe sex. Protective behaviours include regular physical exercise, healthy age-appropriate eating behaviours, regular age-appropriate sleep patterns, as well as safety-oriented behaviours such use of seatbelts. Many of these behaviours have clear and well-known links to children’s current and future physical health (see Chapter 4). However, they may also be relevant to other aspects of well-being. For instance, practicing regular physical activity during childhood is known to be predictive of adolescent mental health and social inclusion (Eime et al., 2013[37]).

  3. B3. Social, leisure and civic activities and relationships, which includes a range of child-level factors linked to children’s social connections and relationships and well-being more generally. This includes the strength and quality of children’s friendships and peer relationships, as well as the broader social support networks, such as the availability of a trusted adult that they can turn to when in need. Children’s civic participation and engagement are also included in this area. Social, leisure and civic activities are important for a range of child well-being outcomes, especially (but not only) aspects of social, emotional, cultural and psychological well-being (see Chapter 5).

  4. B4. Learning activities, attitudes, behaviours and relationships, which covers children’s learning-related activities, attitudes and behaviours both at school (or childcare) and at home, as well as their relationships with teachers and classmates. Examples of important school-related factors include attendance, absence and truancy, learning engagement and motivation to achieve. Those at home include engagement in and attitudes towards homework and reading for leisure. These behaviours are most closely linked to children’s cognitive and educational outcomes, with important further effects on future career and employment outcomes and quality of life in adulthood (Chapter 6).

  5. B5. Digital activities and behaviours, which covers children’s use of digital tools (e.g. smartphones, tablets, computers, video games) and their online activities and behaviours (e.g. use of social media). Digital technologies are creating a number of new opportunities and risks for children (Burns and Gottschalk, 2020[155]; Burns and Gottschalk, 2019[156]), and their impact on child well-being is likely complex. The science on the effects of digital technologies on children’s outcomes is ongoing, but there may be links between (certain types of) digital activities and behaviours and a range of social and emotional outcomes, as well as possible links with certain physical health and learning outcomes (Chapter 5).

Moving up a level, Level C covers environment-level influences on child well-being outcomes (Figure 2.2). These are aspects of children’s settings and environments that can impact children’s well-being, at times directly and at others indirectly, including by opening or closing opportunities, by shaping attitudes and aspirations, and by influencing activities and behaviours (Minkkinen (2013[110]); see Box 2.5). They include many aspects of children’s family and home environments, as well as the environments they face at school or in childcare, and a range of factors relating to their communities, neighbourhoods and wider physical and built environments.

The framework focuses on environment-level influences in three thematic areas (Figure 2.2): family and home environment; school and ECEC environment; and community and physical environment. As with the child-level factors in Level B, these three areas are not tied explicitly to one particular outcome area. A key pillar of “ecological” models of child development is that, while important individually, aspects of children’s environments are also inter-connected and frequently interact with one another (Box 2.5).

Level C’s three thematic areas are:

  1. C1. Family and home environment, which covers a range of factors relating to the families and households in which children grow up. This includes: family income, income poverty, and key determinants of family income adequacy, such as family work arrangements and family living arrangements; family physical and mental health, including maternal health (and health behaviours) during pregnancy and parental/caregiver physical and mental health more generally; family violence and abuse; family relationships, including especially the quality of parents’ relationships with one another; and the family’s wider support networks. Family and household-level factors like these are important for a large number of children’s well-being outcomes, often simultaneously. Family income adequacy, for example, is central to children’s material well-being (Chapter 3), but also important for their health and learning (see Chapters 4 and 6).

  2. C2. School and ECEC environment, which covers factors relating to the environments children are met with at school or in childcare. This includes school and ECEC service “climate”, covering aspects such as safety, classroom co-operation and competition, disciplinary climate and class size, as well as school and ECEC service-provided material services and activities, such as school meal programmes and subsidised leisure and cultural activities. School and ECEC climate has strong and clear links with children’s learning and education well-being (Chapter 6), but is also important for social and emotional well-being (Chapter 5). School and ECEC service-provided material supports can be important for several aspects of children’s material well-being, such as, through school meal programmes, access to adequate nutrition (Chapter 3), with further potential effects for other areas of child well-being (e.g. physical health).

  3. C3. Community and physical environment, which covers a number of factors relating to the communities, neighbourhoods, built environments, and physical settings in which children grow up. This includes the quality of the physical environmental and the extent to which children’s physical environments are “health-promoting”, meaning things like children’s access to green spaces and freedom from pollution, as well as exposure to crime and other environmental risks. Also included here is children’s access to local cultural and learning services/facilities (e.g. public libraries) and play and leisure services/facilities (e.g. sports and recreation facilities), plus community-provided material and social supports (e.g. food banks, voluntary family and parenting support services) The factors included in this area are relevant to many areas of children’s well-being. Physical environment quality has strong and direct links to children’s physical health (Chapter 4), for instance, while access to community and neighbourhood quality has links to various areas of well-being. One example is socio-emotional well-being: children’s involvement in social activities contributes strongly to the formation of a social identity and, to this end, it is essential that they have access to safe collective play and recreation spaces in their community or neighbourhood (Chapter 5).

The framework’s fourth and final level (Level D) covers public policies for child well-being. As emphasised under Principle 6 (“Measurement should include child-related public policies”), public policy can and does influence children’s lives and well-being outcomes, sometimes in crucial ways. Often operating through children’s activities and environments, policies can influence children’s outcomes by strengthening the resources available to children and families, by shaping opportunities, and by regulating activities and behaviours, among other functions.

The framework focuses on child-relevant public policies in five areas (Figure 2.2): family policies; housing policies; health policies; education policies; and environmental policies. These are policies areas that have strong and clear links with children’s outcomes. As with the aspects covered under other levels, and in line with the framework’s principles, the specific policies covered are age-sensitive (Principle 3) and include those that are important for both children’s current and future well-being (Principle 2). Again, they are not tied directly to one specific outcome area. Indeed, policies, like outcomes, are inter-related. They can reinforce or contradict one another, with sometimes complex effects on well-being outcomes.

The five public policy areas covered in Level D are:

  1. D1. Family policies, which includes a range of public financial and service supports targeted at families and children. This includes family- or child-related financial support policies (e.g. family or child allowances and tax credits), family employment supports such as parental leave policies, family and parenting services like family counselling, and child support regulations and other policies to aim to provide financial support to children in alternative living arrangements. Childcare and out-of-school-hours service supports, covered below under D4, could also be included here. Family policies have strong and direct links to children’s material outcomes (Chapter 3), but are also important for a range of other well-being outcomes. Parental leave policies, for instance, are also important child and maternal health (Chapter 4), and possibly for children’s social and emotional outcomes (Chapter 5).

  2. D2. Housing policies, which includes both public family housing supports and housing and built environment regulations and policies. Housing supports have clear links to children’s material well-being: high housing costs not only limit the extent to which families are able to meet their children’s material housing needs, but also, through their impact on after-housing income, damage families’ abilities to provide other material goods and services for children (Chapter 3). But housing policies are also important for children’s physical health: poor quality housing in particular can negatively affect children’s physical health outcomes (Chapter 4).

  3. D3. Health policies, which covers a range of public physical and mental health policies relevant to children. Central here are policies that help shape children’s access to preventative and curative physical and mental health services. Examples include the availability (and affordability) of pre- and post-natal health services, of paediatric doctors, and of regular physical and dental health checks, as well as child and family mental health services and supports. This policy area is most closely associated with children’s physical health (Chapter 4) and social and emotional well-being (Chapter 5).

  4. D4. Education policies, which covers public policies relating to quality and availability of Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC), out-of-school-hours services, and schooling. Key policies in this area include public funding for ECEC and education, teachers/staff training and curriculum standards, educational tracking, and governance structures. This policy area is most closely linked to children’s cognitive and educational outcomes (Chapter 6), although education policies also have important links with other outcome areas, especially children’s social and emotional outcomes (Chapter 5).

  5. D5. Environmental policies, which covers environmental regulations and policies, including those that look to promote environment quality (e.g. clean air regulations). Environmental policies are most closely related to children’s physical health outcomes (Chapter 4). However, through their impact on children’s physical environment, such as their access to green spaces, environmental policies may also play an important role in children’s social and emotional outcomes.

The structure outlined above provides the skeleton of a framework for child well-being measurement. However, structure forms only one part of a measurement framework, and a further big challenge lies in developing indicators that can operationalise and populate the dimensions. In many respects, this is as important as the identification of the dimensions themselves. Indicators do not just provide measures to assess various states of well-being; they are also analytical tools that bridge the gap between a conceptual model and the empirical reality. For this very reason, indicators are part of the process of constructing meaning and giving premise to policies (Ben-Arieh and Frønes, 2011[157])

This sub-section provides an overview of the types and properties of the indicators that would, ideally, be used to populate the framework. Of course, whatever the purpose, researchers always face a number of important considerations when selecting indicators. These include, among others, the relevance, accuracy, comparability, timeliness, and interpretability of the indicator. These issues are all relevant here. However, there are also additional considerations involved when looking to select indicators of well-being generally, and child well-being specifically.

A core and central property is that indicators should be child-centred wherever possible, with the child, rather than the family or household, used as the unit of analysis. The use of child-centred indicators has become increasingly common in studies of child well-being over the past few decades. To a large extent, it is now the norm. However, data constraints and an absence of relevant data collected at the child level still sometimes prevent the use of child-centred. This is a particular issue when it comes to measuring children’s material well-being, but also effects other areas of child well-being.

A second property is that indicators should reflect contemporary childhoods and be meaningful and relevant to children growing up in OECD countries today. Each generation of children experiences a different home and community environment, which can affect their development trajectory. Today’s children are growing up in very different environments to those born only a decade or two earlier (Burns and Gottschalk, 2019[156]), including in the role of technology. It is important that indicators properly account for changes in the ways children live their lives, and can identify new or emerging risks and opportunities. One way of doing this is to ask children themselves for what is important in their lives (see below).

A third property of that indicators should, where possible and relevant, take account of children’s views and perspectives. This includes in the first instance using information on children’s own priorities and perspectives to help decide exactly what should be measured when it comes to their well-being. But it also means using children’s own voices to actually measure child well-being through, for instance, indicators built on children’s self-reported assessments. As discussed earlier under Principle 4, there are challenges involved when looking to engage children as active participants in child well-being measurement. The best approach is often to combine child-reported data with information from other sources, such as parents or teachers.

A fourth property is that indicators should, where needed, use age- (or stage-) appropriate variations in measures in order to capture what is important at each stage of childhood. One example could be measures of children’s educational attainment, which should adjust as children grow up and moving from the education system. It also means using age- (or stage-) specific indicators where necessary, even if they are not relevant to all children. An example here could be infant mortality and other measures of birth outcomes.

A fifth property is that indicators should, where relevant, reflect not just child population averages, but also distributions across the child population. They should be able to capture vertical inequalities between top and bottom performers, horizontal inequalities between groups of children (for example, by sex, by living arrangement, and by migrant background), and, where relevant, deprivations. The OECD Well-being Framework uses a similar approach when capturing well-being outcomes (OECD, 2020[3]).

Many aspects of child well-being have a strong time dimension. While most often studied through static cross-sectional measures, the ways in which children and their environments change (or not) over time can have important effects on outcomes. In some cases, it is stability (or, conversely, change) that matters. One example is residential stability, which can help promote security and continuity in children’s lives (see Chapter 3). In others, it is persistence, duration, and prolonged exposure to risky or protective factors that are important. One of the clearest examples here is income poverty, with persistent and/or repeated poverty exposure particularly damaging for children’s outcomes (see Chapter 3).

A sixth property is that indicators should, where relevant, look to capture and reflect the dynamic nature of many aspects of child well-being. Where appropriate, they should look to capture stability and change, transitions, persistence and duration, often in addition to static measures, which continue to provide important information on frequency and prevalence at a given point in time.

A seventh and final important property is that indicators should, where possible, be flexible and responsive to the needs of children from diverse backgrounds and/or in different and vulnerable positions. This includes children from socio-economically disadvantaged homes, children from social, cultural or linguistic minorities, children with disabilities, and children experiencing maltreatment, among others (OECD, 2019[61]; Frazer, Guio and Marlier, 2020[158]).

In practical terms, as far as data allow, indicators should look to use specific disaggregations to capture the well-being of children from diverse backgrounds and/or in different or vulnerable positions. Where relevant, there may also be a need to use additional circumstance- and background-appropriate variants or measures, on top of standard measures, in order to provide a better picture of the lives of children facing additional challenges. One example might be children with disabilities’ access to local learning and leisure facilities (e.g. libraries, recreation centres) and other facilities/services important for well-being.


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