Research by Charles Sturt University (CSU) has highlighted the importance of early childhood education and care for at-risk children and families.
Dr Loraine Fordham (pictured), a researcher in the CSU School of Teacher Education and Research Institute for Professional Practice, Learning and Education (RIPPLE), conducted a two-year qualitative study of an Early Years Education Program (EYEP) conducted by the Children's Protection Society (CPS) in Melbourne for vulnerable and at-risk children and families.
"The EYEP is situated in a low-socioeconomic high-need area in north-east Melbourne and targets children and families who experience significant family stress and social disadvantage," Dr Fordham said.
"Findings from the study's report, Extending the Reach of the Early Years Education Program (EYEP:Q), can be applied to universal early childhood centres and settings.
"The study found that two of EYEP's unique elements are the supportive manner in which families gradually orientate into the program, and the approach taken to include parents in their children's education and care plans."
Dr Fordham explained that the structural features of the EYEP were above those required by national standards and included qualified staff and high staff-to-child ratios.
"These staff members provided attachment-focussed and trauma-informed care, with partnerships between educators and parents," she said.
"In addition, they used a child-centred curriculum based on the Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF), and integration with family support services, including support from infant mental health professionals."
Dr Fordham said the study suggested three implications for the wider early childhood sector when working with vulnerable children and families.
"Perhaps the most significant is for centres to engage families well, so they gain a sense of belonging which leads to fuller participation in services offered, resulting in the potential improvement in children's learning, development and wellbeing," Dr Fordham said.
"The implication from this is that it takes time to build relationships with stressed and/or disadvantaged families. A slower orientation for families to the early childhood setting is important, as is training in family-centred practices for educators in order to better equip them to be able to build respectful relationships with every family."
The study found the final element involves educators and other staff having training in attachment theory, and the effects of trauma on children's learning and development.
Staff also need to know how to design and implement a holistic curriculum and teach in a way that supports and enhances every child's capacity as a learner.