Goodstart’s Alma-Jane O’Donnell interviewed for Infant Mental Health Awareness Week
Infant Mental Health Awareness Week, acknowledged annually from 13-19 June, highlights the importance of babies’ emotional wellbeing and development. The 2022 theme, Understanding Early Trauma, is an important reminder to those inside and outside the early childhood education and care (ECEC) sector of the role trauma plays in the brain development of infants.
Acknowledging the significance of both the theme and the week, Goodstart Early Learning has released excerpts from a conversation with its Child and Family Service National Manager, Alma-Jane O’Donnell.
Ms O’Donnell holds a Masters Degree and Graduate Diploma in Perinatal and Infant Mental Health and has more than 20 years’ experience working internationally and nationally with ‘at risk’ families/children in the homeless, child protection and early years settings.
She has extensive experience in program and service development in home visiting and early learning, and has presented in Australia and overseas on work done with families in child protection services and intervention to reduce the impact of trauma on development of children from birth to five years of age, both therapeutically and in early learning services.
Trauma spikes post pandemic
Despite the great strides being made in Australia about the importance of early intervention, Ms O’Donnell began, the world finds itself at a tipping point for working with children who have experienced trauma.
Following the challenges of the pandemic for children and families alike, ECEC practitioners and those in allied fields are seeing “more and more children who have experienced trauma and whose mental health has been compromised”.
“This is also relevant in data showing a significant increase nationally, in child protection notifications,” she continued. “We’ve seen many families that were coping before COVID-19, and the toll of COVID has added additional anxiety and stress and they are starting to break down.”
Signs of trauma
When it comes to signs that educators and other ECEC professionals may observe in a child who has experienced trauma, Ms O’Donnell says “there are many” but that the first clue is often that children are displaying quite volatile behaviours such as breaking windows, throwing chairs, or hurting themselves.
“It’s devastating to witness and sadly, across the community, trauma-induced behaviours are misunderstood,” she continued.
How services can support
Drawing on the practices, policies and pedagogy used at Goodstart services, Ms O’Donnell said there are a number of ways in which ECEC professionals can support children who have experienced trauma.
While Goodstart teams routinely use high-quality practices and interactions with children to help manage traume, there is a targeted program which supports children who have experienced significant trauma.
“This bespoke, child-centred Intensive Individual Support Plan addresses the unique needs of each child who has experienced trauma and is at risk of poor learning, development and wellbeing outcomes,” she explained.
This program supports educators to develop a greater understanding of the child building mutual confidence and trust between the child and their educator, with a recent evaluation by the University of Adelaide showing that the program was effective in increasing children’s ability to name their emotions, improved their language skills, and increased their capacity to participate in learning experiences, in turn demonstrating more empathy toward their peers.
Intensive Individual Support Plan supports more than 250 children
More than 250 children attending Goodstart centres have been supported through the Intensive Individual Support Plans, which allow an educator to work one-on-one with a child under the guidance of a child and family practitioner, using trauma-informed and gradient attachment-based practices.
The 12-week Intensive Support Plan focuses on helping each child feel a strong sense of belonging, by experiencing a warm and responsive relationship. With this foundation in place, they thrive because they feel safe, nurtured, and valued, leading to better learning outcomes.
Currently the social inclusion help desk team is processing about three referrals a week from the Goodstart centre network, a significant upswing from last year, when around three referrals a month were received.
“We are seeing more family break downs and more cases of children from child protection, children being removed from their homes and more child placed in residential care,” Ms O’Donnell shared.
“These referrals come from our centres as well as external agencies who are seeking to support the child to access early learning. Our team assists in placing the child at the right centre and with the right support around them,” she continued.
To highlight the way that Goodstart’s Intensive Individual Support Plan supports children who have experienced significant trauma, the provider shared the story of four-year-old Harry (name changed to ensure privacy for the child.)
Harry’s upbringing has been chaotic — marked by a family home life of domestic violence at the hands of his father. Living in constant fear and in order to cope, he learnt to trust no-one.
After his father was jailed, his mother and siblings received the support of a refuge and Harry was referred to a local Goodstart centre. During Harry’s Kindergarten orientation, the centre team observed several trauma behaviours and applied for additional inclusion support — funded by Goodstart. Goodstart’s 12-week Intensive Individual Support Plan was quickly implemented to ensure Harry got the support he needed ahead of school. At the same time, educators received trauma training to equip them with strategies to respond to Harry’s behaviour cues and needs.
Within weeks of starting at the centre, the positive impact the dedicated out-of-ratio educator, Jane, and the intensive plan was having on Harry’s development, was visible.
Jane discovered Harry’s love of sensory play and started incorporating it into learning activities. Harry learned to trust Jane and his fears reduced visibly within weeks. By week three, Harry had made a friend and started to sit near other children.
By week seven, much progress had been made but his life was thrown into chaos with news of his father being released from jail, potentially placing his mother’s life at risk. The family was relocated and by working with Child Protection services, Goodstart was able to continue supporting Harry at a new Goodstart centre. Harry’s Intensive Individual Support Plan continued, and he is now engaging well with other children in small groups.
Harry has had no escalations in behaviours, and his confidence and communication skills have improved dramatically.
Because of this support, his mother can now undertake further study to gain employment and improve the family’s financial and living conditions.
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