The benefits of early years education last a lifetime

| July 11, 2019

The early years of a child’s life are just so important, arguably the most critical. We know at this time the fastest rate of brain development occurs, and early learning experiences can impact children and the adults they eventually become.

As CEO of Kids First, a 120-year old Melbourne-based child and family services organisation, I’m acutely aware of vulnerability and disadvantage. Kids First exists so that all children and young people thrive in resilient, strong and safe families and communities – no matter their starting point in life.

In 2010 Kids First (then known as Children’s Protection Society) began a journey. It started with a vision – validated by data. The data indicated that vulnerable children engaged with secondary and tertiary level family services were not proportionally represented in universal services, such as kindergartens and childcare.

Therefore, developing an Early Years Education program became a huge focus for us as the children most in need, and who could potentially benefit the most, appeared to be missing out on early education experience.

That year we partnered with the University of Melbourne to initiate an Early Years Education Program (EYEP) at our early learning centre in Heidelberg West. This part of Melbourne experiences significant socio-economic disadvantage.

Hallmarks of the EYEP included:

• Enhanced training for educators
• Preschool mental health consultations
• Staff supervision and coaching
• Whole of family support services to ensure family wellbeing was aligned with the child’s wellbeing.

We had a sense that our Early Years model was effective and wanted to test our assumptions to see if the model could in fact influence the learning outcomes and life trajectories of the children at the centre.

We brokered funding partnerships across government and private philanthropy to undertake an Australian first randomised control trial. The Australian Research Council funded the University of Melbourne to undertake a three-year study to provide insights into the developmental and social outcomes from providing high quality intensive early education and care to vulnerable children.

Our latest report charting the progress of the EYEP participants and a control group of peers was released in June this year. It picks up the ‘story’ 24 months after the completion of the EYEP program.

What we are seeing in the latest reports is when compared to their peers, children who attended the EYEP have made gains across their:

• IQ;
• Protective factors related to resilience; and
• Emotional development. For example the proportion of children enrolled in EYEP who are classified in the clinical range for social-emotional development is lower by 30 percentage points compared with the control group, a substantial impact.

Another pleasing result is the evidence that EYEP is having an impact on the stress experienced by primary caregivers, when compared to their peers.

As a society we know a great deal about the causes and risk factors which undermine wellbeing and normal development for children. Until this study, we’ve known far less about how to support children and families out of negative cycles and offer them not only a protective context, but one that enables them to thrive.

We’re proud to have pioneered this program and apply our learnings at our universal early years services. We’re also sharing our expertise through the Victorian Government’s School Readiness Funding Menu. It’s an exciting time for early years education and we’ll always champion initiatives that give kids the best start to life.