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Shari and Mia family

Special programs in the early education years are helping children with developmental delays or disabilities make the transition to school.

The first day of school can be a frightening experience for most kindergarteners and their families, but for Shari and Brian Kelly, kissing their daughter Mia goodbye for the first time at the school gates was a big leap of faith.

Mia was not only beginning her education like hundreds of thousands of other new students around the country; she was also navigating the obstacles a child with additional needs faces in the mainstream schooling environment.

When Mia was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum as a toddler, Shari and Brian had no idea what to expect.

We didn’t know where on the spectrum Mia was located but felt that she was fairly mild, and with enough early intervention, would most likely succeed in a mainstream educational setting.

Shari Kelly

“My idea of autism at the time Mia was diagnosed in 2007 was a child who was non-verbal, who would sit in the corner and rock,” Shari admits.

“We didn’t know where on the spectrum Mia was located but felt that she was fairly mild, and with enough early intervention, would most likely succeed in a mainstream educational setting.”

Getting ready for school

With the early diagnosis came six years of therapy, from speech therapy to occupational therapy to a home-based program called applied behavioural analysis, hoping that when the time came for Mia to go to school, she’d be ready.

Still, when the day came to wave goodbye to their daughter, Shari says she was still nervous that things may not work out.

“The primary school didn’t have anything in place [for Mia], it had no prior experience of children on the autism spectrum. We were the school’s guinea pig,” Shari says.

Shari and Mia family

The Kelly family felt Mia (at left) would succeed at a mainstream school with appropriate support. Photo: Aristo Risi

However, the family didn’t go into the mainstream education system without some knowledge and skills up their sleeves. “Mia’s psychologist and speech therapist recommended that she go to pre-school and day care to get as much social exposure as possible.”

We had a brilliant day care centre that worked with Mia with one-on-one support and they recommended that we enrol in an early-intervention program that was run at Towradgi Public School two mornings a week,” Shari says.

“The early intervention teachers were so passionate about transitioning children like Mia into kindergarten, dedicating their extra time working with parents and the kindergarten teachers to ensure that the transition to school was as smooth as possible.”

There is nothing that says these children belong and these don’t. What needs to be done is normalising the early childhood experience for all children and from all angles.

Dr Jane Warren

Unfortunately for Mia, when she entered primary school, she slipped through the cracks and it wasn’t until Year 4 that she was able to move to a more nurturing school environment that catered for children with additional needs.

A decade on and most schools are better equipped to support students with additional needs, and early-intervention programs are more readily available to many parents.

A problem of perception

Dr Jane Warren, lecturer and tutor in the Bachelor of Education (Early Years) at the University of Wollongong, says there is a big variation in people’s perceptions about children with additional needs, which affects their views on educational options.

There are people who have strong views on what should be available to different people, but ultimately it is up to parents to make the decision, and as evidenced by Mia’s example above, adequate support needs to be put in place.

Dr Jane Warren

Dr Jane Warren says exposure of children to disability will mean they are more accepting. Photo: Aristo Risi

“There has been a positive change in relation to the social perception of children with additional needs, but disability is still often perceived in a triumph or tragedy dichotomy. We see the ‘heroes’ who are put on a pedestal, or the ones people feel sorry for,” Dr Warren says.

“We need to change our perceptions and see there are a whole lot of ‘regular’ people with disabilities. To appreciate everyone as an individual is something that needs to start with very young children. So early childhood centres have an important role here.”

Early exposure leads to inclusion

Dr Warren says there is more awareness of people with a disability in mainstream schooling, but when looking at young people with additional needs in education, the most important thing is they are included; in early childhood centres and in mainstream schooling.

Exposure to mainstream environments such as early childhood centres means the children and their parents have an opportunity to see if it is appropriate for them.

“The exposure of all other children to disability will mean they are more accepting,” Dr Warren says. “Young children are inquisitive, but not judgemental.

“Children with and without disabilities learning alongside each other in early childhood provides the best foundation for inclusive educational opportunity later on.”

Children with and without disabilities learning alongside each other in early childhood provides the best foundation for inclusive educational opportunity later on.

Dr Jane Warren

Dr Warren says there are some fantastic early childhood centres that are truly inclusive, but others where children are enrolled but not really included, despite the intent of the Early Years Learning Framework being about belonging for all children.

“There is nothing that says these children belong and these don’t,” she says. “What needs to be done is normalising the early childhood experience for all children and from all angles – for children, for educators, for parents of children with disability and those without.

“Every parent has the right to choose the school their child will attend, irrespective of additional needs, and there are different educational options that suit different children, and that is the case for all children.

“But to be included means more than just to be enrolled at a centre or a school. It’s not always easy but if there is the right support it can be done. Ultimately we are talking about the rights of children.”

Shari and Mia family

To be included means more than just to be enrolled, researchers say. Photo: Aristo Risi

Inclusion starts with early integration

Helping children with additional needs integrate more readily into mainstream education needs to start in those early childhood years according to one of Australia’s leading providers of early childhood education.

Seven years ago, KU Children’s Services won a Federal Government tender to establish an Autism Specific Early Learning & Care Centre (ASELCC) in Liverpool, NSW – one of six such centres across Australia funded under the Helping Children with Autism Package.

KU co-located their centre with a mainstream preschool, KU Liverpool, so that all children could have daily inclusion with typically developing peers. KU implemented the Early Start Denver Model (ESDM) – a play-based program that incorporates components of applied behaviour analysis, pivotal response training and developmental psychology.

It works to bring children with autism back into the social loop at every opportunity, helping them to develop across all domains, particularly in the areas of social and communication skills.

Elizabeth Aylward, Clinical Services Manager for KU Children’s Services

Elizabeth Aylward, Clinical Services Manager for KU Children’s Services. Photo: Aristo Risi

Evidence-based transitions

In association with the University of NSW and the Sydney South West Area Health Service, KU Children’s Services embarked on a dissemination study, applying the evidence-based model of autism intervention to four of its mainstream pre-schools in the Sydney South West region.

“At heart of the Early Start Denver Model is empirical knowledge of early childhood development,” says Elizabeth Aylward, Clinical Services Manager for KU Children’s Services.

“The essence of the model is to bring a child’s attention from objects to people’s faces, voices and actions, whether through a game, a daily routine or through object focussed routines.”

KU runs six to 10 research projects out of its autism centre in Liverpool each year and Aylward says everything the centre does is being tested for its application to promote the development of children with additional needs and to facilitate their successful transition to school.

Between six and 12 months, the infant with autism begins to pay less attention to people ... the parts of the brain that are important for social and language development, are not getting the expected amount of stimulation.

Elizabeth Aylward, KU Children's Services

“Between six and 12 months, the infant with autism begins to pay less attention to people, babbles less, and doesn’t imitate others. In other words, the child with autism is not socially engaged with others,” Aylward says.

“This lack of social engagement means the infant is not learning about faces, voices, gestures, and other aspects of the social world during this early developmental period. The brain is wired to expect that social and language stimulation should occur during this period.

“However, for an infant with autism, the parts of the brain that are important for social and language development, are not getting the expected amount of stimulation. Synapses in those areas are not being strengthened.”

The Working Together Agreement promotes a coordinated approach to early childhood inclusion for children with disability and/or developmental delay

Tools such as the Working Together Agreement promote a coordinated approach to early childhood inclusion for children with disability and / or developmental delay.

Equipping children with people skills

Fortunately, early intervention based on ESDM can change this pattern of development. Aylward says the model promotes brain development by teaching strategies that will increase attention to other people, addressing deficits in social attention.

“This provides more opportunities to learn about faces, facial expressions, gestures, and spoken language. It stimulates social brain circuitry and sets the stage for further learning.”

By getting children to pay more attention to people than objects, they learn to read their social cues and non-verbal communications, the importance of using gesture and imitation.

“Once we have equipped the children with these skills it is the best school readiness we can provide for them. They learn imitation, with objects, gestures vocalisations and facial expressions, so that they can then learn from their peers and the adults in their life. This then facilitates a smoother and more successful transition to school.”

Equipping people with children skills

Working in partnership with parents to help children with developmental delay or disability in early childhood education and particularly as children transition to mainstream schooling, is crucial says Emma Pierce, Resource Coordinator with NSW/ACT Inclusion Agency and Inclusion Support QLD, KU Children’s Services.

“Early childhood educators play a vital role in supporting young children’s inclusion in mainstream early childhood education and care settings. Often early childhood educators are the first professionals to raise concerns about a child’s development with the family, as a result of their extensive knowledge of typical child development,” she says.

When educators have the knowledge and skills to design inclusive programs that promote meaningful participation for children of all abilities, the benefits for all children can be profound.

Emma Pierce, KU Children’s Services

The relationship educators develop with children and families at this time is essential to understanding a child’s strengths and needs, says Pierce, and when children with developmental delay or disability have a positive experience in early childhood education and care, this can be an influencing factor in the success of a child’s transition to school.

“Collaboration between all members of the team around a child with developmental delay or disability is crucial to successful inclusion, but this takes commitment from all involved,” she says. “The emphasis of the partnership needs to be upon further building capacity for educators to have the ability to include all children within the context of their service.”

“When educators have the knowledge and skills to design inclusive programs that promote meaningful participation for children of all abilities, the benefits for all children can be profound,” she says.

Jane Warren, Elizabeth Aylward and Emma Pierce spoke about early intervention, inclusion and the transitioning of children with special needs into mainstream education at the Early Start Conference 2017.

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