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A kindergarten begs for help for its special needs children

Last week a kindergarten in Wellington wrote an open letter to the Minister for Education, pleading for their children with special needs to get the support they need. As part of a Spinoff Parents series on early childhood education in New Zealand, Michaela Harris went to the kindergarten to talk to teachers and parents.

Newtown Kindergarten is a purpose built facility nestled behind the hospital and blood bank in Newtown, Wellington. It has been open since 1944. When I visited the centre, it was bursting with life as almost 40 three and four year olds ran, played dress ups, and swung from monkey bars in the most enthusiastic state of organised chaos I’ve seen.

On the day of my visit, the large sandpit was being turned into a volcano, complete with bubbling red hot lava made of food colouring, vinegar, baking soda and imagination. This is a centre with creative and energetic children embodying the spirit of adventure.

This is also a centre with a passionate and dedicated teaching staff. Teachers who take the time to explain the concept of lava to an inquisitive three year old who has asked this same question many times before. Teachers who alternate between lending a hand on the jungle gym to comforting an upset new entrant in the blink of an eye. This is a teaching staff invested in the wellbeing of their small charges and the wider whānau they belong to.

But this is also a teaching staff worn down by the uphill battle they face when advocating for the most vulnerable on their roll.

Last week, Newtown Kindergarten grew tired of being the squeaky wheel that never received any grease. They penned an open letter to the Minister of Education about their frustrations and the short comings they see for their children with high or special needs. The teachers stressed repeatedly they did not do this for publicity or to lighten their own teaching load. They are frustrated and concerned for the children they know need help that they cannot provide.

I was welcomed with open arms at Newtown Kindergarten. I arrived on Picture day which was the most adorable and hectic display of herding kittens I have ever seen. I was given an opportunity to get involved with the life of the centre as well as speak with parents and past teachers. Those connected with the school both past and present spoke of a teaching staff invested in what is best for their children, I was assured that what I was experiencing was not for show. That love felt genuine and was infectious.

Newtown is a very diverse community and the children at Newtown Kindergarten reflect that. This means that there is a high number of children with English as a second language. The ability to speak more than one language can have wide reaching benefits for children but it can also bring frustration and behavioural issues. Which makes sense. Of course, if you can not communicate your wants and needs to those around you and are too small to understand why, you are bound to get frustrated and lash out.

The Special Education Early Intervention Service is a team of early intervention teachers, education support workers, Kaitakawaenga (Māori cultural advisors), psychologists, speech-language therapists and advisors for deaf children. Once an assessment is done the appropriate service will work with families and early childhood education facilities, like Newtown Kindergarten, to provide support to the child for the developmental delay, behavioural concern, disability or communication difficulties they are experiencing.

This is a largely self referral system with families and care facilities identifying the needs. This, the Newtown Kindergarten say, can also cause problems when waiting lists for assessments are long.

Many within the Newtown community come from outside New Zealand and often do not feel entitled to access these types of services for themselves or their children. The Kindergarten does not want to assume every quiet child that walks through their doors has an issue, it can take up to three months for the centre to be certain someone needs assistance. The teachers have taken on the role of advocate for many of their families, helping to navigate language and cultural barriers. If a child is waiting eight months for an initial assessment then that is potentially eleven months of missed opportunities to intervene.

Assessments did not always take so long.

We know early intervention has benefits. A former teacher remembers that initial assessments used to take weeks or at worse up to a month, not the eight to twelve months wait currently experienced. One uncommunicative child, referred to the service for language and speech difficulties, was found to have anxiety concerns instead. The ability of the Early Intervention Services team to make home assessments meant they were able to see the difference and provide the Kindergarten with a structured plan to support that child to be comfortable in the learning environment.

Newtown Kindergarten teachers are quick to make the point that this is not a problem with the professionals they interact with, those that are equally dedicated to helping provide successful learning outcomes. But these are specialised roles that are being offered in underpaid and overworked conditions. Staff turn over and restructure rates seem high the teachers say. When support workers leave they are not always replaced.

One example was that of a Kindergarten student assessed at an entitlement of six hours a week with a support worker. Everyone agreed great improvement was being shown but after the support work handed in notice  and moved on there was a gap of a school term before a replacement was appointed. This meant progress was stalled and the catch up was harder when the support eventually returned.

Staff levels had changed but student needs had not.

Nikki Kaye, Minister of Education, says there are a range of factors contributing to wait times for support from Early Intervention services. Including more children engaging with early childhood services and more teachers identifying the needs. She acknowledged that wait times are too high in some cases. She also stated that in some cases the Early Intervention Services team have contacted parents to offer services that have then been turned down, delaying that process further if children still do need help.

The teachers at Newtown Kindergarten also say this happens but from their experience parents turn down these services due to lack of understanding of English and not being sure what they are refusing.

Newtown Kindergarten

While funding for ECE has increased since 2010, it has only been to cover increases in the number of children enrolled.

Per-child funding for early childhood education in New Zealand has been frozen. When inflation is taken into account this is around a five percent funding reduction since 2010. So, despite the funding increase of 30% since 2008 to cover the increased costs of increased enrolments, teachers have become frustrated and disillusioned with banging their heads against the bureaucratic wall. And that’s understandable given some of their students leaving kindergarten and moving on to school before they are assessed or received the help they are entitled to.

Nikki Kaye says “I’m committed to ensuring that families receive a high standard of service and support from the Early Intervention Service, and will be closely monitoring the impact of the extra investment and work currently underway to improve the standard of service provided.”

I have no reason to doubt her sincerity or to believe that the policy documents and statistics that she has in front of her align with that. I want to believe that the $658 million a year being invested in these services ($34.7 million to provide specialist behaviour services to an additional 1,000 children aged up to eight years old, $6.0 million to provide targeted and specialist support to three and four year olds with oral language needs, $4.2 million to enable the Incredible Years programme to be delivered to parents and teachers of children aged 2-5 years on the Autism spectrum) will help see a reduction in wait list times and an increase in positive outcomes.

But I have a daughter with high needs.

She’s adorable, fluffy and has personality for days. Her smile lights up a room, in that same heart warming way of so many of the children at Newtown Kindergarten.

We have had to advocate and push for help from support services since she was nine months old. Just like the teachers at Newtown Kindergarten I’m the first person to say that the support workers on the ground we have had helping us have been amazing. But it has been a hard battle to be taken seriously at points and to access services I know we are entitled to.

I’m a New Zealander with a high health literacy and due to my postgraduate studies I have confidence interacting with medical professionals. I have high command of the English language and a clear understanding of my entitlements. It’s been a long time since anyone has dared call me vulnerable but I too have been worn down by the system. I too wait for long periods for reply emails and phone calls that never come. I too get disheartened by the push back I feel when I am trying to give my daughter every opportunity in life.

Early intervention can turn small problems around, can help children to become the best they can be as soon as possible. It’s easy to dismiss Newtown Kindergarten as exaggerating the situation or not important because these children are preschool age. But this is an important time, children are building the foundations here that will help shape their lifelong engagement with education and society as a whole.

This is when children should be learning how to build friendships not being isolated and frustrated at their lack of ability to communicate or participate.

If you are lucky enough to have children that develop typically, that have no high health needs, or require no extra assistance, it can be easy to misunderstand how vital early intervention in a timely manner can be.

That is not a criticism just a recognition that my perspectives on waiting times are different. I’m jaded, I’m sick of being told that more money is being poured into services and more is being done to get better access quickly when my personal experience and the experiences of those around me does not reflect that.

I get upset when I see good people trying hard to work within a broken system and failing.

I hate hearing the resignation in the voices of teachers sick of waiting for an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff for issues that could have been resolved earlier. My heart can not keep bleeding for families that just want the best for their children, children that deserve better than to be a blurred number on a policy maker’s spreadsheet.

We can’t let our most vulnerable populations fall by the wayside simply because they aren’t of voting age yet.

Michaela is currently studying a Masters in Development studies focusing on Health Inequalities. She has lofty dreams of saving the world when she isn’t singing off key to the Wiggles with her husband and daughter.

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