Engaging Vulnerable Children and Families

Loraine Fordham
Anne Kennedy
Charles Sturt University

Over the past decade, researchers and policy-makers have increasingly affirmed universal early childhood education and care (ECEC) services as the best way to provide equitable ECEC to all children. While evidence suggests that Australian ECEC services are trying to engage vulnerable children and their families, some of the most vulnerable do not avail themselves of universal services. ECEC programs that specifically focus on vulnerable families may provide two solutions to the problem of at-risk children not participating in universal ECEC services. They may ensure that some of the most vulnerable will connect with services designed to support them and they may assist the sector by sharing how they successfully engage vulnerable families. This paper appraises universal and targeted ECEC services and suggests how both can be combined. It then describes a recent ethnographic study into an Australian ECEC program designed to support vulnerable children and families. It shares some of the study’s findings as well as implications that may be helpful for universal ECEC service providers.

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Talk-about Inclusive Environments

Talk-about Inclusive Environments

Talk-about is a personal, small group discussion group on a topic, recognised by the Inclusion Professional (IP) or requested by a service. Talk-about is aimed at a specific topic and age group, such as “inclusive environments for infants” or “engaging with 3-5 year olds to expand learning”, for example.

Inclusion Professionals facilitate educators in identifying their ideas, thoughts, barriers and strengths around a topic, including support to build connections within the community and services, so they are able to better assist in developing each others' capacity.

Talk-about is a hands on approach, and information is delivered via a range of media including power point, visuals, demonstration and discussions which prompt questions and discussion. The intent of talk-about is that the provocations discussed will lead to resolutions, shared information and experiences and networks established or re-established, as well as the identification of further support needs.

A recent Talk-about in Alice Springs focused on creating inclusive environments in infant rooms.

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Why we need a Strategic Inclusion Plan

No doubt, most educators in ECEC services strive to promote inclusion and appreciate the fact that every child has the right to access early education, meaningful participation and succeed alongside their peers.

The first port of call for many services is often their Inclusion Professional (IP), to provide advice and assist with accessing different levels of inclusion support.  Many would have contributed to the development of a Strategic Inclusion Plan (SIP) or would have at least engaged in discussions about the SIP with their IP.  Because we are human, many of us would have also experienced thoughts such as, “Not another piece of paper!” or “Oh no, more work and not enough time!” 

There are some very good reasons why we need a SIP.  Let us explore this in more detail!   

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Partnerships with Families of Young Children with Disabilities

For many families of young children with disabilities, their experience of the attitudes and practices of some early childhood environments has been less than ideal. Subtle suggestions such as implying that a child may be better off in another setting or that the physical environment of the service may not be adequate, are in fact, breaches of both government legislation and the United Nations Conventions (DEEWR, 2009; Disability Discrimination Act, 1992; Disability Standards for Education, 1995; Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, 1989, 2006). The National Quality Standard also outlines a clear requirement for inclusion (see Quality Area 6: Collaborative partnerships with families and communities, Standard 6.3) which emphasises the importance of collaboration with other organisations to enhance children’s learning and wellbeing, and facilitating access to inclusion and support assistance.

Inclusive practices involve much more than a philosophy statement displayed on the wall or in a parent handbook. Inclusion is all about relationships in action—between children, educators and children, and educators and families.

Partnering with families involves demonstrating an embracing of inclusion and of each and every child, right from the start. From the first time families make a phone call, or walk through the door, to everyday interactions with each educator and staff member at the service, attitudes and practices potentially supporting inclusion (or not!) are on display. Right from the start and, as relationships develop over time with families, it can be helpful to explore several key elements of partnering relationships with families:

• sharing of power and responsibility

• mutuality • shared aims and goals

• commitment to joint action.

(Adapted here from Bastiani, 1993, Chapter 7.)

Sharing of power and responsibility

Do educators really share power and responsibility in their relationships with parents? Who decides what is happening over the course of the child’s day? Do educators carefully consider the personalised understanding parents have of their own child?

Early childhood professionals have both a legislated and ethical requirement to acknowledge the primary relationship and holistic knowledge of all parents (DEEWR, 2009; ECA, 2016a, 2016b; ECA & ECIA, 2012; Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, 1989).

Sharing power and responsibility means being aware of the feelings families may experience about entrusting the care of their child to an early childhood professional and taking the time to build on families’ knowledge of their child—the child’s particular interests, ways to effectively engage them in experiences, their strengths and qualities, any particular needs of the child and how they go about addressing these at home. It may sometimes mean doing things a little differently or learning a new way to engage with children.


Do educators really listen to parents? Or do they listen and then go back to their own way of ‘doing’?

The concept of mutuality refers to when there is a sense of ‘give and take’ and listening to each other’s views. This builds on the concept of shared power and responsibility and is supported by collaborative practice.

Dunst, Trivette and Hamby (2007), when discussing early childhood intervention practices, provide an explanation which can also apply to partnering relationships between educators and parents.They define mutuality as positive help-giving behaviours, the type of support that is built on the acknowledgement of individual and family strengths, and aims, together with families, to helpfully support the child’s further learning, development and participation in everyday life.

Shared aims and goals

Who develops the aims and goals for each child at the service? Do parents ‘have a say’ in these goals? Or do educators decide for them? Are aims and goals for children with disabilities similar or different to those for the broader group of children? Why? Why not? Do aims and goals reflect the child’s own voice?

Sharing leadership in relationships with parents of young children with disabilities rests on the conception of parents and early childhood professionals as partners. Carnell and Lodge (2002), and Mulford (2008) explain this concept as co-constructing service provision, based on identification of shared goals. Together, educators and families can co-construct their hopes and aspirations for a child’s learning and development, building on the child’s own interests, unique qualities, hopes and dreams.

Commitment to joint action

Who is planning to implement these shared aims and goals? Is it the educator at the service? Is it the family at home? Or is it in fact both principal environments of the child?

A commitment to joint action means that the responsibility for the child’s learning and development is shared and becomes the emphasis for collaboration between the parent and the early childhood professional. This requires excellent communication, commitment and shared accountability of both parents and early childhood professionals.

It also requires an understanding and appreciation of family needs, aspirations and the broader complexities of ecological impacts on a family’s circumstances, time and energy. Particularly if a child has a disability, there can be an increased number of appointments, financial commitments, and the like. Both educators and parents must demonstrate commitment to the shared responsibility for the child’s learning and development—but it is also important to remember that for the paid early childhood professional, their joint action is also a requirement of the job and their responsibility as a professional.

How does an educator take on board the family’s aspirations, the child’s voice, their joint goals and responsibilities and enact true inclusion? It takes a welcoming attitude, and inclusive partnering practices, based on shared power and responsibility, mutuality, shared aims and goals, and commitment to joint action.

An excellent resource to reflect upon is ECA’s Statement on the inclusion of every child in early childhood education and care (2016b). Education and care services can also receive support from the Inclusion and Professional Support Program: www.education.gov.au/inclusion-and-professional-support-program.


Thank you to Stephanie O’Collins, Children’s Services Authorised Officer, Quality Assessment and Ratings Eastern Metro Area, Department of Education and Training and Linda Sinadinos, Early Childhood Performance and Planning Adviser, Inner East North-Eastern Victoria,  Department of Education and Training for their review and suggestions for this article.

Jackie Brien

Manager Inclusion Access and Participation Department of Education and Training Co-Editor, Every Child


Bastiani, J. (1993). Parents as partners: Genuine progress or empty rhetoric? In P. Munn (Ed.), Parents and schools: Customers, managers or partners? (Chapter 7). London, UK: Routledge.

Carnell, E., & Lodge, C. (2002). Supporting effective learning. London, UK: Chapman.

Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR). (2009). Belonging, Being & Becoming: The Early Years Learning Framework for Australia. Canberra, ACT: Commonwealth of Australia. Disability Discrimination Act. (1992). Retrieved from www.legislation.gov.au.

Disability Standards for Education. (1995). Retrieved from www.education.gov.au/disability.

Dunst, C., Trivette, C., & Hamby, D. (2007). Metaanalysis of family-centred help-giving practices research. Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Research Reviews Special Issue: Families of Children with Developmental Disabilities, 13(4), 370–378.

Early Childhood Australia (ECA). (2016a). Code of Ethics. Canberra, ACT: ECA. Retrieved fromwww.earlychildhoodaustralia.org.au/our-publications/ eca-code-ethics/code-of-ethics-core-principles/.

Early Childhood Australia (ECA). (2016b). Statement on the inclusion of every child in early childhood education and care. Canberra, ACT: ECA. Retrieved from www.earlychildhoodaustralia.org.au/wp-content/ uploads/2014/01/Statement-of-Inclusion-2016.pdf.

Early Childhood Australia (ECA) & Early Childhood Intervention Australia (ECIA). (2012). Position statement on the inclusion of children with a disability in early childhood education and care. Retrieved fromwww.ecia-nsw.org.au/documents/item/355.

Mulford, B. (2008). Australian Education Review. The leadership challenge: Improving learning in schools. Camberwell, Vic.: ACER Press.

Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. (1989). UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Geneva, Switzerland: United Nations.

Office of the United Nations High Commissioner of Human Rights. (2006). UN Convention on the Rightsof Persons with Disabilities. Geneva, Switzerland: United Nations.

Inclusion Support: Hermannsburg, MacDonnell District, in January 2017

Inclusion Support: Hermannsburg, MacDonnell District, in January 2017

In January, mother nature put on a display of rain and winds causing wide spread flooding across many regions. Impassable sealed and unsealed roads were experienced in the Central Desert Region, MacDonnell Desert Region and Barkley region causing frustration and delays to many industries. However, as frustrating as it may be when the rain causes rivers to burst their banks; the images of our landscape become the most breathtaking and spectacular sight.

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BEYOND SCREEN TIME — Moving Toward Developmentally Appropriate Use of Technology in ECE

BEYOND SCREEN TIME — Moving Toward Developmentally Appropriate Use of Technology in ECE

Some ECE experts contend that the task of defining developmentally appropriate technology use is no different from the task of defining developmentally appropriate use for any other learning tool, such as a book or a set of blocks. They counsel ECE providers to ask, as they would for any tool, “Is the content and form of the tool developmentally appropriate for young children? How will using the tool help support children’s learning?”

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Helping children deal with their emotions

It’s normal for young children to be anti-social, rebellious, defiant and even verbally aggressive at times and for children up to the age of about six to also sometimes be physically aggressive. You can particularly expect an increase in defiance or aggression at times of extra stress relating to changes like a new sibling, moving house, change of caregiver, increased conflict amongst parents or starting school.

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