Keeping young children, families, and educators safe during a health crisis

Early childhood educators have the right skills to prevent infectious diseases and communicate health information fast to families with young children. But during the COVID-19 pandemic, staff struggled to find relevant health information.

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A community network trusted by families

Early childhood education (ECE) educators are in direct contact with more than 700,000 families across Australia, says Professor Sheila Degotardi, Director of the Centre for Research in Early Childhood Education, Macquarie University.

They are trained to follow disease prevention regulations because young children catch a lot of diseases. They know how to keep children in their care safe and quickly communicate health information to the children’s families.

But during the COVID-19 pandemic, there were so many sources of health information educators struggled to find the information they needed.

Sheila says, ‘I heard the cries for relevant health information coming from the sector.’

MRFF offers research grants to improve communications strategies during outbreaks

MRFF grant opportunities fill gaps in areas that need more research. During the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 we recognised that improving health communications would help prevent the spread of the disease.

Sheila and her research team partnered with ECE and health sector stakeholders. With these stakeholders they co-designed the research plan to analyse the health information sourced and communicated by the ECE sector during the pandemic.

The aim of the team’s research plan was to develop policy recommendations. These could facilitate rapid, accurate and effective communication of health information to families of young children and their educators. Their research proposal, ‘Harnessing the health communication power of the early childhood sector’, was supported by the MRFF with a grant of $175,000.

Creating ‘democratic knowledge’ with community impact

The researchers worked closely with their ECE and health stakeholders. Sheila calls this ‘democratic knowledge production.’

‘Stakeholders know far more than we do about how to impact their communities and bring about change,’ she explains.

The stakeholders helped the researchers:

  • analyse health information documents used by the sector for readability

  • survey EC educators and families

  • survey EC and health organisation leaders

  • hold case study interviews with targeted EC services.

The need for one trusted health information source

‘We found the ECE sector was incredibly agile during the pandemic,’ Sheila says. ‘They adapted their policies and processes to support their staff, the children, and their families. They went above and beyond to provide correct and timely health information.’

The study showed that children’s families highly rated the health information they received from their ECE services. But sourcing and providing this high-quality information involved much time and cost for ECE providers.

‘Many educators and managers would read 4-6 different sources of COVID-19 health information each day. Often the information was contradictory, so they didn’t know which advice to follow. Each document was often too complex for a general audience. Or it was for schools, which wasn’t appropriate,’ Sheila says.

Study participants at all levels asked for one trusted source of information to streamline communication to the sector.

But ECE has a complex structure. Different services are offered by different kinds of providers, from large employers to stand-alone operators working in centre- and home-based services.

The researchers had to work out how to streamline information from national, state, and local government health care through these complex ECE layers.

A policy proposal

Based on consultation with stakeholders and end users, the research team see benefits in ECE health information being coordinated at national level.

They propose a new ECE health communication unit. In their proposal, experts in early childhood education, health, and health communication could staff the unit.

‘There is potential for early childhood services to be more effective and efficient health communicators,’ Sheila emphasises. ‘They understand their local community and are a trusted source of information.’

‘Our research shows this would improve the health and safety of our communities.’

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