Everyone knows best

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Port Augusta Children’s Centre, SA– Winner of the Arthur Hamilton Award 2019 presented by Correna Haythorpe, AEU Federal President.

26 August 2020

Mandy Dempsey describes the Port Augusta Children’s Centre in South Australia as a “one-stop shop” for early childhood programs.

Dempsey, the centre’s director for early childhood development and parenting, and her team worked in partnership with about 200 parents and the local Aboriginal community to promote and improve attendance and engagement in early years education.

The resulting support programs and services for families were so successful that the centre was recognised with the AEU’s Arthur Hamilton Award 2019 for Outstanding Contribution to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education.

The groundswell began about five years ago when staff wondered how they could get more children and their families to attend playgroups.

Now the children’s centre underpins an innovative platform that supports the whole community.

“We didn’t want to force them into something they were not comfortable with, so we thought if we gave them a bit of an introduction they might feel more confident about coming.”

An Aboriginal transition playgroup gave parents and children a relaxed introduction to preschool routines and expectations and helped them gain a sense of belonging in a new environment.

It worked so well that preschool attendance almost doubled.

Other initiatives included a community-run radio program for people of all ages to share stories, songs and jokes including in traditional languages and an outreach program Men Behaving Dadly, which encourages men to spend more time playing with their children, getting involved in sports, or just sharing quality time.

Flexible schedules

Dempsey says involving families in conversations about how the centre operated was a key factor in increasing participation at all levels.

It turned out that while the families liked sending their children to preschool, they wanted shorter hours over more days.

Now, preschool starts later, at 10am, and runs over four days. “Giving parents more flexibility means they have more time to get up and get children ready,” says Dempsey. “And because we’ve spread it over four days, if they’re absent for one day it’s easier for them to make up any sessions they missed.”

A recent survey of parents provided much positive feedback and showed that the community has taken ownership of the centre’s operations.

“People liked that things changed because of their input, and that’s what it’s about,” says Dempsey. “If they feel like they’re connected and they belong, they’ll be there and so will their children.”

There’s also been a huge flow-on effect because as parents feel more comfortable in the centre environment, attendance becomes routine and the benefits extend to the family and wider community.

The Learning Together playgroup is led by a teacher who can also give extra support to parents who might have a child with a disability or need help with other skills.

“It’s a friendly, happy place where parents can get a bit of help at the same time,” says Dempsey. “Because it’s in a play environment, they don’t feel pressured about getting the support.

“And by not focusing on one person, you can give messages to the whole group so the mums or the carers can use that information without feeling targeted.”

Cultural connections

Support for parents extends to on-site programs that offer social work, parenting, domestic and family violence support and allied health services. It’s all part of the one-stop-shop experience.

“People told us they felt disconnected with culture and didn’t want that knowledge to get lost,” says Dempsey. “So we worked with our women’s group which ran cultural workshops at our Bush Kindy.”

Creche support is provided for parents whose children aren’t at playgroup or preschool, which frees them up to speak with community partner organisations at the centre about services they might need.

Reflecting the local population, half of the centre’s staff are Aboriginal. One woman who started as an early childhood worker recently stepped into a leadership role as a community development coordinator.

“I think when people see that progression they go, you know what? She’s one of us, and we can do this too,” says Dempsey. “Some of the mothers here left school, raised their families and then got to a point where they were thinking what’s next for me?”

Centre staff encouraged interested women take up further study. They instigated a Certificate III course in early years education through the local learning centre at the Aboriginal Health Service in partnership with TafeSA.

“One mum who got into the routine of taking her baby to playgroup three times a week is now studying. They’ve seen other people do it and realised they can do it, too. And now they’re getting qualifications and work experience, so there’s something next for them. That’s really exciting.”

By Cyndi Tebbel

The article was originally published in The Australian Educator, Winter 2020