In 2016 ECMS received funding from the Department of Education and Training for a pilot program to support children and families experiencing vulnerability in Melton and Brimbank to access Early Start Kindergarten and pre-purchased kindergarten places. More than two years on, the program has been so successful ECMS is advocating for it to become a permanent part of the Victorian education system. 

ECMS was the lead as one of four early years management providers in the western region of Melbourne to receive funding to take part in the Outreach Family Support Program, a Victorian Government-funded pilot program designed to connect families experiencing vulnerability to free kindergarten and other specialist support. 

Janet Williams-Smith, ECMS’ Director of Service Development and Strategy, says, “ECMS used the money to second two family violence workers from the Caroline Chisholm Society to work at ECMS for 12 months as outreach family support workers. Their role was to build a connection between kindergartens, family support and child protection services, to identify children who were experiencing vulnerability and on their caseloads who were not attending kindergarten.” 

Children were allocated free places at their nearest kindergarten. And the outreach family support workers then worked in the kindergartens to support educators and navigate families into the pathways of kindergarten. 

“Knowing how to respond to families in crisis and directing parents to the right help and resources can be challenging for ECMS educators,” says Janet. “The outreach family support workers have been a critical resource in opening up pathways between education, health and family support services in these local communities.” 

To support educators taking part in the program, ECMS ran two training workshops on how to work with families experiencing vulnerability. They learnt how to have tricky conversations with families around children’s presenting behaviours, how to recognise signs of and symptoms of the impact of family violence and trauma, and how to report to child protection. 

For Bridge Road Kindergarten educator Melanie, this training and working alongside the outreach family support workers was a huge learning curve. “I knew in this particular area of Melton and Melton South there’s a high number of families experiencing vulnerability and disadvantage, but I certainly didn’t know how important it was to have that support person to liaise with the families from Child FIRST or child protection. That’s something I became aware of and used.” 

Melanie says the Outreach Family Support Program was invaluable in enabling her to engage and teach some of the most hard-to-reach families and children in the local community. “Providing children experiencing vulnerability access to safe, progressive and supportive environments at kindergarten, where there are educators who have their best interests at heart, can really help them flourish. 

“We have one family with three and four-year-old children who experienced such severe separation anxiety when they came to us that their mum couldn’t leave a room without them worrying about where she was. Eighteen months into their time at kindergarten and these children are thriving. They have developed so much confidence and built wonderful friendships with their peers and educators that will support them when they start school. 

“Their parents are happy knowing whatever else is going on in their lives; their children have the opportunity to attend a high- quality kindergarten program 15 hours a week. And the family can come in and have someone to talk to about what’s going on in their lives that is affecting their children.” 

Janet says, “Many children experiencing vulnerability are often in families that are struggling with some really complex issues. Some families need lots of different types of support to enable them to provide opportunities for their children. 

“Free kindergarten places provided by the Victorian State Government is one piece of the puzzle, but families also need support and navigation to find them and maintain participation. The early childhood service teachers also need skills and resources to ensure they can respond and engage the families and children. 

“This program has seen some staggering outcomes: a 300 per cent increase in the uptake of Early Start Kindergarten places in Brimbank in 2017, along with a 93 per cent uptake of the pre-purchased kindergarten places. 

“These children now have access to a carefree, open learning environment in their year before school. They have opportunities to play, learn new things and become the people they are.”