When Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced a $21.5 million funding boost for early intervention services in May, many early childhood educators around New Zealand breathed a small sigh of relief. Although the 1.6 per cent increase in operational funding for early childhood education (ECE) services didn’t cut it for the sector, the extra money pegged specifically for early intervention can’t come soon enough for ECE teachers who work with children displaying a diverse range of learning and behavioural needs.

Among them is early childhood educator Jenny (who has requested her surname is not published).

“We have two girls leaving [our centre] in the next two weeks as they feel there is not enough support, which I do agree with.”

Jenny paints a vivid picture of life at her ECE centre.

“At one point we had five children with extra needs – one with help and the other four running riot.”

She describes a set of twins who attended the centre since six months old. The centre received six hours of help per week for one twin, who was diagnosed with autism. Yet no extra help was given for his twin brother who had such “horrendous behavioural problems” a psychologist suggested a padded room was required.

“We got bitten, pinched and kicked by him and still no help,” she says.

“We have had a hard three years of children with needs and not enough support whether it’s from the Ministry or the centre.”

Help is on its way

The early intervention funding is expected to halve the current waiting list for services, as well as help meet future demand pressures. Nearly 8000 more children will receive extra support over the next four years.

To boil it down further, the funding provides means for an extra 1,750 children to receive help in this coming year and contracted early intervention specialist service providers will support an additional 150 children with the highest needs. Within two years this number will increase to an additional 200 children.

To achieve this, more frontline early-intervention staff will be employed. Over 60 additional Early Intervention Study Awards and Speech Language Therapy Scholarships will be available to build the workforce who provide early intervention services.

National’s education spokesperson Nikki Kaye also welcomed the extra investment, but believes the learning support system needs to be reformed – work that she had begun as former Minister of Education. Kaye is eager to see the Government continue this work to ensure accessing learning support is made simpler and quicker for all involved.

Peter Reynolds, chief executive of the Early Childhood Council says there are also inconsistencies with how learning support is funded across schools and ECE services.

“Current approaches mean that a significant proportion of Learning Support funding is provided to schools with little or no requirement to justify spending decisions.  This lack of accountability gives rise to concerns that, in some cases, funds may be spent on areas that have little to do with children with learning support needs and may impact on wider school needs.  This is in contrast with the accountabilities placed on early childhood education services, who are required to account for all funding received. The Ministry of Education needs to resolve this.”

Why is EI so important?

Before addressing the need for change within the current systems and structures, let’s briefly state the obvious: early intervention is important.

Dr Cara Swit, senior lecturer at University of Canterbury’s School of Health Sciences, shares an early intervention success story from one of her students. In this particular case, a three-year-old child, who was born with a serious physical condition, had difficulty separating from their family, lacked confidence to try new things, and presented to the ECE centre with delays in all areas of their development. With the support of a full early intervention team who took the time to build strong, trusting relationships with the family, and to guide them in promoting the child’s development, the child is now attending school full-time unsupported.

Research supports cases like this, which help show that early intervention works. The Government’s Budget decisions were informed by such evidence.

“Intervening effectively and early for children with learning support needs makes a real difference to children’s development and learning,” says Associate Education Minister Tracey Martin. “This includes benefits to language development, social interactions and behaviour, and engagement and attainment in school – and we know success in school supports better outcomes later in life.”

Early childhood advocacy groups believe investment in this area is saving the Government money in the long run.

“Funding services to support young children has the potential to decrease the amount of funding needed in later years and enhance the likelihood of those children being confident and successful in the school environment. That means additional staff in services, and better access to specialist support,” says Clare Wells, chief executive of New Zealand Kindergartens Inc.

 We also recommend comprehensive – and continuous – health checks from birth to pick up problems before they become entrenched. This would be more effective and cheaper in the long run,” agrees Peter Reynolds.

How does Early Intervention work?

Early intervention services are triggered in different ways. Sometimes children have been diagnosed already by a health provider as requiring assistance or intervention before they attend ECE. In other cases, parents may have already embarked on a path towards diagnosis.

Often, however, it will be ECE teachers who notice when children need that extra support for their learning. In this case the first step is to engage with the parent and urge them to see a GP, paediatrician or specialist to obtain a referral. This is to obtain a first diagnosis that establishes that there is a need. Following diagnosis, the next step is to seek support from the Ministry of Education.

The system is fraught with difficulties, however, including long waits for assessment, problems with the assessment itself, and difficulty in achieving a united approach between ECE centres, parents, health providers and the Ministry. Support for behavioural needs is also difficult to access.

Collaboration isn’t always easy

Peter Reynolds says it can be very difficult if a situation arises where teachers have concerns about behaviour and discuss these with the parents, but the parents feel there is no issue and they do not want to seek outside help.  The teacher or centre cannot force this. Teachers can only go over the parents if they have concerns about neglect or abuse.

“It is my experience that even in the event that children display severe behavioural issues it is frequently the teacher’s responsibility to work out how to manage said behaviour.  A teacher/centre cannot contact or request specialist services – the parents must do this.”

Reynolds thinks this is one area that could be changed to streamline access.

ECE teacher Jenny says sometimes parents are anxious as they can’t afford to have their child assessed.

“Then there is the stigma that goes with parents feeling inadequate as there is something wrong with their child and they have to work and can’t spend enough time with them. They also find it hard to keep to appointments for their child as they have to have time off work.”

Reynolds takes the view that the B4 School Health Check should be a collaborative exercise with the parent, health practitioner and teacher around the table together.

The B4 School Health Check requires teachers to perform an independent assessment and to state whether there are concerns about a child’s development.  This is not a universal service, as some centres will not participate due to the challenges placed on the relationship between the teacher and the parent, says Reynolds.

Reynolds feels ECE teachers need better training around working with children with learning support needs and working with their families. Interventions generally take place outside centre hours, in conjunction with the family, who need to know how best to assist their child.

“At preschool, a teacher or the team is informed about goals and routines (generally there is an individual programme plan for the child) – it is important that the child practises the same at home and at preschool.  There is no training available to teachers to do this. There is also no extra staffing allocated for this.”

More support needed

Clare Wells is concerned about the time restraints placed on education support workers (ESW) and early intervention teachers (EIT). The Ministry holds funds to employ ESW who work with children in centres to provide that extra support directly to the child and the teaching team.

“We know in many cases the ESW have insufficient hours – for example five hours a week – when the child attends kindergarten for 20 hours each week,” says Wells.

For children requiring specialist help, such as help from a speech and language therapist or psychologist, EIT work with them in the home and at the centre. Children may receive intervention or therapy outside centre hours or therapists may come to the centre to assess and work with the child.

“But again, this is time limited. For the most part, teachers will be working with the children to support their additional learning needs. In some cases, where the teaching team or community needs extra help, the kindergarten association may provide extra staffing or expertise itself for a period of time – usually because the Ministry processes are inadequate or decisions are taking too long to work through the system,” says Wells.

 Expect delays

Getting the right help is not always quick and easy.

Dr Cara Swit says timeliness is certainly an issue.

“The current processes that early childhood services must go through to receive EI support means that they could be waiting up to several months. This has put additional pressure on educators who often feel ill-equipped to cater for the diverse needs of children in their care without specialist support.”

Wells says she thinks there is more we can do to ensure the right systems and processes are in place.

“We know in many cases, there are long waiting times for referrals and once identified, there may be limited support offered to services. Timely access to specialist services varies greatly and sometimes people have to travel some distances to main centres for example.”

Reynolds agrees.

There are too few specialists and therapists and the waiting lists are huge. Targeting staffing, and ensuring there are enough trained therapists would help in this area.”

Wells says it is often more difficult to get support for children with behavioural needs.

“For children with high needs, the system has the capacity to provide timely support. It’s the children who need help managing behaviour or support with their language learning that may not.

“While teachers provide support to children, it is important that they are supported to do so. Release time, professional learning and development, and additional ESW hours are all part of the mix.”

Swit says ECE staff are typically very resourceful while waiting for external specialist assistance.

“In a regular ECE service where there is a reliance on external specialist assistance, young children and staff can experience lengthy waiting periods. However, this can vary considerably depending on the needs of the child. During this period, educators are often proactive in setting up staff meetings to discuss the child’s needs and different strategies they might put in place to support the child and their whānau.

“Staff members who have received professional learning and development and have completed training such as Incredible Years are often an invaluable support to other staff who may not have had previous experience working with children with additional needs.”

One-to-one assessments don’t give the whole picture

A common problem with assessments is that children often behave differently in a one-to-one assessment setting than they do in the ECE centre. This can result in the decision not to refer to a specialist or to allocate learning support funding.

Jenny says her centre had a child assessed on a one-to-one basis who completed his tests well.

He scored well but it was mentioned it was a one to one and not in a room of 28 2.5yrs – 5yr olds, where his behaviour and social skills are awful.

“His ESW mentioned that when he has a one to one he’s great but be careful we don’t get his hours taken away as MOE don’t have enough hours to share around and they are looking at the moment to either reducing children’s hours or removing totally.”

More early intervention teacher training needed

Dr Cara Swit is pleased to see the Budget include provision for more early intervention teachers.

“What the funding boost means, is that we will be able to train more early childhood educators in EI and the additional EIT positions will allow more children to receive intervention services.”

Swit points out that while currently the Ministry of Education provides the majority of EI services in New Zealand, there are other external agencies providing EI services as well, including CCS Disability Action, Ohomairangi Trust, Champion Centre, Conductive Education, McKenzie Centre, and Wellington Early Intervention Trust.

“Although there are considerable differences in the ways in which these services operate and deliver EI support, additional funding to upskill educators to become EITs will ensure that children and whānau who need support are receiving this within a respectable timeframe.”

 Early intervention teacher training is provided at the University of Canterbury through a two-year Specialist Teaching Programme. The first year involves educators developing foundational knowledge about child development, typical developmental trajectories, characteristics of common disabilities, the process underlying early intervention, and evidence based interprofessional practice. In the second year, students complete practicum experience in early intervention.

Dr Cara Swit, who is a lecturer for the programme, says some of her students are already EITs and others are actively seeking EIT positions.

“I also have some students who work for organisations who have identified the need to upskill staff in the area of EI, with the purpose of putting their specialist knowledge to good use by coaching other educators within the service and supporting children with additional needs, whilst waiting for specialist support from MoE.

“I see this as a very positive step forward in recognising that everyone is responsible for providing EI, and it shouldn’t be the sole responsibility of MoE or other EI services.”

Swit believes early childhood educators are generally very motivated and interested in expanding their knowledge and pedagogical practices to support all children in their care. This is evidenced by the number of early childhood educators who apply for study awards each year to enrol in the Early Intervention Endorsement, she says.

“After recognising the growing need to support young children with additional needs, many early childhood services are now shoulder tapping staff members to complete further study in the Early Intervention endorsement.”

As things stand, the programme can’t accept all who apply, however hopefully this will now change.

Relying on the resourcefulness of ECE teachers

Swit says the ECE sector has long relied on the resilience of its teachers.

“For as long as I can remember we have had to rely on limited resourcing, less opportunity for PLD, the list goes on and on. However, despite all this, in my experience we have been a profession that gets on with it and makes the best of a bad situation. We support each other collaboratively, we work from a strengths based perspective with the sole purpose of caring for and providing the best opportunities for our tamariki.

“The current systems that are in place for ensuring all children get the support they need has relied on early childhood educators often volunteering much of their time to learning new skills, attending professional development, and often feeling isolated and undervalued personally and professionally.”

But Swit is optimistic; the funding boost is a clear signal for change.

“It saddens me when my students tell me that they feel as early childhood educators they are the ‘forgotten ones’, and I am confident that this is a very positive move forward in highlighting that early childhood is an incredibly important part of development that can’t be ignored or rushed and our educators are at the forefront in ensuring all young children receive the support they need.”

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