There are over 48,000 Australian children currently in out-of-home care (OOHC). Journalist Mykeala Campanini explores why a majority of these children are struggling to reach national literacy and numeracy benchmarks, which puts them at risk of becoming disengaged with schooling, resulting in lifelong disadvantage.
Children in OOHC are unable to live with their primary caregivers for various reasons such as experiences of abuse, neglect or parents being unable to care for their children.
OOHC may be long or short term and includes a number of care arrangements such as foster care, kinship care, residential care and other arrangements.
With 30.81% of children in OOHC in Australia being between the ages of 5-9 years – which are critical ages when children learn language and literacy skills – this can affect their literacy development, learning and earning potential later in life.
Interventions at these early stages play an important role in helping children in OOHC to develop their learning skills to strengthen the protective factors known to improve educational engagement and reduce educational disadvantage.
Kindergarten key to positive outcomes
Research from the Queensland Department of Child Safety, Youth and Women has found that access to early learning experiences such as those gained through quality kindergarten programs is associated with higher levels of language, cognitive development as well as more cooperation and less aggressive behaviour.
Dr Ruth Knight from QUT’s Australian Centre for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Studies (ACPNS) released a report titled Children in out-of-home care and their educational outcomes, identifying what puts children in OOHC at risk of educational disadvantage and what can protect them and their educational outcomes.
“Children in foster care or OOHC are more likely to be at an educational disadvantage, they need effective interventions from an early age to reduce the risk of disengagement from school and subsequent long term social and economic challenges,” Dr Knight said.
“Issues leading to this disadvantage include trauma, low self-efficacy, behavioural and emotional problems, as well as home and school instability.
“There is also often a lack of fundamental language and pre-reading skills due to poor access to early childhood education, books at home and disruptions due to moving between care placements.”
Dr Knight’s report highlights the importance of early childhood education as an early learning intervention for children in OOHC through play and engagement with others, as well as engagement with learning that results in positive factors such as good self esteem and a sense of self efficacy.
“Good literacy and social skills early in life are seen as crucial protective factors, because these skills form the foundation for learning and subsequent success in achieving an education and doing well in life,” Dr Knight said.
“It is considered important for children to play and engage well with school, as these educational experiences have important implications as they mature and seek lifelong wellbeing.”
The role of early childhood education teachers
Early childhood education teachers and assistants can play an essential role in supporting children in OOHC, through building the protective factors in a child’s life whilst at kindergarten.
“Building these protective factors can be done through providing safe, kind and loving relationships which develop a child’s self efficacy, their literacy skills and resilience, all while learning,” Dr Knight said.
“In addition, given the specific needs of the OOHC cohort, a trauma informed approach that builds trust and communicates effectively with these children is crucial.
“Attending professional development in the area of OOHC children is a great strategy to provide more skills and support to early childhood teachers who work with children in foster care.
“Increasing teachers’ confidence so they can provide flexible learning programs which are underpinned by relational pedagogy, for example, Circle of Security, will have significant individual and social impact.”
Funding and government policy
Each Australian state and territory government is responsible for administering funding for children in OOHC including funding for education support.
The funds are provided on a needs basis to “enhance education support services for individuals in OOHC when an early learning centre or school identifies a need for literacy and numeracy support, mentoring programs and flexible/alternative education options”.
One of the standards in the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children 2009-2020 states that children in OOHC should be able to access and participate in education and early childhood services.
The framework states: “The importance of early exposure to education is particularly highlighted as the most effective way to help children in OOHC reach their potential.”
Although government policy acknowledges the importance of children being engaged in learning and education, a lack of effective communication and planning between carers, child protection officers and teachers inhibits effective interventions and outcomes.
A report published by the Queensland Department of Communities, Child Safety and Disability Services, titled Valuing and improving educational outcomes for children in OOHC revealed this lack of communication between core adults with regards to education and recommended that strategies to improve the outcomes for children in OOHC should include engaging all stakeholders in a child’s life.
The Love of Learning Program
The Love of Learning Program, delivered by The Pyjama Foundation, is one of only two mentoring interventions focusing on improving literacy in children living in OOHC in Australia.
Bronwyn Sheehan, Founder and Executive Director of The Pyjama Foundation, said with 92% of children in OOHC being below the average reading level by age seven, The Love of Learning Program is essential to breaking the cycle of educational disadvantage.
“By giving children their own learning mentor and empowering them with education and confidence to succeed, we aim to change the educational future of children in OOHC,” Sheehan said.
“Children in OOHC have the lowest educational attainment of any cohort in Australia and require a support network around them to help guide their path and allow them to reach their full potential.
“Through The Love of Learning Program, The Pyjama Foundation trains committed volunteers from the community to mentor a foster child in the foster home on a weekly basis.
“The volunteers meet with the children to read and implement educational play. The program was initially based on the empirically proven impact of a simple activity that most take for granted – having books read to them.
“The program has now expanded into numeracy and a variety of life skills, socialisation and life mentoring. The volunteers deliver a specifically designed literacy and numeracy model which encapsulates the theory of making learning fun.”
Dr Knight said notable strengths of The Love of Learning Program are that it actively develops protective factors for the child by providing a continuous mentoring relationship even if the child moves foster placements or schools.
“The program encourages a sense of pride in a child’s identity as a learner, with the activities deliberately promoting the child’s self-efficacy and resilience,” Dr Knight said.
“The Pyjama Foundation currently provides 62,100 hours per year to mentor and support children in OOHC, with 84% of mentors reporting positive change in children’s ability to concentrate on a task as well as a general positive attitude towards learning.”
Early childhood educator referrals
When it comes to raising children in OOHC, the saying ‘it takes a village’ really does speak volumes.
Sheehan advises that early childhood teachers can assist not only through the work done in the classroom, but also by referring a child in OOHC to join The Love of Learning Program.
“We advise that early childhood teachers who believe a child in their class may benefit from the support of a Pyjama Angel should touch base with their foster carer and share with them the value of the program,” Sheehan said.
“If the foster carer is happy to go ahead, teachers can make referrals via our online portal; in order to finalise the referral, our organisation will need to make contact with the child’s Child Safety Officer.
“The program is available in specific locations in Queensland, NSW and Victoria and children from as young as one month up until the age of 18 are eligible.
“In order to be approved for the program, the child must be living in OOHC and have an approved referral from their Child Safety Officer,” Sheehan said.
Further details can be found at https://thepyjamafoundation.com/refer-a-child/