Shelley Fallowfield from Relationships Australia Victoria (RAV) has worked supporting parents and their children for the past 20 years. She talks to KidsMatter about her current role, co-ordinating the early matters program at RAV. The early matters program offers a suite of services to engage parents and their children at three critical transition points - birth, kinder to school, and primary school to secondary school.

Relationships Australia Victoria has seen some wonderful results in the implementation of primary prevention programs. Can you outline what the programs are and what they seek to achieve?

early matters is a service that RAV developed in 2015 that aims to promote and strengthen healthy relationships, to prevent families entering a stress pathway. early matters encompasses both primary prevention and early intervention responses for parents and children. Using a whole-of-population approach, the service aims to support parents and children, through parent and child group programs facilitated in universal services, and engages with families who may require extra support through a home visiting or outreach service. 

The programs works with families at three critical transition points:

  • prior to the birth of their first child 
  • when kindergarten children are preparing for and transitioning to primary school
  • when children in middle to late primary school are preparing to transition to secondary school.

Our group programs for children and parents are delivered in community health centres, kindergartens, schools, hospitals and local community hubs. Such programs include:

  • ATTUNE: A parenting program that offers practical skills and coaching for good emotional and relationship health once a baby is born. It seeks to support parents experiencing parenting challenges and provides practical steps to assist them in their new role as parents.
  • Confident Kinder Kids: A whole-of-school early intervention program for kindergarten and children in the foundation years of school, which aims to increase emotional awareness and regulation, enhance interpersonal and social skills, and promote confidence and resilience.
  • I like, like you UP: A healthy, close relationships program for primary schools that uses a whole-of-school approach to promote the connection between healthy relationships, and emotional health and wellbeing.
  • Tuning in to Kids: An evidence-based parenting program developed by Melbourne University’s Mindful Centre, focusing on the emotional connection between parents and children.

Families requiring extra support, who are identified through our educative programs and local support services such as Maternal Child Health Centres, are also supported through our home visiting or outreach service. This is a short-term intervention for families, which seeks to promote positive children’s mental health, and parenting practices that enhance family relationships. It looks to develop protective factors that support resilience and balance a child’s specific risk factors.

What sort of results have you seen?  How have you measured these outcomes? 

early matters was comprehensively reviewed with an evaluation report released in 2016, and the service continues to be evaluated. Across all programs within the service, clients, teachers and facilitators report substantial positive changes in the following areas:

  • parenting confidence and quality of relationship for new parents (ATTUNE)
  • improved insight, social skills and school readiness for pre-school children (Confident Kinder Kids)
  • greater understanding of self, others and relationships for primary school students transitioning to secondary school (I like, like you UP)
  • improved family relationships and wellbeing, and confidence in parenting (home visiting/outreach service).

Over 200 pre- and post-program surveys for ATTUNE show increases in confidence in building a relationship with a new baby, knowing how to care for yourself and how to support the parent-baby relationship. Eighty seven per cent of participants reported the program to be very or highly relevant to them.

After the Confident Kinder Kids program, teachers reported that they see children using the skills and strategies introduced during the course.  Over 79 per cent of teachers reported feeling confident that students will be able to develop healthier relationships with other children when they commence primary school. Parents have also reported significant positive changes in not only their children, but also themselves. 

Teachers noted that:

  • the range of literature and activities used helped students to identify emotions 
  • the skills that students practiced to help manage emotions were both powerfully demonstrated, and very easily transferred and embedded into classroom practice
  • the visual resources for parents were easily integrated into games played at mat time
  • children learnt to identify their emotions and ways to deal with them
  • the program taught children to show and talk about their emotions.

After delivering the program to nearly 1000 students, I like, like you UP, RAV’s healthy close relationships program for primary school aged children, recently gained Emerging Program Status as an evidence-based program on the Communities for Children Facilitating Partners list, with the Australian Institute of Family Studies. Children and teachers have reported strong improvements in knowledge, skills and attitudes that support good mental wellbeing and relationship health. On completion of the program, students have readily named things that they would do differently, including:

  • “Instead of rushing in and blaming myself, be an investigator of feelings.”
  • ”Tell others how I feel and what I need.”
  • “Don't talk when I am really angry - calm down.”
  • “As a result of learning these things, I will listen to my feelings more often and I will investigate other people’s feelings as well. I know I will ask for help if I have a problem.”

Can you tell us a little more about the Vietnamese playgroup?  What changes did you need to make for it to be culturally relevant for Vietnamese families?  How did you engage these families?

The early matters team were asked to support an existing playgroup by providing a Tuning into Kids program. It became evident, however, that many of these families were not ready for this program and required more foundation work to be completed before the program was delivered.  

We tailored our Confident Kinder Kids program to include both parents and children. This supported the parents to understand emotions and feelings, as well as how they could support their children with their emotions and feelings. We engaged an interpreter to support us in reading emotion-based books, singing songs and undertaking activities, with both parents and children participating.  Perhaps the most significant work we did was spending time with families, including playing with children and talking to parents about parenting, in an informal setting where trust and confidence in what we were doing could be built.

We regularly sought guidance, feedback and support from the playgroup’s facilitators, to ensure what we provided was culturally relevant and appropriate.  We also worked collaboratively with the facilitators to keep them informed of our work, so they could continue to monitor and support the families once our program was finished.  

After a period of time, we were able to offer specific workshops for parents, where they could discuss parenting issues and challenges as a group and individually. It also enabled us to provide and support referrals to other services, where required, including to early intervention, family violence, and sexual assault support services. Each week of the program, we joined in a shared lunch that was prepared by the participants. We also participated in excursions and provided food to support special occasions. The early matters service also offered our home visiting service to any families seeking extra support.  

How does the program work within an education setting?  What tips do you have for health and community professionals who wish to engage with early childhood services or schools to enhance their work? 

A whole-of-school approach addresses social and wellbeing issues by forging strong partnerships between community agencies, schools and families. Our early intervention work is primarily concerned with the relationship between school, home and the community. This approach provides a more integrated support service to connect schools, families and communities and thereby helps to identify and prevent unhealthy relationships, family violence and mental health issues.

early matters strengthens the relationship between staff and students by integrating and applying attitudes that promote respectful and positive relationships. 

Whole-of-population programs in universal services are ideally delivered with support from program facilitators. This helps to resource services to maximise positive outcomes for children and parents in an ongoing way. This is achieved by:

  • attuning to the service's culture and environment and actively engaging staff
  • delivering the content curriculum alongside the staff
  • being attuned to the social and wellbeing needs of children and parents in the groups
  • being available to the service to act as a referral source for children, young people and their families
  • contributing to the creation of an environment conducive to promoting psycho-social competence and wellbeing. This may occur through consultation with early matters on school welfare and discipline policies and procedures.

In delivering a range of services, RAV has learnt the importance of a collaborative continuum of care approach, where our preventative programs are well-connected to our early intervention and secondary services. 

Our whole-of-school approach enables us to support not only the children and families we work with, but also teaching staff. We can be highly visible, so that families know who we are and what we are doing. It’s not uncommon for families to be wary, scared or concerned about who and what people are doing in their children’s kindergartens or schools, however once families have come to know us, we have had great responses.  

We have undertaken a range of activities to support families to get involved at their children’s school, when they might not normally do so. These have included activities to celebrate National Families Week, such as a disco, sausage sizzle, art competition, and breakfast club.

For more information on RAV’s early matters program, visit www.rav.org.au/earlymatters or email earlymatters@rav.org.au.