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Families, Disadvantage & Early Childhood Education and Care in COVID-19

The gaps in our society have been widened by COVID-19 and early childhood education can help bridge them.

Our latest report on children and their families’ experiences of COVID-19 looks at how disadvantage has changed as a result of the pandemic and recession. It shows that more families are at risk of facing disadvantage than ever before, and existing disadvantage is becoming worse.

Read the full report

While the report contains evidence of families enduring new hardships and children experiencing stress and disruption, it highlights opportunities to help children and their families overcome this.

The findings show that it is not too late to reverse the impacts of COVID-19, and the way to do this is by ensuring that families experiencing disadvantage can access quality early childhood education and care (ECEC).

Strengthening our ECEC system will strengthen Australia’s recovery from the effects of COVID-19.

The reason ECEC is so critical is because it provides children with the education and nurture they need, helps parents find work and provides a key opportunity to see, understand and address early signs of disadvantage.

“COVID-19 adds new difficulties for families experiencing hardship
who are just trying to go about their everyday lives.”

– Early childhood educator.

When we talk about disadvantage, we are not talking about a ‘fringe’ issue. There are families in every community in Australia experiencing disadvantage, with knock-on effects impacting future opportunities for children, the wellbeing and cohesion of whole communities, and the strength of our economy. This can stem from things like:

  • Not being able to afford the basic essentials – rent, food, clothing, health and hygiene products.
  • Material deprivation – not having access to a computer or internet for work or study, not having a car or reliable transport.
  • Not being able to participate in the economy – not working, paying tax or spending money.
  • Not being able to participate in the community – being socially isolated and not being able to join in sports, clubs or community groups.

It is crucial that experiences of disadvantage are noticed and understood, so early signs can be addressed.

“…some young children are not seeing or visiting extended family, neighbours or professionals. This means everything from speech therapy referrals to family violence reporting is delayed or deferred while children are not connected to their usual supports. The key issue is that not much is known about how the most disadvantaged children are going in 2020 because they and their families are not seen.”

– Dr Anne Kennedy, Early Childhood Consultant.

Some of the only stable and consistent support that has been available to children experiencing disadvantage this year has come from their regular ECEC service. Across Australia, ECEC has sustained children’s wellbeing, kept them safe and provided them with opportunities to continue learning while their lives have been disrupted by restrictions and impacts of the pandemic.

“The strength of early childhood spaces is that they are dedicated places to process and learn about the pandemic knowing they are safe with attentive adults in the room to guide them through that journey... An opportunity for the children to talk to each other about how they’re feeling and what has been going on, sharing their experiences and feelings, knowing they were and are not alone.”

– Simone Sullivan, Education Practice Advisor at C&K

Ensuring all children can access affordable and high-quality early childhood education also helps more parents take up jobs and secure their financial situation, their home, their lifestyle, and their family’s wellbeing. This means more money in pockets, fewer worries about everyday expenses, and more opportunities to invest in the economy.

“Caring for children at home meant we could not actively work from home or study.”

– Parent/carer

“My partner lost their job and I’ve had to return to work early, so we need care 6 months earlier than expected for our child.”

– Parent/carer

It is clear that COVID-19 has changed the environments that shape children’s relationships, experiences and development. We can see acknowledgement of this and commitment to ensuring that it does not have lasting impacts on children through the several studies underway that are researching school-aged children’s experiences of disadvantage during COVID-19.

However, there are no studies looking at children’s experiences in the critical early years. This is something that The Front Project hoping to address – we have scoped a study and are looking at ways to pursue it.

We currently have a window of opportunity to prevent the scarring effects of COVID-19 and the potential for long-term health and social costs.

The things we need to do now to make a difference are find out what families are experiencing, and bring forward policies to make sure families who are experiencing disadvantage can access ECEC services right now and throughout the recession, with a workforce that is appropriately trained and ready to support them.

Governments and early childhood teachers, educators and sector representatives have made significant efforts to continue providing early learning to Australian children all year, recognising the critical value it provides families in times of crisis and heightened stress.

Now is the time to galvanise these efforts and to make sure every family can access the support they need to make it through the recession.

You can assist by:

  • Learning about how disadvantage is changing and why we need to take action.
  • Speaking to children and families in your networks to find out how their situations are changing and what assistance they might need.
  • Sharing what you learn with friends and colleagues, on social media or with political representatives.

Kind Regards,

Jane Hunt