Behavioural insights case study: ensuring children get the right support

This project used behavioural insights to support the protection of vulnerable children.

In public policy some of the areas with the greatest possible impact are also those with the most difficult problems. Making progress on complex problems generally requires:

  • Behaviour change by a group of individuals.
  • Efforts from multiple stakeholders, often with different opinions about how these problems should be solved.
  • Intricate interdependencies, spanning across work areas and accountabilities.

The protection of vulnerable children is a complex problem with multiple stakeholders. The Child Protection Reporter Support project is helping to tackle this issue through a collaborative interdepartmental project and by using a behavioural insights approach to understand the problem.

The problem

Demand within the Child Protection system has grown significantly over the last decade.

The education sector is a particularly important stakeholder. Teachers and other school staff interact with children regularly and are often the first to notice if a child is at risk or needs support.

This project sought to better understand the decision making process of professionals from the education sector, Child Protection Intake and Child FIRST lead agencies for identification of whether a child is in need of support or protection and appropriate response.

Project objectives

  1. Help children and families receive the right support at the right time.
  2. Support Child Protection, Child FIRST and education professionals to use their areas of expertise in a coordinated way to meet the needs of children and families.

What we found


Data is an important tool for policy makers. It can give clear indications of inputs, outputs and outcomes. But quantitative data alone cannot explain why people are behaving in a certain way. Field-based research enables us to examine the daily experiences of professionals, and how small details that are not often incorporated into traditional policy making can produce different outcomes in practice. This allows us to:

  • Understand the context of a problem.
  • Observe behaviours that people may not think are important enough to mention in interviews.
  • Give frontline professionals the opportunity to contribute directly to the decision making process.

Fieldwork and observation

Qualitative research is a key input into policy making and service design. Unlike traditional consultation, observing people while they are doing a task rather than having them describe the task to you provides a more fulsome understanding of how a process really works. When we are familiar with something we often don’t comment on steps that have become second nature. We are surrounded by information and our brains automatically filter most of it out to allow us to focus on the things that we need to make a decision. It is then difficult for us to articulate these steps; we have simply put them to the back of our minds.

Approximately 180 hours of fieldwork and consultations by the cross-departmental team were conducted with Child Protection Practitioners, education professionals and Child FIRST lead agencies to understand:

  • How a child or young person’s risk is first recognised and understood.
  • How professionals respond when a child or young person is identified as at risk.
  • How supported by each other education professionals, Child Protection Practitioners and Child FIRST Practitioners feel to meet the child’s needs.

This fieldwork provided rich qualitative evidence about what possible actions would help to make the system work better.

For example, professionals reflected that they don’t always receive feedback on the results of the reports into the Child Protection system. Behavioural science literature suggests that timely feedback on a decision or action is more likely to change behaviour the next time a similar decision or action is required. We are currently considering how this feedback could be provided.

“We’re the ones seeing the kids five days a week and we have to support the child when you [Child Protection] go.”

~ Education professional

“All professional reporters should be advised of the outcome of their call.”

~ Child Protection Practitioner

What's next?

This project is now moving into its next phase. We will be able to confidently propose policy directions, knowing that impacted frontline and policy professionals have contributed to their development throughout the decision making process.


We thank our partners the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Education and Training and the frontline professionals who generously gave their time and expertise.