Launch of Response Ability educational resource for early childhood workers - Canberra Institute of Technology, ACT - 29 March 2011
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Thank you, Trevor, and thank you, Sharon Grierson, for being here and providing your support to the Hunter Institute. I know you’ve been a long supporter as the Member for Newcastle of what is a very important institute in the work we do across Australia in mental health. It is a pleasure to be here and to talk to you a bit about a new resource that the Institute has developed to extend the work that they’ve been doing now for some time in a school setting, back into the 0-5 setting.
Before I entered Parliament, back about 15-20 years ago, I spent time representing childcare workers. They used to be called childcare workers, among other things; they’re now called early childhood professionals. When I began that work as a very young man, the grand old dames of childcare work in Adelaide insisted that I would not be able to do that work until I’d spent several days in a childcare centre experiencing what it was like for childcare staff. I did that at a range of childcare centres in Adelaide, including one in particular that really stuck with me – a centre in western Adelaide in a very disadvantaged area near where I now live.
This centre is directly across the road from the Hells Angels motorcycle club and is in an area where, at least back then, being about two thirds public housing, a number of single mothers fleeing domestic violence were placed. I spent a day there and I remember that about 60 per cent of the children in the centre, on that day at least, had restraining orders out on their father. From time to time, the father would discover where the mother and child were in the centre. There was a well established escape path that a very young child care worker would follow, picking up the child and running out the back of the centre to the security office covering a range of other services next to the childcare centre.
This one day, 20 years ago, really stuck with me and made a powerful impression upon me just how huge the responsibility is that we invest in early childhood staff and the importance of those first five years. That impression is reflected increasingly in the evidence - the evidence of the importance of those first five years both in their educational and their physical development, but increasingly in the development of their social and emotional wellbeing.
We know increasingly that in those first five years a brain is at its most plastic and development is at its most rapid; that the settings are very much established for good mental health later in life, whether that’s primary school years, where about 25 per cent of all mental health disorders emerge, in high school years or indeed adulthood. This kit is very much directed at that overall challenge, the role that early childhood professionals play in that very important period of a person’s life.
The key role of early childhood workers falls broadly into three areas as I see it. This is reflected in the CHILD framework that I read in the Response Ability program. We need early childhood professionals to be able to present a supportive environment to babies and toddler and preschool children who are spending often many hours of their early lives at these centres. We need early childhood professionals who are able at an early stage, to identify children who are experiencing difficulties in their emotional and social wellbeing development. We need a capacity for early identification. Lastly, we need early childhood professionals who are equipped with the knowledge to be able to link families to the services that are able to help children and their families through those periods of developmental difficulty. This very much is the work that Response Ability is seeking to do at a training stage for early childhood professionals at TAFE level and other providers, the almost 200 private RTOs that also train our early childhood workers staff.
This work very much aligns with the focus generally that the Government is bringing to mental health, the work that I think some of you might understand that we’re doing with a range of experts, service providers, and consumers and carers in mental health, focusing on youth, on the teenage cohort, which is a very important age where very significant numbers of mental disorders emerge. But equally, we think it’s crucial for us to focus on childhood, on those very important primary school years and those important first five years of life. Childcare and preschool settings are an absolutely crucial opportunity for services and for families to intervene, recognising that children at an early stage are experiencing developmental difficulties.
This work also builds on the valuable work that the KidsMatter program has been doing for some years in a primary school setting and is now being extended back to four-year-olds with our Early Childhood KidsMatter initiative.
I congratulate the Hunter Institute for doing this. The Hunter Institute has been a valuable partner with the Commonwealth Government now for many years in range of different areas, including the Mindframe Initiative and a number of others. This work that Response Ability has done at a school level, and now done at an early childhood level, is very important for our ambitions, for our need, to improve the mental health settings broadly of the community, but particularly of our youngest members.
Congratulations to everyone who has been a part of this and I look forward to it being a staple ingredient of early childhood education very soon and for many years to come. Thank you for having me here.
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