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Why early intervention is vital in the first five years

Goodstart centres

When it comes to shaping young minds, the old adage “it takes a village to raise a child” reigns true.

When it comes to infants and young children, who have experienced trauma – it is absolutely critical.

June is Infant Mental Health Awareness Week, an important time to raise awareness of early childhood trauma.

At Goodstart, it is a year-long, everyday priority, to ensure the best possible learning, development and wellbeing outcomes of all children, including the most vulnerable.

To highlight the importance of infant mental health, we interviewed Goodstart’s Child and Family Service National Manager, Alma-Jane O'Donnell.

Alma supports the delivery of Goodstart’s universal practises and targeted interventions aimed at enhancing children’s social and emotional development from birth to school age – particularly for children who have experienced trauma.

Firstly, can you tell us about the importance of the focus Infant Meant Health week?

We are seeing great strides in Australia being made about the importance of early intervention, following the release of the 2020 Australian Mental Health Productivity Commission Inquiry report. It calls for the strengthening of early childhood educator’s skills to meet the needs of children’s social and emotional development from birth to three years.

Unfortunately, though, we are at a tipping point with our children who have experienced trauma – where we are increasingly seeing more and more children who have experienced trauma and whose mental health has been compromised. This is also relevant in data showing a significant increase nationally, in child protection notifications.

We’ve seen many families that were coping before COVID-19, and the toll of COVID has added additional anxiety and stress and there are starting to break down.

It is important now that we focus as a nation, about what more we can do to support these children.

What are signs of child who has experienced trauma?

There are many, but often these are the children they are displaying quite volatile behaviours like breaking windows, throwing chairs, hurting themselves.

It’s devastating to witness and sadly, across the community, trauma-induced behaviours are misunderstood.
You will hear people say that child isn’t to play or be near my child or that child shouldn’t be attended early learning with my child.

Sadly, this child is just like any other child but has had a tougher upbringing and the trauma has affected the development of the child, in particular their ability to regulate.

This is where we can step in to support them at Goodstsart with targeted support programs.

Tell us about what Goodstart is doing to support infant’s mental health?

There are many ways through our everyday high quality practices and interactions with children, and we also have an effective and targeted program that supports children who have experienced significant trauma. This be-spoke, child-centred Intensive Individual Support Plan addresses the unique needs of each child who have experienced trauma and at risk of poor learning, development and wellbeing outcomes.

This program supports educators to develop a greater understanding of the child building mutual confidence and trust between the child and their educator. 

We’re really proud of its evaluation by The University of Adelaide that showed the program was effective in increasing children’s ability to name their emotions, improving language skills, and increasing their capacity to participate in learning experiences, and that they demonstrated more empathy toward their peers.

Tell us more about how the Intensive Individual Support Plan has been applied?

Goodstart’s Intensive Individual Support Plans have supported more than 250 children attending Goodstart centres. The approach involves an educator to work on-on-one, with a child under the guidance of a child and family practitioner, using trauma-informed and gradient attachment-based practices.

The 12-week Intensive Support Plan focuses on helping each child feel a strong sense of belonging, by experiencing a warm and responsive relationship. With this foundation in place, they thrive because they feel safe, nurtured, and valued, leading to better learning outcomes.

Why is addressing trauma important to a young child?

Research tells us the earlier we can intervene, better life long outcomes will be achieved for children who have experienced trauma.

Due to COVID-19 and other recent events, are you seeing more children who have experienced trauma?

Absolutely. Our social inclusion help desk team is currently processing about three referrals a week from our centre network, whereas in comparison to last year, it would have been three referrals a month. These referrals come from our centres as well as external agencies  who are seeking to support the child to access early learning. Our team assists in placing the child at the right centre and with the right support around them.

We are seeing more family break downs and more cases of children from child protection, children being removed from their homes and more child placed in residential care.

We are ready to respond to support these children, to ensure they get the support they need.

What is the role of early learning in helping these children?

Early learning, high quality early learning environments that is, can provide a safe and nurturing environment for these children – we can provide the little ones with what they need.

Through skilled educators, we can support them to trust and experience a loving and caring relationship. Some of the ways we can do this is through educator relationships and providing a safe and predictable routine.

Recently Alma had an international paper published about the role of early learning. Take a look here.

Goodstart’s Intensive Individual Support Plan is changing the life trajectory of children just like four-year-old Harry*.

Harry’s upbringing has been chaotic — marked by a family home life of domestic violence at the hands of his father. Living in constant fear and in order to cope, he learnt to trust no-one.

After his father was jailed, his mother and siblings received the support of a refuge and Harry was referred to a local Goodstart centre. During Harry’s Kindergarten orientation, the centre team observed several trauma behaviours and applied for additional inclusion support — funded by Goodstart. Goodstart’s 12-week Intensive Individual Support Plan was quickly implemented to ensure Harry got the support he needed ahead of school. At the same time, educators received trauma training to equip them with strategies to respond to Harry’s behaviour cues and needs.

Within weeks of starting at the centre, the positive impact the dedicated out-of-ratio educator, Jane, and the intensive plan was having on Harry’s development, was visible.

Jane discovered Harry’s love of sensory play and started incorporating it into learning activities. Harry learned to trust Jane and his fears reduced visibly within weeks. By week three, Harry, had made a friend and started to sit near other children.

By week 7, much progress had been made but, his life was thrown into chaos with news of his father being released from jail, potentially placing his mother’s life at risk. The family was relocated and by working with Child Protection services, Goodstart was able to continue supporting Harry at a new Goodstart centre. Harry’s Intensive Individual Support Plan continued, and he is now engaging well with other children in small groups.

Harry has had no escalations in behaviours, and his confidence and communication skills have improved dramatically.

Because of this support, his mother can now undertake further study to gain employment and improve the family’s financial and living conditions.

* To protect the child and family’s identity, the child’s name has been changed.
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