Making economic sense in the classroom

‘Early intervention’ is a buzz word among policy-makers. But what does it mean for families living in a disadvantaged area?

Tue, Feb 18, 2014, 01:00

Fifteen senior infants in wine-coloured uniforms are scurrying around a classroom, pencils and clipboards in their hands, searching for words on laminated notes dotted about the place.

There’s a sense of urgency as teacher Eilis O’Brien counts down the last 10 seconds. Then the children pop their boards into a box and settle down on cushions in a semi-circle to voice the sounds she is holding up on flashcards.

Their rapt attention is striking – even though it is past the end of their normal school day. But for these participants in this thrice-weekly, after-school literacy programme called Doodle Den, learning is clearly fun.

This bunch of enthusiastic five and six year olds at Sacred Heart Junior School in Killinarden have no idea that, statistically, they are at a disadvantage because they live in the Dublin suburb of Tallaght West.

They are blissfully unaware that a judge sitting in the local district court has talked of “a total breakdown of social order” in their community.

Nor, when they are armed with fly swatters for an exciting “wasp words” game, do they know that they are recipients of what, in policy-speak, is called “early intervention”. In this case it’s simply a chance – welcomed by children, parents and teachers alike – for them to practise their reading and writing to try to ensure, in the words of the US Act, “no child [is] left behind”.

Doodle Den is one of the success stories of the Childhood Development Initiative (CDI) in Tallaght West. Funded jointly by the State and Atlantic Philanthropies, the CDI has supported a range of programmes in the community from 2007 to 2013.

The lessons learned, both here and in similar Prevention and Early Intervention Programmes in Ballymun and Darndale, have informed a new scheme called the Area Based Childhood (ABC) Programme.

Again co-funded, almost €30 million has been allocated from now until 2016, for continuing work in the three areas and its expansion to another 10 sites around the country.

So what difference does early intervention make on the ground? Below, some participants in CDI programmes share their perspectives.


Chief executive
The head of the Child Development Initiative, Marian Quinn, is wary of over-emphasising the struggle for families in Tallaght West. Many are very driven and very able, she stresses, but her organisation is there for a reason.

The fact is that Tallaght West, with a population of 29,241, according to the 2011 Census, is a very poor area. Almost 40 per cent of people live in local authority housing, compared with a national average of just under 8 per cent. Almost 54 per cent of children here live with lone parents, compared with a national average of 29 per cent.

“A lot of the work we do is simply targeting families in Tallaght West because we know that the community, like many others, has really struggled to do the best for its children,” says Quinn.

A targeted approach to disadvantage is about looking at the statistics – early school leaving, involvement in the justice system, unplanned pregnancy, drug use – and it is very clear where you need to put your resources, she says. The “where” has not changed for several decades but the “how” has.

“For 20 or more years there were lots of services in Tallaght West trying to improve the situation for families and yet actually very, very little changed,” she remarks.

Meanwhile, there was growing evidence, particularly in the US, “that what you have to do, and of course it makes complete sense, is to get in early and try to prevent things from happening, as we do with our health”.

There are three elements to everything the CDI does: while the focus is always on the child, parents are also involved as are professionals who work with the families. Quinn points to the CDI’s speech and language service as an example.

“You want the child immersed in an environment that promotes their speech and language development. If you work only with the child, you limit the opportunity for doing that. You just think about who the child is spending time with and you try to work with those people.”

The work of the CDI has been independently evaluated to make sure it achieves its targets. People enjoying a service isn’t enough, she explains, if it doesn’t demonstrably improve things for vulnerable families.

Now they have the opportunity to share what has been learnt over the past six years in the rolling out of the ABC scheme, under which the CDI has been allocated €4.1 million until 2016.

Quinn knows some people are quick to blame the parents when youngsters become disillusioned with education and turn to anti-social behaviour and crime. But personally she has huge admiration for people who are parenting alone and households that have to survive on benefits through no fault of their own.

“Getting your kids to school on time, having had breakfast, in a clean uniform, is actually quite an achievement when you look at some of the things families have to manage,” she says.

The evidence that families in poverty need extra help is beyond question, as is the benefit of such intervention for the whole of society.

The HighScope Educational Research Foundation in the US found that for every dollar spent on high- quality early care and education, taxpayers save $6-$12 because of the reduced need for academic, welfare and criminal justice services.

“We know all of that,” says Quinn. “We are trying to get in there early to prevent the potential negative outcomes, which are not only bad for children and their parents but are bad for the country.

“There is the moral debate that we want the best for all of our children but,” she adds, “there’s a bottom line, fiscal argument, that we don’t want to have to spend more money on prisons because they are really expensive.”


Parent
Foluke Oladusu would never have thought of holding family meetings until her daughters came up with the idea as a result of their participation in a “pro-social behaviour” scheme run by the Childhood Development Initiative.

Now, when any of the girls has a problem with her siblings or parents that needs airing, the whole family sits down to discuss it.

Nigerian-born Foluke came here 15 years ago and is now an Irish citizen. Living in Fettercairn, she is married to Oluseyi and they have three children: Deborah (14), Olasubomi (12) and Susanna (11).

Each of their daughters was chosen in turn for an after-school programme run for fourth-class pupils, aged nine to 10. They attended two-hour sessions twice a week where effective communication and conflict resolution were among the skills taught.

With Deborah being the first daughter to participate, the benefits soon became evident at home. “I see her developing a kind of leadership role. I see she stepped back a little from lashing out – that was the first thing I noticed because they were taught if somebody upsets you, how you deal with that situation; how to handle real-life bullying,” says Foluke. It also involved parents’ meetings, where they reported changes they had seen, shared ideas and were given handouts on parenting skills.

Foluke, who is now a community representative on the CDI board, believes the programme had a lasting effect, not just on her three daughters individually but on the whole family. It was “hugely valuable – socially and academically, and family life improved”.

Despite Foluke’s glowing testimony, this particular programme was found, in an independent evaluation, to be “ineffective in promoting pro-social behaviour and had an adverse effect on social behaviour and authoritarian parenting”. As a result, it has been discontinued.

This an example of the rigorous scrutiny applied to CDI work. The evaluation, conducted by the Centre for Effective Education at Queen’s University, Belfast, suggested that this programme might work well for motivated parents and children but did not achieve its aim of cross-community improvement.


Speech therapist
Lack of stimulation at home and over-use of soothers contribute to a high rate of language delay among pre-school children living in disadvantaged areas, says Michelle Quinn, one of two speech and language therapists employed by the CDI. And research shows that if the problem is not resolved by the age of five and a half, it is going to hinder the child’s literacy development at school.

It is this spiral of disadvantage that the CDI is trying to prevent. Quinn is based in Knockmore Junior School in Killinarden and works with three primary schools and three pre-schools, while her colleague works with six pre-schools.

The average age of children seen is three and a half – up to four years younger than the average child referred to the HSE community services, according to an evaluation of the CDI service by the Centre for Social and Educational Research at the Dublin Institute of Technology.

“Part of the work of the service was to train the early years staff and teachers in the schools to identify the children who have speech and language issues,” explains Quinn. Now these staff, as well as parents, are key in flagging children who have problems.

Quinn has seen increased demand for the CDI service, which expects to help 150 children over a nine-month period up to this summer. Its waiting list is usually between two to six weeks for assessment and children get into therapy quite quickly after that. In other health areas, a waiting list of up to two years is not uncommon.

The added bonus of early intervention is that the problems are usually easier to sort. Almost one in five children seen here needs no more than six weeks of therapy to bring them up to normal levels for their age.

As well as supporting parents of children with difficulties, the therapists hold health-promotion coffee mornings. They outline speech and language milestones and advise that, for instance, the over-use of a soother can result in speech difficulties. “Some parents just don’t know that,” adds Quinn. “It is about empowering parents by giving them information – I would be quite passionate about that.”


Teacher
Michelle Stowe, who works in St Mark’s Community School in Tallaght, knew little about the Childhood Development Initiative until she availed of a one-day course in Restorative Practices (RP) that it funded for teachers like her.

She describes RP as “a way of being; it is a way of speaking, communicating, listening, interacting, and encouraging groups”. But the fact that it comes with explicit practices helps people to implement it.

Straight away she was excited by the potential of this approach to improving relationships in a community. Through “circle” work in groups, where every voice must be heard, and through the use of structured questions for conflict resolution, RP transforms people’s way of thinking and behaving, she explains.

It is “revolutionary” if you can see other people’s perspective and they can see yours, Stowe points out. “It changes how people will engage hereafter. You step into another person’s shoes.”

She championed the use of RP in St Mark’s, got further training and then became a trainer herself. After initially using it with students, Stowe started an MA thesis on implementing RP in the school and realised that perhaps she should switch her focus to the teachers.

Eight colleagues agreed to work with her and she gave each a weekly task to do with their most challenging class.

“We found there was an improvement in relationships without a doubt – between teachers and students,” Stowe says. And that, in turn, increased the work ethic. Teachers also reported reduced stress levels.

It is not a magic wand but it is a far better approach than suspension or detention, Stowe says. While there might still be a few very challenging students in a class, teachers have changed how they react to them.


Youth justice
worker

Linda Leavy was also trained by the CDI in Restorative Practices and puts it to good use in her work with the Foroige Garda Youth Diversion Project “KEY” in Tallaght West, which aims to prevent young people from becoming involved, or further involved, in criminal or anti-social behaviour.

She covers two centres, in Killinarden and Fettercairn, involving about 25 young people in each. Depending on individual’s level of need and risk, young people attend for group work and one-to-one sessions up to four times a week.

Educational and social activities focus on reducing impulsivity, improving social skills and engendering a sense of personal responsibility.

Leavy is one of three project staff working with children as young as 10 and up to the age of 18. Breaking windows and disrespecting community centre staff are examples of the anti-social behaviour in which the youngsters may be involved

“Low-level things like that, but if they are not challenged appropriately can escalate into something more serious.”

That is where Leavy comes in with an RP conference, inviting all affected people – the wrong-doers and those harmed – to sit and discuss the issue and come up with a solution. “I really feel that RP is a useful tool in managing conflict and managing challenging behaviour within group work.” She believes young people respond to it much more positively than to a punitive approach, as it is seen to be fair.

It also gives those harmed by anti-social behaviour to have some say in what they want to see happen next, as opposed to the court system.

“There is a chance,” she adds, “to rebuild relationships and for the wrong-doer to be integrated back into the community. That happens a lot – I have seen two groups come in really upset and angry at each other but at the end of the process, they sit down and have tea together.”


swayman@irishtimes.com

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