It’s not only young children who need more focused attention in their early years. Care providers also need improved support, as researchers from Flinders University’s Caring Futures Institute have identified in a new study.
To examine the complex needs of early childhood support, the South Australian government established the Office for the Early Years in 2021, to optimise children’s early learning, health and development by creating a primary point of leadership for the state’s new Early Years System.
However, understanding of this new system – which aims to provide effective, efficient, accessible and equitable services to all South Australians – and how it is experienced by clients is currently limited, so new research is finding ways to help streamline the process.
Wellbeing SA and Flinders Caring Futures Institute entered a Public Health Partner Authority Agreement in June 2021 to develop a combination of policy action, programmatic responses, research translation and capability development that will support parents and caregivers for improved health and wellbeing in a child’s early years.
Navigating the Early Years, which commenced in 2022, is the first in a range of research projects within this agreement.
Designed to understand caregivers’ perceptions of South Australia’s Early Years System, this project collected interview data from parents and caregivers of children younger than 6 years, service providers and organisation managers in South Australia’s Early Years System.
“Using journey mapping interviews with caregivers provided varied experiences of caregivers and a really robust understanding of the Early Years System, along with how it is experienced by different end-users,” says Flinders University’s Dr Georgia Middleton, who is project manager for Navigating the Early Years.
“Talking to caregivers about their journey was such a rewarding aspect of this work. It was wonderful talking to so many different people, from so many different backgrounds, with so many different experiences.
“The frontline workers and organisation managers are so insightful and such passionate workers – and learning from them will improve the system for all caregivers and families, so we can have the best outcomes for our children.”
Navigating the Early Years researchers found there is currently not enough support or services for caregivers that focusses on attending to their own health and wellbeing needs.
“While there are abundant services targeting the health and wellbeing of children in the Early Years System, a caregiver’s needs are not being met and supported through the system,” says Dr Middleton.
The researchers found that caregivers in South Australia currently have piecemeal engagement with the Early Years System – and it often misses those who need it most, such as those from culturally and linguistically diverse families, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island families, families experiencing socio-economic disadvantage, families residing in rural and remote areas and families living with, child or caregiver disability.
Findings from this project, published in the Navigating the Early Years report, have been used as key evidence in Caring Futures Institute submissions to the Royal Commission into Early Childhood Education and Care and the Royal Commission into the Early Years Strategy.
These findings have led to another new project commissioned by Wellbeing SA, which will involve Flinders CFI working closely with Children and Families Health Service (CaFHS) to explore what more can be done to care for caregivers in the essential period of a child’s initial 12 months of life.
The researchers are reviewing universal wellbeing interventions that are currently being provided to caregivers in the first 12 months of their child’s life. They will also be arranging focus groups with caregivers and CaFHS staff to get their perspectives on what programs are needed to best support the health and wellbeing of caregivers during this important time.
“Being able to use these findings to support Royal Commission responses, and to inform this important work we are undertaking with Wellbeing SA and CaFHS has been a very rewarding aspect of this work,” says Dr Middleton.
This project aligns with Flinders CFI’s focus on a healthy start to life, and supporting life-long health and development of children, along with their families and communities. “With this work, we aim to support caregivers to care for their children,” says Dr Middleton, “setting them on a positive health and wellbeing trajectory through life.”