Early Child Development
The concept of the kindergarten as a place where children’s social, emotional, cognitive and language development could be enhanced along with their physical health and general well-being, has been widely accepted since it was first advocated by Friedrich Froebel throughout the first half of the nineteenth century. Although Australian Governments were slow to accept their responsibilities, kindergartens have been supported from shortly after the second world war. Despite research such as the Wood Green project demonstrating that high quality early childhood services profoundly improve the whole future life trajectories of children who receive them, and produce long term benefits many times greater than the cost, Governments are still reluctant to spend money on this means of improving the human capital of the nation.
In past years advocacy for kindergartens came primarily from the public health movement. The role was seen as enhancing the total development of the child. In recent public debate, however, the emphasis has shifted towards the early education aspect, as demonstrated by improved levels of literacy and numeracy. It is important, however, not to assume that gains in literacy and numeracy are the only, or even the most important, benchmarks of children’s developmental progress.
The past decade has seen many examples of innovative federal and state government policy in early childhood development (ECD). These include: Investing in the Early Years: A National Early Childhood Development Strategy (COAG); the Stronger Families and Communities Strategy : national agenda for early childhood; Communities for Children; the National Quality Framework for Early Childhood Education and Care; and the Early Years Learning Framework. In addition, there is a commitment to introduce universal access to preschool, a new perspective on prevention of child abuse entitled the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children 2009-2020, ongoing funding for The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC) and further funding for the Australian Early Developmental Index (AEDI).
In Victoria, the Department of Education has been retitled the Department for Education and Early Childhood Development (DEECD), the Minister for Early Children retitled the Minister for Children and Early Childhood Development. The Victorian Children’s Council provides ongoing policy advice to the Premier and Ministers regarding child and family issues, and there are numerous examples of policy and administrative arrangements signifying that the state government understands the importance of early childhood and a population prevention agenda.
The Creswick Foundation, through its support for prominent overseas visitors to come to Australia, has made a significant contribution by supporting the efforts of the Centre for Community Child Health (CCCH) to bring science and expertise to these policy and program developments.
The initial visits by Professor Jack Shonkoff and Professor Neal Halfon helped raise awareness about the importance of Early Childhood Development. In a subsequent visit Professor Clyde Hertzman noted that mental health correlated quite strongly with general child developmental factors and that the EDI could be regarded as a proxy measure of mental health, especially the social/emotional subscale. He asked,
• “Is a community based approach justified for mental health issues?” “Yes, because whole population interventions influence vulnerable children at all strata, not just the high-risk strata”.
• “Is there data?” “Yes. There is Canadian data which can be extrapolated to Australia. There is international comparative data. And there is emerging data from studies here undertaken by Dr Sharon Goldfeld and others using an Australian adaptation of the EDI”.
• “What can you say to Government?” “There is a need for a National Children’s Agenda, with funding for State programs that comply with the national agenda”. There is clear evidence for the effectiveness of some interventions which will have positive economic benefits for the whole country in the years to come.
Naomi Eisenstadt, Director of the Sure Start Program, visited Melbourne in 2005 to spread the message about the importance of community-based centres for young children and families. The basis of the program is good quality three and four year old kindergarten teaching delivered locally with family social support, integrated where necessary with child care for working parents. This ensures that children have maximum opportunity for language and cognitive stimulation in a supportive healthy environment at a critical stage in their development. It also emphasises family support in terms of improved parenting and measures to overcome poverty and unemployment.
The message was very clear. Money spent on pre-school child development makes a profound difference to the whole life progress of individuals. So convincing is the evidence that the British government embarked upon a five year plan to build 3500 Sure Start centres in local communities throughout the UK. The expenditure on the program that year alone was three and a half thousand million pounds sterling (A$7.8 billion).
Of course, being correct is not enough. You also have to be believed passionately enough for the program to be implemented. Whilst it had happened in Great Britain it doesn’t mean that it will necessarily happen here. Professor Gilliam alerted Australians to the importance of strategic communication and framing the research findings in ways that enhance likelihood of acceptance. Professor Kahn added his perspective on measuring and improving the impact of community-based services so as to further convince authorities of their importance. Thus, advocacy must put forward a coherent, believable thesis backed up by a scientifically-sound evidence base, a cost-benefit analysis that shows not only the immediate benefit but sustained long-term gains which far outweigh the costs, and a presentation ‘story’ which makes the proposition appealing to the public.
Professor Frank Oberklaid’s University of Melbourne Centre for Community Child Health based at the Royal Children’s Hospital has been following this pathway for more than a decade. Their series of visits by eminent overseas specialists has not only highlighted the abovementioned logic but, more importantly, has engaged important decision-makers and political leaders at State and Federal levels in the evolving dialogue. This has been extremely influential in promoting the governmental initiatives mentioned in the third paragraph of this paper. As well as successfully advocating new policy initiatives, the CCCH has actively researched the processes, finding tools to measure the current (and future) developmental status of the child population, finding effective ways in the community health arena to achieve developmental gains, and greater insight about influential factors within the Australian social context.
A key member of the CCCH team has been Associate Professor Sharon Goldfeld, who has introduced the Australian Early Development Index, a valid and reliable screening instrument for the whole population appraisal of the developmental progress of pre-school children whereby appropriate enrichment interventions may be targeted to children in need. The federal government has supported the nationwide implementation of the screening and is encouraging improvements in service provision for children in need. The ongoing research is looking at the effectiveness of interventions and at the social determinants. Professor Goldfeld described her work in presentations at the 2013 MHYFVic Annual General Meeting and at the University of Melbourne Vera Scantlebury Brown Memorial Lecture.
Her presentation began with the proposition that healthy brain development is a pre-requisite for future health and wellbeing, and that the early phases are crucial. Plasticity of the brain decreases over time and brain circuits stabilise, so it is much harder to alter later. Health economists calculate that the return on investment in human capital in the early years is greater than at any other time in the lifespan, and that the returns far outweigh the investment.
Similarly, adverse childhood life events may have a long-lasting effect. Psychosocial factors impact upon health through recurrent stress. An index of health and social problems shows a high correlation with social inequality. This is seen within countries and between countries. Disadvantaged children have higher rates of social, emotional, communication and literacy problems, which foreshadow a lifetime of continuing disadvantage.
It is possible to make a difference. High quality early childhood education and care by well-trained staff produces greater progress. To make a population difference will require more equitable use of universal health and educational services. Targeting only the poorly performing students or the lower socio-economic students will miss the majority of students in need. Intervention must be universal but with a scale and intensity proportionate to need.
The presentation closed with an account of the trial programs being implemented in the western metropolitan region. The interventions, like those of the ‘Sure Start’ program in the UK, will need to address not only the enrichment of the children’s pre-school programs but also the family functioning and social factors. Research is needed to identify the most effective interventions and also their cost-effectiveness to determine the best practice model for universal implementation. MHYFVic supports the concepts of universal screening and public health universal service delivery and endorses the CCCH evidence-based approach to formulating the best practice model. Further steps in this MHYFVic Project aim to incorporate the best practice model as a policy for advocacy for implementation by government.
HISTORY CORNER: 270 BC
The agendas of education and asylum seekers are undergoing re-calibration in 2014. At the centre of these debates is the conception of what a child is and how best a child should be helped to become a responsible member of the adult community.
Both Plato and Aristotle rejected the previous idea that children were small adults. Aristotle’s views are a thorough going manifesto about the place adults hold in the development of the next generation of community members.
There are a number of key precepts. Firstly, the aim for an adult is to be happy; children cannot be happy as they are subject to desires that need educating. Secondly, it is the responsibility of adults to choose educational games and contexts to appropriately enable learning of how to manage such desires in a social context (he wrote of children being trained in virtuous conduct). Thirdly, the training of desires is for the purpose of developing intellect. Fourthly, the training of the body is for the development of the soul. In this sense, learning is painful.
Overarching these ideas is the observation that the good is simple, but the presentation of bad is manifold. Adults need to make wise choices in educating children. That which is possible and appropriate for adults is not so for children for whom the possible and appropriate is for the sake of what they are capable of becoming.
The means of education can be stories and games. These ought to be clear imitations of occupations of later life. Children cannot reason like adults, but they can imitate and, thereby, learn what is appropriate and possible. Educators in determining which stories and games are taught serve to establish and maintain the public good. For Aristotle education in music serves these purposes well and develops the pursuit of philosophy.
Aristotle opposed private education as he believed it was the place of the state, in its social functions, to determine that which was possible and appropriate for a child to learn: the state is a plurality that should be made into a community by education.
So, what does this say about our current policies? Perhaps, we have regressed to before Plato in our treatment of asylum seeker children! The stories and games we offer these children are limited and quite demoralizing. In detention centres, they are treated like illegal adults.
I am seeing a five-year-old boy whose brutalized parents lost the power to parent on their arrival three years ago and a five-year-old tyrant was allowed to emerge from the detention centre. Community placement just manifested the damage done by the transition to Australia. Hopefully, his starting school this year will provide corrective experience of Australian authority and allow him to be a child and allow the parents to be wise adults. Therapy is important, but a post-Aristotelian attitude is also needed.
OUR NEW CONSTITUTION
At the Annual General Meeting the new Constitution was adopted. This was necessary because the Government has legislated for a new model Constitution covering all incorporated Associations. Our new Constitution complies with all the provisions of the model but incorporates all the provisions of our former Constitution. The only substantive change is provision for an additional category of “Associate Member”.
MHYFVic welcomes our new Associate Members. Since the AGM an invitation for associate membership has been extended to a number of people in the child development and mental health field whom we believe can make an important contribution to our work by comment in their area of expertise. Their membership helps to affirm that our advocacy for improvements in the mental health system is soundly based.
OUR UPDATED WEBSITE
After much thought our website has been significantly revised to give casual visitors immediate information about what we do and what we stand for, whilst at the same time allowing members to go straight to specific sections such as Projects or Newsletters or Events, without having to navigate past reams of information.
Now that the main revision has been implemented we are working on tasks of development of Projects to give us the evidence base for our advocacy. There are quite a few items under development at the present time which are not yet reflected in the website but over the next few months we expect to see a burgeoning of activity.
Visit us on mhyfvic.org
FORTHCOMING EVENTS 2014
WINSTON RICKARDS MEMORIAL ORATION
The fifth Winston Rickards Memorial Oration will be held in the Ella Latham Lecture Theatre at the Royal Children’s Hospital on Tuesday 4th March 2014.
The Orator will be Professor Louise Newman, whose paper is titled : “Cry Freedom! – Child asylum seekers in Australia: the intersection of mental health and human rights”
Annual General Meeting
The AGM will be held on Wednesday 27th August 2014 at Pacific Rim restaurant in Albert Park. The after-dinner speaker will be Vicki Cowling describing developments that have occurred over the last two decades in support services for children whose parent has a mental illness.
2013 MHYF Vic Committee
* President, Jo Grimwade
* Vice-President, Jenny Luntz
* Past President: Allan Mawdsley
* Secretary, Zoe Vinen
* Treasurer & Membership Secretary,
* Projects Coordinator, Kylie Cassar
* WebMaster, Ron Ingram
* Newsletter Editor, Allan Mawdsley
* Youth Consumer Representative, vacant
* Members without portfolio:
Suzie Dean, Miriam Tisher, Sarina Smale
Mental Health for the Young & their Families in Victoria is a collaborative partnership between mental health & other health professionals, service users & the general public.
PO Box 206,
Parkville, Vic 3052