Original article published on CELA, Community Early Learning Australia. Written by Margaret Paton.
An inclusive preschool, Learning Links, of Peakhurst NSW, reveals to CELA writer Margaret Paton how it goes about welcoming children of all abilities into its service.
‘It’s all in the welcome.’
Do you talk with your hands? How about signing? Welcome to Learning Links, an early learning service where all educators communicate by signing with every child and adult, no matter whether they have language difficulties or not.
Key word signing is standard practice for staff at Learning Links Preschool in the Sydney suburb of Peakhurst, NSW.
Melissa Murphy and Sarah Herbert share the Preschool Manager role and between them have almost four decades of experience in the early learning sector. The organisation was set up in the 1970s by parents who were concerned about the lack of educational support for their children with learning difficulties.
Herbert says: ‘For many children and their families our service could be the only time they experience inclusive education. More kids are going in mainstream kindergartens [for school] and how wonderful for all the children to experience an inclusive setting.’
About 25% of Learning Link Preschool’s enrolments are children with a natural diagnosis under the NDIS and the remainder are children from the community ‘for whom there are no concerns for their development’.
‘We’re providing a service that can meet the needs of all children. All children are eligible for enrolment, everyone is welcome,’ says Herbert.
‘We don’t promise that when a child with complex needs starts with our service, they’ll get to ‘x’ end point.
‘We will join with parents, listen, problem solve, figure out what resources we need, we will work out the best way we can to support each child to be included in our setting.’
When every child is supported as an individual anyway, the thinking goes, it’s not a huge leap to adapt when special needs arise.
Herbert says that with solid foundations and strategies supporting the early learning of all children as part of our everyday teaching practice, the Learning Links team isn’t starting from scratch when they enrol a new child with a disability or complex needs.’
They work with several educators, plus have a part-time speech therapist, occupational therapist and provisional psychologist working in their classrooms side by side.
The inclusiveness is evident even when the occupational therapist runs a twice-weekly gym group – all children take part. The staff to children ratio is roughly four or five staff to 20 children due the complex needs among some of the learners.
Herbert says: ‘We have a very holistic model of development in our program to support the children. Our service has a strong culture of learning.’
The service philosophy is for its staff to be very supportive of children of all abilities plus creating partnerships with their families. It’s about acknowledging that children work and learn best when everyone in their life works together in a consistent way, says Herbert.
‘Our philosophy is built more around code of ethics and best practice from an early childhood and early childhood intervention perspective,’ she says.
‘Our practice reflects a lot of different development theories such as socio cultural and knowledge from various perspectives. We focus on relationships, and strengths of the families of the children, and what the children bring.’
A solid community partnership that’s flourished over several years is with the local Men’s Shed. In fact, one of the Men’s Shed members has become something of a public advocate for Learning Links, says Herbert.
‘Those relationships with the community need time and you have to give time when the Men’s Shed volunteers come out,’ she says.
‘We take our time to chat about what’s been going on. We don’t rush and [as a result] they are genuine relationships.’
The Men’s Shed has built an outdoor mud kitchen area for the service and a cubby house (see photograph above with the mud kitchen in the background)
Other partnerships are with the local Lions Club, and the primary school across the road.
Challenges include handling funding changes for three year olds and finding time to do marketing – something Herbert says wasn’t on their radar until recent years.
‘[Inclusion is] strongly embedded in your personal practice and philosophy and you actively recruit staff to match their beliefs to your service’s approach.’
As for other services keen to be more inclusive, Herbert offers this: ‘It’s all in the welcome.’
‘The approach, attitude and commitment to inclusion embedded first in the service philosophy and reflected in all we do – from the leader to the entire team,’ she says.
‘It’s strongly embedded in your personal practice and philosophy and you actively recruit staff to match their beliefs to your service’s approach. You don’t have to have an expert in children with disabilities.’
Herbert says sometimes people see the service as just having a disability focus and responds:
‘Yes that’s our area of expertise, but at the end of the day, we are a great preschool for all children.’
Learning Links is looking at expanding its reach to support more young children from a disadvantaged background and to one day update its premises, too.