An integrated approach to early childhood education

| November 4, 2016
Sandie Wong ARACY

Early childhood expert Dr Sandie Wong explains why we need a more cohesive and consistent system to support children and families in the early years. 

The importance of experiences in the early years for children’s later growth and development and the subsequent flow-on effects for their participation in social life has become a common refrain in early years’ policy. It’s now broadly recognised that as well as having positive outcomes for individual children and their families, ‘investment’ in early childhood can be a cost-effective way of enhancing social capital and reducing a range of social ailments.

During early childhood, more than at any other time in life, learning is holistic. It is a complex interplay between children’s physical, social-emotional, communication and cognitive development. To grow and thrive, young children require nurturing, responsive, stable, predictable and stimulating environments – created by people who know them well.

All families need support to provide these environments for their children – from family members, friends, and their community, but also from health, education and social services. And some families, such as those who have a child with a disability, or have mental health or substance abuse issues, or who are experiencing other difficulties, may need additional assistance from a range of universal and targeted services.

When families require support from a range of services, they often have to negotiate a complex system that even those in the field sometimes have difficulty understanding. Services are funded by different levels of government, have different geographical boundaries, different eligibility requirements and often different ways of working with children and families. Families can easily fall between the gaps in services, feel overwhelmed and frustrated by having to tell their story multiple times or be confused by inconsistent messages.

To support families access and traverse these systems, and to ensure more cohesive and consistent supports for children and families, we need shared understandings, common approaches and a system that supports integrated service provision across health, education, early intervention and social services.

The Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth is contributing to cross-sectorial understanding by providing a “neutral space” for researchers, policymakers and practitioners from diverse fields to collaborate and share ideas and work together to generate new knowledge. As well as providing virtual and real-world meeting venues, ARACY provides the field with resources to support collaboration: The ARACY Nest provides a National Plan for children and youth – setting an agenda for advocacy, policy, practice and research and for evaluating progress. The Common Approach increases the capacity of practitioners in the early childhood, family support, mental health, family relationships, health and education sectors, to identify both the strengths and needs of families, to build on strengths to help families progress their own goals, and to link families with the supports they need before problems escalate into crises.

If used broadly, The Common Approach has great potential to support increased inter-sectorial collaboration and a more seamless experience for families.

Complex challenges call for complex, consistent, cohesive and complementary approaches. We will only meet these challenges by working together.

Sandie Wong

Dr Sandie Wong is a Senior Research Fellow in the Research Institute for Professional Practice, Learning and Education at Charles Sturt University and National Lead Practice Research at Goodstart Early Learning. Her research explores integrated early years services, collaborative practices and inter-professional working relationships in early childhood services; early childhood workforce issues; and the history of early childhood education and care. She is a member of the Early Years Chapter of ARACY.