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Broadside – How children are faring in their year before school

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Hundreds of thousands of children across Australia are finishing early childhood education this year. For four and five year olds it will be a very different experience to those who’ve gone before them. Their education has been disrupted by COVID-19 at a crucial time when they should be learning new skills to support their transition to school.

Our recent survey of ECEC services reveals that many children have had their development set back, likely due to the compounding effects of COVID-19 increasing financial, social and health vulnerabilities, and the impact of missing early learning.

The survey results reveal that around two-thirds of children in services we surveyed have missed a significant amount of early learning in the year before school.

At the same time, comments from survey participants highlight the extraordinary lengths that services have gone to in order to support children and families and reveal what more could be done.

CELA will continue to draw on your insights to advocate that State and Commonwealth Governments need to:

  • Support continuity of learning for all children, by implementing a wellbeing package to train, resource and support educators to engage remotely with families, in particular families who have not re-engaged in early learning
  • Fund school readiness initiatives tailored to child need to support children to catch up – such as extra educators to provide small group and one on one support, and allied health services
  • Provide training for services to integrate school readiness activities into day to day learning
  • Ensure schools are supported to recognise and respond to the additional needs of children transitioning to school

We will also continue to focus on research and resources on these vital issues.

Summary of the impact of COVID-19 on children in their year before school

Changes in attendance

Of 117 respondents who collectively educate over 4,600 children (primarily NSW LDC and preschool services), results show us that around two-thirds of children have missed some early childhood education due to COVID-19.

The percentage of children missing early learning in the year before school ranged from all children in 15 percent of services to less than 10 percent in 10 percent of services. These figures are likely representative of the experience of children across VIC, NSW and parts of QLD.

The number of days of learning missed per child varies tremendously, with children missing on average 26 days of early learning, and a smaller number missing more than 30 days of early learning.

Many children will not attend 600 hours of preschool this year

Our survey results reveal that around 30% of children are unlikely to attend their 600 hours of early learning in the year before school.

Results showed that on average around 10% of children in their year before school were leaving long daycare or reducing days upon the resumption of fees, which was marginally less than the 11% of children of other ages leaving or reducing days.

Differences between long daycare and preschool

There are significant differences between long daycare and preschool in the proportion of children missing early childhood education due to COVID-19. Preschool children are more likely to miss out on their 600 hours than children attending long daycare. This may be  because preschool children are often enrolled for 600 hours maximum, whereas children in long day care settings may be enrolled for 3 or more days a week and can often take additional days.

 

Long daycare

Preschool

% children missing ECEC due to COVID-19

57%

74%

Average days of learning lost

27 days (0-90 days)

23 days (0-150 days)

Median days of early learning lost

20 days

20 days

% children unlikely to attend 600 hours

24%

34%

Impact on Children’s Development

Nearly half of all services surveyed have seen an impact on children’s development as a result of missing early learning.  The impacts are centred in all five AEDC domains. The analysis below draws on the survey results, with quotes from service providers in italics.

Emotional maturity

A primary concern shared by many services is that the relationship between children and educators is less stable following a period of absence. This can be further challenged by children’s increased anxiety and lower levels of confidence and resilience. Whilst children who have maintained their attendance at services have fared better, they too are often struggling to cope with the return to a large group setting, having been in small groups during the peak of COVID-19 in New South Wales.

“The changing nature of attendance during COVID 19 has resulted in unpredictable attendance and the breakdown of social connections between children and trusted educators.”

Social learning

Social issues are manifesting themselves in a variety of ways with many children needing to start again – learning to say goodbye to family members, rebuilding friendships, learning how to play in groups and to share and take turns. These are skills that are usually mastered by now but need to be relearnt given absence from services. This means other skills cannot yet be a focus.

“Some children are finding it hard to settle back into routines and group situations. Social interactions have changed – this can lead to a delayed ability to share, take turns and consider the feelings of others.”

Physical Wellbeing, Communication and Language and Cognitive skills

Many educators raised heightened levels of concern for children who have not been able to access allied health services such as occupational therapy, speech therapy and optometrists. Children with existing vulnerabilities were the most likely to fall significantly behind, and lose the gains they have made in preschool.

“Children from CALD backgrounds and/or who have learning needs were impacted most.  The progress that these children made prior to COVID-19 were nullified, the children were back at their previous level.”

“All children with additional needs have been affected by the lack of therapy that has been accessed over this period.”

Many educators also raise concerns about children’s fine and gross motor skills, such as their capacity to sit still, to hold a pencil or manipulate fine objects.

“The progression of social, emotional and cognitive skills in many of the children at our service are significantly lower than children at this time last year.  Some children are still developing their core and fine motor skills and have not yet demonstrated sitting, pencil grip and manipulative skills that are typically observed at this time of year.”

How services are helping children to prepare for school

Most services identified a wide range of strategies to support children to get ready for school. These centred around supporting children learning remotely and setting goals for children upon their return. It is important to note services implemented some but not all of these strategies. Services would benefit from implementing multiple strategies, for example phone calls, remote video learning and remote learning packs during closures, but this has significant resourcing implications.

Educators report that remote learning had a mixed effect. Some families were able to readily engage whilst others struggled, with online learning proving difficult for some cohorts. There is a need for a clearer evidence base to reveal what types of remote learning works for which cohorts of children. A variety of approaches were undertaken for keeping in touch with families, from making resources available to active outreach.

“We kept in contact with families throughout the 8 weeks. We provided information on the types of activities that we undertake each week, particularly the skills that support a successful transition to school, so that families could provide similar experiences when the time suited them, or in union with our classroom. We had materials and resources available at the service ready for collection by families if they were unable to provide them for their child at home. We used social media to keep in touch and provided educational links and activities if families were looking for quality, meaningful experiences to provide, or do with their child.”

“For those children whose parents were at home and able to intentionally spend rich quality time with them, and engage with our online learning suggestions, it has been lovely to see the learning relationship growing. However, for those whose parents were trying to navigate working from home with having their children at home, it has been a very different experience.”

Services have sought to understand and support families during the COVID-19 experience, including to reflect and build on the learning children have undertaken at home.

For some services, the capacity to engage additional staff has supported children to more readily engage in small groups, rebuild friendships and practice social skills. This has included allied health professionals to support children with additional needs, and additional educators to engage children in small group work. Other services have trained their educators to undertake developmental assessments and to equip them with ideas and skills to integrate school readiness activities in day to day practice.

Looking ahead

The current COVID-19 resurgence in Victoria poses significant challenges for early learning in the state and potential for further resurgences across the country. Services may cycle in and out of remote learning for some time yet, so it is vital that educators have appropriate training and resourcing to respond to these different demands.

CELA is drawing on the insights our members gave us through our survey and working with government departments to increase understanding and investment in what works, to ensure all children can thrive in their year before school. This includes ensuring that services are supported to understand how to integrate school readiness into everyday activities and that sufficient resources are available to assist children who have fallen behind in this period.

 We are concerned that some children did not partake in remote learning and have yet to return to services. More needs to be done to ensure child wellbeing as Australia cycles through the impacts of COVID-19.

CELA is also seeking to understand how the impact of COVID-19 on children’s development can be supported as part of the transition to school process, including what changes may be needed in the first year of school.

CELA has a range of member resources and courses available to help as you negotiate these challenging times.

 

 

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