Saturday, May 21, 2011

FNQ Early Years Forum.

The Cairns Colonial Club played host on Friday to the FNQ Early Years Forum. A mini conference running the entire day with several speakers and a host of workshops, it was an opportunity for all child service providers in the region to get together, network and learn.

The turnout for the event was very good with the conference room around 3/4 full with tables and chairs set out in a reasonably informal way. An excellent setting, the Colonial Club creates an relaxed, open ambience that makes it so much easier to engage in a conference where active participation and sharing of ideas is an essential part of the experience. The location of the venue in the centre of all surrounding suburbs was also ideal as it was central for all participants allowing for maximum attendance.

The first speaker (after welcomes and opening statements) was the keynote speaker Hetty from Bravehearts fame. This is a wonderful service provided to local children of all ages with specialised programs for individual needs.

The focus is on getting children to understand what is acceptable and what is not in terms of assault and abuse. They are taught about their bodies and which parts should not be touched, how to avoid situations in which abuse can occur and the importance of telling someone if you are uncomfortable. The two most important things these children are taught are how to listen to your intuition and the importance of having a 'safe' group of people you can talk to if there is a need.

They advocate choosing people who the child is most comfortable with and the list of possible sources for this is huge. This allows children to feel okay if they do not choose a parent or guardian as one of those on that list. Realistically, as a parent, I would prefer my child tells someone if they have a problem rather than bottles it up simply because they don't feel comfortable telling ME about it. Giving children the power to choose and feel however they like is a very necessary part of stopping the abuse in it's early stages, resulting in less long term harm for the child involved.

I know about this program because every year for the past 6, all three of my children have participated in it in some form or another. Two at Day Care, one at school. I know that it works because my children have a list each of their 'safe' people (I am on it thankfully, but only on the top on one.) and they often talk to me about people they come across who make them feel uncomfortable for some reason. None of those were potential dangers but it was interesting for me to note that they are aware of their 'gut feelings' and know the importance of it.

Unfortunately, on this occasion, I missed Hetty speak. Due to a particularly bad case of sinusitis I had to wait for my medication to kick in before venturing out. I did however, speak to several audience members in the morning tea break and throughout the day who were there for her and each confirmed what I already knew. She was amazing, inspirational and just an incredible person all round. The highlight of the day. Which is of course why I missed her. It's called Murphy's Law.

Anyway, next on the agenda was Dr Kate Freiburg from JCU who came to speak about a program run in conjunction with local public schools, Mission Australia and the Uni called Pathways to Prevention. She was not the most compelling speaker and could have got away with a 30 minute slot rather than the hour she was given as she became slightly repetitive in the end.

What she had to say was essentially information we all know. Intervention is key to any change of potential outcome. Sustained, consistent approaches work best. Collaboration with school and home is essential for success and early intervention is the best way to achieve real progress. Her favourite words were 'holistic' and 'efficacy'. Efficacy was actually a new word for me and I will now be using it as much as possible as it's an excellent word.

She also said however, that intervention can be classed as 'early' at several times during a young person's life, provided it is right before one of the main stages of development. Just because a child has reached school age without intervention does not mean nothing can be done to support the child and family and successful outcomes can't be achieved.

The largest cause of 'at risk' childhood behaviour is stress. Accumulation of stress throughout early childhood creates a reactive brain which will not necessarily think well before acting. This is because the brain uses the lower functioning areas when dealing with stress (the Limbic System) and as it's used more often, it becomes the 'default setting' when anything occurs in life that is upsetting, confrontational or difficult. Therefore, the best way to stop this from occurring is to nurture parents so they can nurture their children. Parents with low self-esteem, or efficacy, lack confidence. If we teach parents the tools to parent with it is useless if they do not have the confidence to implement what they have learnt. Teaching self confidence is not an easy task though, particularly when you are referring to adults with years of practice at putting themselves down.

While this entire speech was useful in parts, there was a decided lack of practical knowledge to compliment what we learnt. Unfortunately this left many present feeling like a huge gap had opened up and to be frank, some found it a bit dismal. Talking about all of the ways things can go wrong is essential so that we can learn how to halt the process but without the tools of change, it can't occur. More needed to be said about the actual program they have in place. The facts regarding what has worked or is working for them and what did not. This enables those present to immediately implement strategies in their own workplaces or environments. Instead we were given a science lesson without the practical side.

My other complaint actually goes to all of the speakers I saw during the day. There was plenty of notice given to the importance of Playgroups and other methods of encouraging supportive environments for very young children. Schools and their role were often lauded as being critical to the process of change, particular attention being paid to White Rock School and it's programs. What was not mentioned once though, was the role of Day Care Centres.

Many parents do not have the luxury of being stay at home mums or choose to re-enter the workplace for personal reasons. This leaves a large chunk of children in an environment without parental support and lacking in programs and services like those touted at the conference. Admittedly, Bravehearts is an anomaly but none of the others are even thinking about Day Care as an appropriate and necessary venue for some of these ideas.

It worries me that the focus may prove too narrow in encompassing only those children whose parents are not working as these are seen as the most at risk of future problems in social, developmental and educational arenas. The stresses of working and still failing to make a dent in bills and leaving a child behind to do it are surely going to affect the well-being of the child in question? Anyway, it was just an observation....probably made because the person sitting next to me was representing a Child Care provider.

Next to speak was Deborah Winkler. She came to us from the Department of Health and Aging and presented the Autism and Mental Health reforms. Her talk was informative, completely non-emotional and succinct. Facts, facts and facts. That's her job and she appears to do it well.

I found out that the Better Start for Children program which was announced last year, was one of the major winners in the recent budget. Help for those with ASD has been given for children up to age 7 for several years now. $12'000 to access services and an additional $2'000 for rural and remote areas to assist in travel or technological requirements. This has long been thought of as insufficient in terms of who is covered but also has been acknowledged that it's a long way forward compared to previous assistance (which was none). This year the scope will be expanded to include children with Downs Syndrome, Fragile X Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy, sight/hearing impairments and deafblindness. Hooray!! This is a huge step in providing adequate care and assistance for these children so that they can have the best possible start in life and the possibility now exists of a real change in potential outcomes for so many.

The other huge achievement was the announcement in the budget that children with ASD would now be eligible to access services and specialist care for up to 20 visits between the ages of 7 and 15 provided a plan is written up. This plan must be completed before the child can access help but can be done right up to the age of 13 years.

The best part of this news I only discovered after calling the Helpline that was set up in May for parents and carers (which I only heard about because I went to this forum). The number for those interested is 1800 989 530. I was told that the plans can now be done by Specialists (such as Paediatricians), medical consultants and (now here's the important change) G.P'S. This means that those who previously could not afford to have their child diagnosed now have the opportunity to access the help their child needs. It has long been recognised that a major obstacle in diagnosis was the cost involved and to remove that obstacle is a massive step in the right direction.

This helpline is only for assistance in directing parents and carers to the help available and is not unfortunately available to those who just need someone to talk to about the difficulties they face in raising these kids. This service remains a necessary one and one which I am still lobbying to achieve.

The rest of the forum continued without me as I needed to return home to dose myself back up in order to continue in my other life as mother and wife successfully so I am unaware of what happened next. I did speak to the following speaker at lunch and know that she was a lovely person who had a great interest in her area. Teeth and dental care. Health is of course a huge component of raising a child and poor dental hygiene is a real concern for children in our region.

I hope that the other members of the audience got just as much out of the day as I did and that the large crowd was enough of a reason to encourage this style of forum to be repeated in our region on a regular basis. The conversations during meal breaks were almost as informative as those occurring on stage and I am sure that many, many worthwhile connections were made on the day.

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