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Why vulnerable children need us more than ever

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“We began 2020 in an environment never experienced before with Australia in the grips of fire, drought and later flood. Before many communities had time to recover, we found ourselves thrust into a pandemic.

“Throughout the environmental crises communities drew together, mobilising efforts and helping each other, and early educators were a vital part of this response. In the midst of this pandemic, the support that early educators offer to vulnerable families has been deemed essential.”
Michele Carnegie, CELA CEO

Amplify explores why ECEC is more vital than ever for vulnerable and disadvantaged children, and shares how the sector can best connect with vulnerable families during this challenging time.


Vital support for the whole family

We know 0-5 is a time of the greatest brain development so we need to do all we can to maximise children’s learning in this time. It is also the time when we need to identify and respond to developmental delays – to provide the services like occupational therapy and speech pathology that support children to play, learn and interact with other children, and to progress throughout their education.

“Early education and care provide a routine and a sense of normality in what might be a fractious period in a child’s life,” says Megan O’Connell, CELA’s policy advisor. “It also provides parents with time to tend to other matters – to work, to seek medical care, emotional and financial support and to tend to other older aged children.”

In late 2019, the New South Wales Council of Social Service (NCOSS) released mapping of economic disadvantage in New South Wales. The report, and accompanying maps, provides a high level of insight into how families are tracking across the state.

The report shows that overall around 13% of the population are living below the poverty line.

Shockingly, children are the most likely age group to be living in poverty with nearly one in five children aged under 14 living in poverty.

Lower socio-economic children already attend ECEC and preschool at a lower rate than their more advantaged peers. We also know that attending preschool makes a significant difference in school readiness, so it is incredibly important that vulnerable and disadvantaged children can continue to access education and care at this time.


Increased economic and domestic hardship for families across Australia

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, around 8 per cent of adult Australians, or more than 1.6 million people, appear to have lost their incomes in the first week of the total COVID-19 lockdown. (via ABC news)

The economic impact of COVID-19 will create additional stresses for many families. Families already struggling will find it even more difficult to manage with added financial strain – some will struggle to keep a roof over their heads, and to keep their families fed.

We know key risk factors for child abuse include families socially isolating. In this time of forced isolation, and with minimal face to face interaction with support services, the risks of child maltreatment are increased.

A recent survey by domestic and family violence service Women’s Safety NSW, showed a significant increase in numbers of women reaching out through domestic violence hotlines over the past few weeks.

“What we’re observing is a ramping up on each indicator”, says Hayley Foster, Women’s Safety NSW chief executive officer. “Not only are we seeing increased client numbers in more locations, we’re also seeing instances where the COVID-19 pandemic is contributing to more extreme violence and abuse as well as cases where violence is erupting in relationships for the first time.”


Remote learning must be tailored to individual families

Remote and online learning is already a reality in many states. However, not all families have the resources to provide children with a rich home learning environment, despite their desire to do so. We know some families don’t have books in the home for children to read, while some parents have limited ability to read to children.

Access to devices and the internet is also part of the problem. If children can’t access these tools their learning will be far less interactive and they may struggle to keep up. Even with the right tools, if children do not have a quiet place to learn at home, and parents that are able to support and monitor their learning, their capacity to learn will be limited. This is particularly the case for younger children who are likely to need more parent support to follow instructions and stay on track.

These differences are part of the reason why remote learning can increase the gap between vulnerable and advantaged children. However, it’s not just vulnerable children who are impacted here – it is a juggle for many parents to try and support children’s learning whilst working from home, or being handed the role of home teacher on top of their other household duties.

“Some children will continue to flourish without early education,” says CELA policy advisor Megan O’Connell. “For others, missing out on six months of early education, particularly preschool, could mean they start school further behind their peers. Depending on the duration of the COVID-19 related isolation we may see more children repeating preschool in order to develop those vital social and emotional skills they need to cope in the more independent school environment.”


What can we do to help?

“Educators know their families and children well and show incredible dedication to supporting their needs and providing a safe and trusted place for families,” says Michele Carnegie, CELA CEO. “These families need our early education services now more than ever.”

At Forbes Preschool in the central west of NSW, the team started their remote program at the end of Term 1. Like many rural towns, Forbes’s population work largely in the area of agriculture, forestry and fishing, with the livelihoods of a significant number of families in the community affected by drought. Director Amy Shine oversees a large team of educators who teach 180 children, over 50% of whom come from vulnerable backgrounds.

To kick things off, the team started uploading a story time, singing or an activity to the preschool’s Facebook page every day. To maintain community involvement and familiarity, some of the centre’s kinder teachers feature, along with a local principal, a local singer, the Mayor and other community people who are connected to the preschool.

Amy Shine reads a book for the preschool’s isolating children

A note was sent home last term with ideas and simple activities that families can do together, using items such as pegs which can be found around any home.

Next week we will call and touch base with every family and see how we can help them while at home,” says Amy. “We are also very mindful of our play based philosophy and encouraging families to ‘be’ and to feel safe, with no pressure to be ‘teaching’ their preschool aged child.”

The town’s CWA ladies auxiliary made library bags and St Vincent De Paul donated lots of books so we that the centre could send everyone home a bag of books to keep.

“It was lovely that both organisations reached out to us,” shares Amy. “They can no longer meet and they were feeling isolated, so this has helped them to stay connected. Now they are making us a lot of dolls clothes.”

 

There are many ways that educators can reach out and stay connected to vulnerable and disadvantaged children during this time, CELA CEO Michele Carnegie shared the following ideas:

Re-engage families who have disconnected

  • Connect with families who have not been attending and work together on re-engaging the children with the service – explaining that early education is now free for a period of time and can be done remotely may help to bring some disadvantaged families back.

Reach out in a way that works best for each family

  • Where families are not re-engaging, stay in contact via phone or letter or drop home resource packs off at the house.
  • Where technology is available, share regular virtual remote learning and engagement via online platforms, providing the educational, practical and emotional support for at risk families in isolation.
  • Where technology or access to learning platforms is not possible, phone or FaceTime may be an option.

Maintain support networks

  • Stay in contact and work with other support services that the family may be engaging with in order to maintain the coordinated support that families need.

Work on making the invisible visible.

  • Some families may be very difficult to reach. Making regular attempts to reach out to families shows that you care and is likely to result in an opportunity to reconnect and re-engaging children in your service.

CELA has been advocating to the government to create an immediate task force to address the needs of children who are no longer attending early education services. We share a deep concern about vulnerable families and how self-isolation is putting additional pressure on families – who is watching?

This is still under discussion, but it is pleasing to see vulnerable children listed as a priority category for early learning in the Early Childhood Education and Care Relief Package.


You might like this CELA training session

  • CHCPRT001 – Identify & Respond to Children and Young People at Risk (Webinar 3 Part Series) – NESA Registered PD FIND OUT MORE

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