The inclusion of children with disabilities in early learning is at risk
Early childhood education and care (ECEC) services are called upon by the approved learning frameworks and the National Law and Regulations to ensure that all children are included.
Inclusion involves taking into account all children’s social, cultural and linguistic diversity including learning styles, abilities, disabilities, gender, family circumstances and geographic location in curriculum decision-making processes. (Early Years Learning Framework, p.24; Framework for School Age Care, p.41).
Despite this mandate, the inclusion of children with disabilities in early learning settings is at risk. In the piece below, Kay Turner CEO of SDN Children’s Services: an early learning and registered NDIS provider outlines her concerns and suggests decisions and actions at both policy and service level to address them.
While children with a disability have a right to equitable access to mainstream services, many barriers stand in the way of meaningful inclusion, despite participation in high-quality early learning being good for children’s wellbeing, learning and development (whether or not they have a disability), and for the wellbeing of families.
Families where children are living with disability are likely to be under more pressure than families of their children’s peers, and as such, Ms Turner said, it’s vital that more attention is given to this important issue.
So, why is their inclusion at risk?
Many early learning centres will only accept the enrolment of a child with a disability if they can employ an additional educator, over and above the regulation requirements, Ms Turner explained.
“The Australian Government will contribute to the cost of an additional educator, but the funding doesn’t cover the full cost. The centre has to make up the difference. With the financial problems centres are experiencing due to COVID-19, it’s likely that many will decide that they can’t afford that contribution.
“For those services which are willing and able to keep making up the wage gap for additional educators to support inclusion, they’re going to have a lot of trouble finding those educators.
“There is a workforce crisis in the Australian early learning sector with shortages of teachers and educators,” she continued.
“Staff vacancy rates and time to fill positions are increasing. This started long before COVID-19 but the pandemic has made it worse. Sick leave of teachers and educators has increased significantly, and this isn’t likely to improve with schools opening for the year. Many teachers and educators are also parents of school age children and will have to stay home to care for their own children if they have COVID-19 symptoms and can’t attend school or their own early learning centre.”
Centres are struggling to have enough staff to keep fully open every day, let alone to have the additional staff they need to provide the additional care required for those children with disabilities with high support needs.
Families are fearful, Ms Turner continued, explaining that those with children with disabilities who have additional health vulnerabilities are likely to be anxious about their children attending early learning during the pandemic so may choose to make arrangements to keep them at home.
What’s the solution?
“Coming up with solutions to big problems like this is hard; but if we don’t try our silence is really saying that we don’t care,” Ms Turner said candidly. She has made the below suggestions.
The Australian Government can:
- re-introduce priority of access requirements for children with a disability to early learning centres who want to be eligible for Child Care Subsidy;
- increase the inclusion subsidy rate to be in line with the full cost of employing an additional educator for the full day/s a child attends, not just five hours a day;
- require all NDIS providers to offer best practice services for young children in their home and early learning centre, not just in clinics.
Early learning centres can:
- enroll children with a disability without assuming they always need an additional educator to make it work;
- talk to families and find ways to increase their confidence in the many measures centres are taking to keep children as safe as possible.
“The inclusion of children with disabilities in early learning is at risk, but it’s not a foregone conclusion. I urge everyone who has a role to play to act now,” Ms Turner said in closing.
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