Penny Markham is the National Lead for Social Inclusion for Goodstart Early Learning. She takes some time to talk with KidsMatter about the implementation of Goodstart’s long term social inclusion strategy including the transformation of targeted early learning centres into integrated, community-connected services for children and families. 

Can you tell us a little about what Goodstart’s EChO program is, and why it’s important?

EChO stands for Enhancing Children’s Outcomes. It is a targeted approach within Goodstart’s Social Inclusion Strategy that builds on Goodstart’s early childhood education and care (ECEC) services. The approach uses an enhanced service delivery model to provide wrap-around intensive and sustainable resources to Goodstart early learning centres located in communities where children are more vulnerable to poor outcomes.

The EChO approach was developed in 2015 and currently operates in 30 EChO centres across Australia. EChO centres were established to meet Goodstart’s social purpose with regard to supporting children from vulnerable and marginalised groups, They aim to:

  • enhance children’s learning, development and wellbeing outcomes – especially in communication and social and emotional development

  • prepare children for a successful transition from ECEC into school

EChO centres are an important part of addressing early childhood vulnerability and disadvantage. We know from the research that children facing disadvantage stand to gain the most benefit from early learning but may not attend or may under-attend due to a range of barriers. Furthermore, many families may not know of the benefits demonstrated through research of early childhood education and may see childcare as for working parents only (Centre for Community Child Health, 2010 and Sylva et. al., 2010). Lastly, centres and staff in areas servicing our most vulnerable children and families require enhanced skills and knowledge to deliver the quality of service these communities need. This takes greater investment and resources to enable children and families to benefit.

What role do health and community professionals play in the EChO program?

Health and community professionals play a key role in EChO centres. Most importantly, speech pathologists, occupational therapists and child and family practitioners work as part of the early childhood team with and alongside early childhood educators. Through this multi-disciplinary approach, the team works together to implement key practices that are evidence-based and aimed at embedding high quality and inclusive practices in all areas of the curriculum.

Secondly, EChO centres form strong partnerships with health and community professionals in their local communities. These organisations and practitioners may provide services through co-location arrangements on site or through referrals to and from the centre as agreed with families and children.

How can families make a difference to children’s mental health?

Families have the biggest role to play in their children’s mental health. From birth, children who experience warm and caring relationships with their families learn to trust and engage with their world and the people in it. These early relationships build the foundation for every other relationship and experience each child has throughout their life. Children who know they can trust adults to respond to their needs develop the confidence and strong sense of identity that helps them form friendships and deal with difficult situations in constructive ways. These children are also likely to be more empathic and able to play cooperatively with others. Families are, in every way, their child’s first teacher!

How has EChO been able to understand and respond to the needs of families from a range of diverse backgrounds?

Engaging families who are vulnerable and from diverse backgrounds can be very complex, particularly as there may be multiple barriers, including historical factors, to their participation in early childhood services. An advantage of early learning and care services is that educators usually engage with children and families multiple times in a week. These regular contacts enable trusting relationships to be developed over time. We see time and time again, in our centres that have invested in these relationships, that families will share their aspirations as well as their concerns and experiences. Often these encounters lead to ‘warm’ referrals to other services as agreed with the family. A ‘warm’ referral from a trusted educator is more likely to be followed through because of the relationship that family has with the referrer.

Having strong partnerships with other service providers and organisations in local communities  also goes a long way to responding to the needs and aspirations of families. This includes connection to cultural groups, as well as local Elders and community leaders who can provide support and advice about how to connect. These networks are some of the ways we can create a local system of warm referrals and connection.

Providing outreach such as transport and playgroups and being seen at community events and local community venues where children and families spend time can also be the catalyst for a relationship that leads a family to a centre. Leading out to the community is an important way of overcoming the fear of ‘walking through the door’.  

How has EChO been successful in supporting at-risk children?

There are many stories of success in the EChO centres. In brief, however, EChO centres are places for children facing disadvantage to participate in engaging learning experiences, make friends, learn how to regulate big feelings, build their communication and literacy through play, build strong relationships with trusted educators and be seen as a little person with great play ideas and potential. Educators delight in talking about and celebrating everyday moments with families. Sometimes these everyday moments represent huge successes! 

Through the enhanced service model, we have seen more children enrolling in and staying at the EChO centres. Their ongoing participation is a strong indicator that the children and families have a sense of belonging. We have found that strong relationships with children lead to stronger relationships with families.

More and more parents are requesting information about children’s development and our educators, in partnership with other service providers, are now delivering more and more parent-requested evening sessions on many aspects of early childhood. Parents benefit by learning about what the educators are learning about. This is creating a shared language and shared understanding about what works for children at home and in ECEC. Consequently, our families are now sharing more and more stories about what they have been doing together with their child. These are the stories that keep us going.

For our educators, the opportunity to work with and alongside other early childhood professionals has deepened their knowledge base and strengthened their practice. They have begun to develop a much stronger sense of the part they can play, in partnership with other service providers, in changing children’s outcomes.

An evaluation of EChO over two years is about to commence and will help us understand the impact of the approach and how we can keep improving.

References:

Centre for Community Child Health (2010). Engaging Marginalised and Vulnerable Families. CCCH Policy Brief No 18. Parkville, Victoria: Centre for Community Child Health.

Sylva, K., Melhuish, E., Sammons, P., Siraj-Blatchford, I. and Taggart, B. (2010). Early Childhood Matters: Evidence from the Effective Provision of Pre-school and Primary Education. London: Routledge.