5 Reasons to Love the National Survey of Children’s Health

Research BriefHealthJan 22 2019

The National Survey of Children’s Health (NSCH) is a rich source of national and state-level information about children and families, and represents an important resource for researchers, policymakers, advocates, and families for understanding the broad landscape of child well-being in the United States. The NSCH is funded and directed by the Maternal and Child Health Bureau of the Health Resources and Services Administration, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The online and paper survey is conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, using an address-based sample. The survey collects information from a parent or other knowledgeable adult.

Here are five ways the NSCH is an invaluable resource to policymakers, advocates, researchers, and others who use data to inform decision making.

1The NSCH can tell us about much more than children’s health. In fact, it covers multiple aspects of children’s well-being (social-emotional, physical, and cognitive), in the places where they live, play, and learn, and measures both developmental strengths and challenges.

Though its name emphasizes health, the NSCH includes a wide array of topics, including family interactions, school and after-school activities, and neighborhood quality, in addition to child (and parent) health and access to health care. In addition, the survey assesses not only developmental challenges (such as adversities or risky behaviors), but also developmental strengths (such as shared family activities, and youth volunteering). Thus, NSCH data provide a whole-child perspective uncommon in national surveys.

For many of the topics it covers, the NSCH is the only regular source of nationally representative data. The survey includes measures of screen time, parents’ reading with young children, the child’s social-emotional strengths, positive family interactions (such as eating meals together), and adverse experiences that can harm children’s well-being. The survey also informs an exciting pilot measure of “healthy and ready to learn” status among children ages 3 to 5.

2The NSCH provides unequalled state-level information about children.

NSCH data are available for all 50 states and the District of Columbia and are critical for states’ planning for maternal and child health services. Comprehensive state-level data resources on child well-being are scarce, so the NSCH is a vital source for tracking variability across states, at a given timepoint, and over time.[1] Because many policies that affect children (Medicaid/Children’s Health Insurance Program, education funding, tax credits) are at least partially determined at the state level, NSCH data can serve as a tool for assessing need and monitoring the outcomes associated with various policy decisions. Also, because many of the survey items have been fielded for over a decade, and have been extensively tested, communities fielding their own surveys can use them with confidence.

3The NSCH’s new data collection approach allows for continuous updating of results and comparisons over time.

As of 2016, the NSCH has been fielded annually. The annual availability of data makes it possible for users to get more frequent updates on topics of interest, and to produce more reliable results by aggregating survey samples across multiple years—especially for states with smaller populations or for sub-groups within states. In 2016, the sample included 50,212 children under age 18; the 2017 NSCH included 21,599 children.

4The NSCH supports sub-group analyses to shed light on how well-being varies according to demographic characteristics.

The design of the NSCH facilitates analyses for a variety of subgroups. It asks specific questions for each of three age groups: 0–5, 6–11, and 12–17. Information is also collected to allow for disaggregation of results by the child’s sex, race/Hispanic origin, parent education, family income, and other sociodemographic and health status characteristics.

5The data are accessible to anyone.

Access to this rich database is free of charge. A user-friendly web portal is available at childhealthdata.org, where data users can download data files and associated documentation. An interactive data query tool on the web portal allows anyone to get information on the various topics covered by the NSCH, broken down by state and sub-group—no statistical knowledge is needed! Complete microdata files are also available to researchers from the Census Bureau. Finally, the HRSA website also maintains a list of publications and presentations using the NSCH data, as well as relevant documentation for data use.

[1] In 2016, the NSCH had a significant redesign; therefore, comparisons should not be drawn across earlier years of the survey.