Improving early learning for Indigenous children

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  Published on Tuesday, 10 August 2021

Improving early learning for Indigenous children

Library Home  >  Diversity and Inclusion
  Published on Tuesday, 10 August 2021

Recent studies have shown that preschool services provide significant developmental benefits for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, as compared to long day care or home-based care.

These studies looked at how preschools help young Indigenous children reach their physical, social, emotional, language and cognitive, and communication milestones faster and more consistently than other kinds of care environments, to give them more of an advantage when starting school, and greater educational benefits for life.  

This week, we will take a close look at the developmental benefits of preschool for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, and how early learning services can work on closing the gap between young Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australian children.

The Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care (SNAICC) says that “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are twice as likely as other children to be developmentally vulnerable when they start school.”

This may be due to the fact Indigenous children often come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and more disadvantaged households, as children from more advantaged situations are more likely to attend formal preschool settings.

Efforts are being made by the Federal Government of Australia to close the gap between the life experiences and expectancies of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, with a great deal of focus being put on improving early life outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.

The SNAICC writes, “Evidence suggests that access to high quality early education holds the greatest potential for improved outcomes for our children.”

As a result, attention has been centred on improving the availability and affordability of quality, local child care options for Indigenous families.

This effort is outlined on the National Indigenous Australians Agency’s (NIAA) website: “Through the Indigenous Advancement Strategy (IAS), the Australian Government is investing $48 million over the period 2020-21 in a range of early childhood development and enabling activities, like supported playgroups, and community and family engagement activities.

This funding supplements mainstream Commonwealth support in childcare, pre-school, health and family support programs.”

A separate report from the NIAA outlines the steps that need to be taken to achieve the goals of increasing the proportion of Indigenous Australian children enrolled in early childhood education to 95 per cent by 2025, and ensuring that 55 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are assessed as “developmentally on track” by 2031 up from the 35.2 per cent assessed in 2018.

These steps are:

  • Building a strong community-controlled early years sector
  • Supporting families to engage in education of their children
  • Providing access to affordable quality child care
  • Focus on quality learning and development outcomes

While these are positive steps being taken on a national level, there are also things that can be done at the level of individual services to improve the experiences and outcomes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in early learning situations.

The first step may be for ECEC professionals to undertake training in cultural competence, to become more aware of the cultural needs of Indigenous Australian children, and to ensure that these needs are being met.

Training, with online options, is available through a number of organisations, including SNAICC and Edith Cowan University. This training can be specific to the cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, or it can be more generic to be inclusive of a diverse range of cultures.

Another option is to reach out to First Nations elders and leaders in your local community and ask for their perspectives and their input.

“The solution is simple,” says Jan Wright, former executive director of Ngroo Education, which focuses on increasing Aboriginal participation in early childhood education and care.

“Bring someone in to raise awareness. It’s the first step to building a relationship with the community. We believe, speaking of the Aboriginal community now—though it would transfer into other cultures—that training needs to be delivered by trained and local people who belong to that culture.”

Wiradjuri woman and early childhood educator Michelle Hamilton writes in her article on embedding Indigenous perspectives in ECEC settings:

“The most beneficial resources you will have are the people in your community, their knowledge and expertise on living culture every day. Whether you have Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families enrolled in your programs is not the question,” she adds.

“The implementation and engagement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture is too valuable not to embed and can only enrich your program for all children and families.”

A number of other resources are available to help non-Indigenous organisations connect with their local Indigenous communities, and to make meaningful connections for the benefit of their staff, the children in their care in relation to early learning services - whether Indigenous or non-Indigenous Australians.

These include SNAICC’s Working and Walking Together booklet, available for free download, and the Narragunnawali suite of early learning resources that focus on introducing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural beliefs and practises to young children.

Wright says in her article written for CELA, that understanding cultural differences can often look like a much more complicated task than it actually is:

“There are more commonalities than there are differences,” she says. “It’s probably safer for centres to look at the commonalities than to get tied up in thinking ‘I have to know this about this mob and this about that mob’.” 

The best way really for early learning services to build a more culturally inclusive environment for all children is to take the first step toward becoming more culturally aware and respectful of cultural differences and similarities, whatever that first step may be for each particular service.

This child care article was last reviewed or updated on Monday, 09 August 2021