Where resilience begins
"We're really changing society's view that early childhood [learning] is babysitting. It's not. It is where the real learning happens."
Paul Chandler, executive director, Early Start
When the latest group of children arrived in Kindergarten after leaving Bellambi Point Community Preschool, their teacher was surprised – and delighted.
They were, the teacher reported, the best prepared for school of any cohort in memory. The four and five year olds could sit still, concentrate and follow instructions. They contributed happily in class time.
Bellambi, just north of Wollongong, is an area of concentrated disadvantage, with high unemployment and social problems; at one stage 85 per cent of the children at the preschool had some form of diagnosed communication difficulty.
Bill Feld, the director of Big Fat Smile, the organisation that operates the preschool, attributes the change to Bellambi’s participation in a pilot program within Early Start, a wider initiative at the University of Wollongong.
The program has given the children and their teachers access to innovative learning technologies and forged closer bonds between the preschool and parents, supporting the extension of preschool learning into the children’s homes.
“The impact is more than just the introduction of a world of information,” Mr Feld says. “It’s about drawing the families in.”
Fathers in particular now spend more time at the centre, sitting alongside their children as as they group items, solve puzzles and play musical notes on a responsive, visually appealing console or smart table.
The children gather round an interactive smart board for their group time. It looks like a large television set but the programming – which relates as much as possible to the children’s interests – increasingly will come not only from the internet but via a network linking an eventual 38 Early Start Engagement centres, all in rural and regional areas.
Many parents have smartphone or tablet devices, and teachers share links for online materials related to books they have read to the children; it provides powerful continuity between the preschool and home, where many of the parents struggle with literacy.
And when parents spend time in the centre, it gives staff the opportunity to model positive interactions with children and offer new strategies for use at home.
Engagement centres are a key element of the $44 million Early Start project. Australia’s first large-scale response to evidence that has been emerging for three decades: that early learning, from infancy through the preschool years, is critical not just to whether children succeed educationally but also to the foundation of their later lives – their mental health and wellbeing, their relationships, and their ability to live steadily in the community.
The project, funded by the Commonwealth Government with significant contributions from the Abbott Foundation and the University of Wollongong, will also support early childhood teacher training and research and create a children’s discovery space.
Professor Paul Chandler, Early Start executive director, describes it as “a social transformation project looking at children in the context of their family, based on the notion of if you can get into a child’s life early then you not only allow that person to be the best they can be but you can also prevent a lot of issues down the track. A large number of mental health issues have had their genesis in the very early years of life.”
Exposure to stimulating and nurturing environments and relationships as a baby and toddler sets the child’s development on a different course, says Professor Chandler. “If you don’t have a rich learning environment the neural pathways in your brain don’t fire.
“Physiologically you’re a different entity by the time you go to school, depending on whether a book’s been opened and read to you. Neural function is all sewn up by eight years of age.
“It’s really sobering stuff.”
He says the ability to self-regulate – mastering anger and fear, and delaying gratification when necessary – and the ability to interpret and empathise with other people’s emotions, must be established in the toddler years if children are to develop to their full potential.
“It’s about how they get on with people, how they negotiate, how they learn, and those things all link clearly to mental health,” Professor Chandler says.
Supporting early childhood development is, he says, a social compact: “If you want a highly educated and socially intact and healthy country, then investment in early years of life is critical to that.
“We want to have the early childhood sector equipped with the best possible learning and professional opportunities. We’re really changing society’s view that early childhood is babysitting. It’s not. It is where the real learning happens.”