The purpose of the Kids First Early Years Model is to support children and their families to grow and develop positively from the early years and beyond. In a partnership commencing in 2021 with Murdoch Children's Research Institute, we will evaluate its effectiveness.
The early years shape childhood, and beyond.
Children’s experiences in the years immediately after birth are a major determinant of their lifetime circumstances and wellbeing. Early life experiences have a fundamental influence on brain architecture, gene expression, and physiology.
The impact of the early years is especially pronounced for children who experience neglect, abuse and toxic stress. Prolonged exposure to physical, emotional and/or sexual abuse and traumatic experiences early in life have been established to cause profound long-term adverse effects on brain and physiological development.
For six years, Kids First trialled a unique Early Years Education Program (EYEP) at our West Heidelberg Children’s Centre. The EYEP was designed to support the emotional, social and cognitive development of children who had experienced acute disadvantage, including living with significant family stress and at heightened risk of, or having experienced, abuse or neglect. Its overarching goal was for vulnerable infants and young children to commence school developmentally equal to their peers, and with the knowledge, skills and attributes needed for ongoing successful learning.
The program had a dual focus: firstly, addressing the consequences of significant family stress on children’s brain development and emotional and behavioural regulation; and secondly, redressing learning deficiencies.
The EYEP involved direct intervention with children to address their identified needs, reverse developmental delays, and reduce the impact of risk factors and adverse events. The program sought to build children’s cognitive and non-cognitive skills, recognising the critical role that both types of skills play in subsequent development and lifetime outcomes.
Ranging from infants under 6 months through to 4-year-olds, the children who participated in EYEP were offered three years of care and education (50 weeks per year, five hours per day each week). Key features of EYEP were high staff/child ratios, qualified and experienced staff, inclusion of an infant mental health consultant as a member of the staff, and a rigorously developed curriculum.
An independent randomised control trial, the first of its kind in Australia and funded by the Australian Research Council, was conducted by the University of Melbourne and Murdoch Children’s Research Centre alongside EYEP’s delivery. EYEP was found to have large positive impacts on children’s cognitive and non-cognitive development – primarily IQ, protective factors related to resilience and social-emotional development. There was also evidence that EYEP improved children’s language skills and lowers the psychological distress of their primary caregivers.
The EYEP trial at West Heidelberg Children’s Centre concluded in 2018 having achieved significant gains for children experiencing vulnerability and their families. The resource intensity and substantial operational costs meant that, while a game changing pilot, the EYEP was not viable for us to continue without ongoing government funding.
Twenty two per cent of Australian children arrive in their first year of full-time school developmentally vulnerable (AEDC, 2018). This means a child is in the lowest 10 per cent in at least one of five categories including physical health, behaviour, emotions, language and communication. This data presents a clear need to do better and extract more long-term value from Australia’s early years services.
We have taken the powerful and practical components of the EYEP and created a new model that can be universally applied in kindergartens, filling a critical gap for the sector.
The Kids First Early Years Model (KFEYM) is based on a trauma-informed, relational pedagogy approach. ‘Relational pedagogy’ refers to the intentional practice of caring teachers interacting with students to build and sustain positive relationships. We have taken this approach because it is proven that the most salient environmental influences for infants and young children are their caregiving relationships and the degree of stress with which they live. All children need stable relationships, responsive caregivers and attention to their emotional wellbeing and social competence so that they can flourish.
The purpose of the Kids First Early Years Model is to support children and their families to grow and develop positively from the early years and beyond.
The expected outcomes of the model are:
• Children have strong, authentic relationships with their classmates, families and educators, and a shared sense of belonging
• Children are active, engaged and capable learners, and are supported to enter primary school
• Families have strong protective factors so that they can moderate risk and adversity and promote healthy childhood development and wellbeing.
In 2021 we are implementing the model at each of our kindergarten services in Wollert, Seymour, Wallan East and Ivanhoe. \
We have secured a partnership with Murdoch Children’s Research Institute’s Centre for Community Child Health (CCCH) to evaluate the model. The purpose is two-fold: to provide evidence of a cost-effective, impactful, scalable model and to inform the ongoing implementation and adaption of the model.
The evaluation will take place over three and a half years. An initial year of formative evaluation which supports the clarification and articulation of the KFEYM, will be followed by a two-year period whereby summative evaluation (which is about measuring the impact of the model in a more quantitative manner, making it easily comparable) runs alongside the formative evaluation stream, to further support the refinement of the model. The final months of the project will see it completed with the production of a report and recommendations.
Our aim is to create evidence that the Kids First Early Years Model works, and to support its continuous improvement, so it can be rolled out and scaled nationally. We intend to advocate for government funding for rollout of a trauma-informed, relational pedagogy early years education model.