The first three years
An opinion on the need for and direction of
early childhood interventions to improve the
life chances of children in disadvantaged families
Prepared for the Brotherhood of St Laurence by
Associate Professor Gay Ochiltree
Faculty of Education
University of Melbourne
First published in June 1999 by the
Brotherhood of St Laurence
67 Brunswick Street
Fitzroy VIC 3065
Telephone (03) 9483 1183
The first three years: an opinion on the need for and
direction of early childhood interventions to improve the
life chances of children in disadvantaged families
ISBN1 876250 19 4
- Brotherhood of St Laurence. 2. Socially handicapped
children—Services for—Australia. 3. Socially handicapped
children—Education—Australia. 4. Early childhood
education—Australia. 5. Child development—Australia.
I. Brotherhood of St Laurence. II. Title.
© Brotherhood of St Laurence, 1999
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The first three years
Success at school is highly likely to give young people a greater chance at better-paid, more secure and more rewarding employment in their adult life.
Given this reality, it is essential that we do not prejudice the chances of children as they enter school.
Recent research undertaken by the Brotherhood of St Laurence into the life chances of children born in inner Melbourne has focused on the discernable differences in the preschool and school experiences of children growing up in lower-income and more affluent families. The experience of Brotherhood service staff similarly gives ground for concern over the difficulties that some children from disadvantaged families are having.
The Brotherhood’s concern is that this disadvantage may persist in the years of schooling ahead.
Over recent years the Brotherhood has responded in various ways, most recently through sponsoring the introduction of the Home Instruction Program for Preschool Youngsters (HIPPY) program, in inner Melbourne. However, the organisation felt that it also needed to:
- explore or test the key assumptions which underpin future work in this area;
- consider the potential value of Brotherhood work; and
- help focus future work in this area.
As a first stage in this process, the Brotherhood asked Gay Ochiltree, a prominent researcher in early childhood education and highly informed advocate for good quality services for children, to provide us with some guidance which could help us decide where the organisation should best place its efforts in the future.
Gay’s background—as a teacher, researcher, child care expert and early childhood educator—has provided her with insight into the several intellectual disciplines which inform the community’s efforts to maximise the potential of our children. The Brotherhood was delighted that she was able to provide us with an informed professional opinion based on the balance of these different disciplines.
This report directs our attention once more to the importance of the very early years of childhood and the risks that some children can miss out at this point. It provides us with some important reminders of which children are at risk and of the strengths, as well as the weaknesses, of the universal children’s services which Australia has. It identifies some lessons from overseas approaches, while at the same time warning us to be very cautious of differing service contexts.
We hope that other organisations will also find Gay’s insights valuable.
Director, Social Action and Research
- Which children require additional supports and interventions in
early childhood to ensure that low income or other aspects of
family background do not markedly limit their life chances?7
Family background and the life chances of children7
Education and early childhood development10
The importance of the first three years of life13
- What supports or interventions are most needed and why?17
Existing services supporting families with preschool children17
Maternal and Child Health Service18
Child care services19
Specialist children’s services20
Critiques of parenting education23
Trends in services to mothers and preschool children in Victoria24
Interventions for children at risk of abuse and/or neglect or
experiencing inadequate parenting25
Improving educational opportunities for disadvantaged children27
Head Start and early intervention27
Evaluations of Head Start28
Head Start and child care for children from birth to three30
Literacy and Head Start32
Lessons from Head Start Programs33
Current and past Australian programs aimed at raising educational
- Given the current context, in which ways can the Brotherhood of
St Laurence best contribute to reducing the lifetime disadvantages
of such children through initiatives in service practice, policy
development or public advocacy?37
A strategy for The Cottage39
Advocacy and policy development40
The consultancy brief asked for an informed opinion on three questions:
- In Australia in the foreseeable future, which children require additional supports or interventions in early childhood to ensure that low income or other aspects of family background do not markedly limit their future life chances?
- What supports or interventions are most needed and why?
- Given the current context, in which ways can the Brotherhood of St Laurence best contribute to reducing the lifetime disadvantages of such children through initiatives in service practice, policy development and public advocacy?
The first section of this paper focuses on the question of which children require additional supports or interventions in early childhood to improve their life chances. Children’s development, including new information on brain development and its implications, is also discussed.
The second section looks broadly at the question of what supports and interventions are most needed. Services which support Victorian children and their families in the preschool years from birth to five years are described and the policy trends affecting these services are discussed. Interventions through which specific aspects of children’s disadvantage can be addressed, including lower levels of educational achievement, are then examined.
The final section of the paper looks at ways in which the Brotherhood can best contribute to improving the life chances of children from disadvantaged families. Some directions and strategies, taking account of current projects, are suggested. The focus is on acquiring literacy as this is the pre-eminent skill children need to access education.
The Brotherhood currently has several projects which support children in early childhood and their families in different ways. They include the Cottage Centre for Families and Children, which offers a number of services for parents and children particularly where there is concern with children’s development or behaviour or where the children have special needs; the Fitzroy Toy Library; the Southern Metropolitan Pre-School Support Program which helps children with severe and multiple disabilities participate in their local preschool; and Family Day Care and other programs at Craigieburn. The longitudinal Life Chances of Children study focuses on the needs and experiences of low-income families with young children. A more recent program initiative is the Home Instruction Program for Preschool Youngsters—HIPPY—which has worked in particular with mothers and children in the Fitzroy Department of Housing flats.
These projects will be taken into account in analysing current trends and in making suggestions for future directions which could be taken to support children from disadvantaged families in the early childhood years. However, it is The Cottage which appears to offer the greatest opportunities for practical support and interventions for children and their families.
There is evidence that the community is seen as a less friendly and safe place for children with information from the Australian Institute of Family Studies Living Standards study indicating that both children and parents have many fears for their safety outside the home. Mounting evidence indicates that the home is the place where children are most likely to be abused both physically and sexually so stranger danger is not the greatest hazard for children.
Changes in services and policies, including the closing of smaller local schools, and more recently the closure of many of the smaller child care centres and other services to local communities, is making it more difficult for children and families to feel that they belong and are valued members of society (People Together 1997). James Garborino in his book Raising children in a socially toxic environment (1995) points out that children are conservative and like consistency, predictability and regularity. Instability in the family and in the community takes its toll on the trust not only of adults but of children. Children growing up in low-income families are particularly vulnerable.
1. Which children require additional supports and interventions in early childhood to ensure that low income or other aspects of family background do not markedly limit their future life chances?
Family background and the life chances of children
The family context into which children are born is the major influence on their life chances, and especially on their educational achievement. By the time children start school at around 5 years of age many children from disadvantaged families are unable to benefit from the educational opportunities offered to the same extent as children from more advantaged families. These children lack the experiences—often taken for granted—that are the foundations for school learning. In particular they have often missed out on experiences which prepare them for literacy.
Education is crucial to all children if they are to be able to earn a living as adults in a post-industrial world and to exercise their rights and responsibilities as citizens in a democratic society. Children who fail to achieve at school suffer lifelong difficulties including low self-esteem and problems obtaining work. Central to educational achievement is literacy and it is children from disadvantaged backgrounds who are the most likely to have problems with literacy. Literacy is high on the current political and educational agenda at both state and federal government level with the problem being identified through testing programs. There are a number of programs in Victoria operating in the early school years to assist children with difficulties, such as the Early Years Literacy Program and Reading Recovery, and attempts to co-locate preschools (kindergartens) in primary schools are justified on the grounds of improved literacy for children.
However, the foundations for literacy are laid well before children start school or even preschool (kindergarten) in early childhood development. Literacy begins in the home and/or in any alternative form of early child care. Children who come from homes where parents read themselves and also read to their children, where there is printed material, where writing is seen as a meaningful activity, and where children have access to writing and drawing materials such as crayons and paper, are more likely to learn to read and write at school with little difficulty. Children who do not have these opportunities are more likely to experience difficulties.
Considerable research over the years indicates that the educational achievement of children born into disadvantaged families, in the circumstances discussed below, is generally lower than that of children from more advantaged family backgrounds and it is literacy which is often at the heart of their educational difficulties.
The strongest underpinning of disadvantage is poverty and it has long been known that poverty limits the life chances of children (Harris 1990a; Harris 1990b; Edgar, Keane & McDonald 1989). Poverty may be due to unemployment, or to low-paid, part-time, casual and/or intermittent work, or to parents living on pensions or benefits due to disability or chronic illness. Closely linked with poverty in its effects on children is the level of education of parents. Many, but not all, parents on low incomes have experienced school failure or have low levels of education which has limited their employment opportunities. Some may be functionally illiterate and unable, or feel unable, to assist their children with school work or preparation for school. In terms of this brief the focus first and foremost should be on children from families in poverty and particularly those where the parents have a low level of education or are illiterate themselves. This group of families on low incomes will include a range of sub-groups of families that are living in poverty for a number of different reasons, including those experiencing intergenerational poverty.
Estimates of the number of families and children living in poverty vary depending on the way in which poverty is defined. The recent paper A portrait of child poverty in Australia 1995–96 (Harding & Szukalska 1998) indicated that one-in-eight of Australia’s 4.5 million dependent children live on incomes below the poverty line although more than half of these children had a father or mother working. A quarter of the children are under five. Birrell and Rapson (1997), using eligibility for Additional Family Payment (AFP) as an indicator of poverty, argue that the proportion of children growing up in low-income families is increasing. In 1995 41 per cent of families with children aged 0–15 years were in receipt of AFP compared with 43 per cent in 1996 (Birrell & Rapson 1997). Forty per cent of these families were the working poor where incomes were low enough to receive AFP; a second group were families in receipt of welfare who were usually unemployed; the third group were those who because of their domestic situation or disability could not enter the labour market. This group included single parents, mostly sole parent pensioners. Birrell and Rapson also estimate that families on low incomes are raising more children per family than middle-class families.
Many of these low-income families have additional disadvantages which are likely to affect the life chances of their children. These families are discussed briefly below:
- Children whose parents have a chronic physical or psychiatric illness, or where there is an alcohol and/or drug problem, may be as disadvantaged by the low income resulting from their parent’s problems as by the actual problem itself. Parents in these families may or may not have low levels of education. Children with a mentally ill parent can be at risk in many ways as the effects of the illness often result in an emotional ‘see-saw’ for the child (Cooper & Elliot 1997).
Although up to 30 per cent of Australia’s population may at one time or another be affected by mental illness to some extent, it is the children of parents where the illness is severe and/or chronic that are of long-term concern. This group of children is not large but the proportion of children affected, and in particular preschool children, is difficult to assess. Similarly it is difficult to assess the number of children affected by the drug and alcohol problems of their parents. If Australia follows the pattern of the United States it is likely that the number of children whose lives are affected by the drug-taking of their parents is increasing. If these families are in receipt of benefits they will be included in estimates of poverty discussed above.
- Fourteen per cent of Australians speak a language other than English in the home (ABS 1991). Children from non-English speaking background (NESB) families, particularly those who have recently arrived, some of whom may be refugees, may also have limited life chances (Taylor & MacDonald 1994). Where there is low income, and/or unemployment, where English is not spoken at home, and where the parents have little education and may be illiterate in their own language, children may experience difficulties becoming literate in the Australian education system and their educational achievement may be limited.
The educational opportunities of children from NESB families may be affected not only by language differences but sometimes by quite different expectations of the role of teachers and the school. Although there are obvious language and cultural differences, there are also less obvious non-verbal behaviours and meanings which are very different to the dominant culture and may lead to misunderstandings (Elliot & Sanagavarapu 1995). If parents are illiterate in their own language and have low levels of education it is difficult for them to assist their children in the different circumstances operating in Australia and this can cause problems for children even when families have been here for a considerable time. The focus for this brief should be on low-income, low-parental-education NESB children and families and particularly families where the parents’ English is poor and where they are likely to require help from English-speaking children to cope with demands of daily life.