Research highlights that, without specialist intervention, developmental vulnerability can lead to poorer outcomes across the life trajectory of children. With the ongoing challenges to recruit, retain, increase and strengthen health workforces in many areas of rural and remote Australia – especially paediatric specialists – schools and other wraparound support service providers have a vital role to play in ensuring that country kids’ developmental needs are identified and supported.
Reports show that up to 32 per cent of children in rural and remote areas of New South Wales may be unable to access the health services they need.
Royal Far West partners with communities and organisations to support capacity building of rural and remote support services, including schools and preschools, to help further their understanding of developmental needs and share strategies to support the children they work with.
Demonstrating how rural health research is being applied to strengthening rural health education and training, the partnership between Royal Far West and Project Sprouts, using philanthropic funding, delivers free health and developmental screening for children aged three to five years in the Parkes Shire, NSW.
The seeds for Project Sprouts were planted in 2018, when Royal Far West held a community meeting in Parkes to discuss the confronting findings from The Invisible Children report about the state of children’s developmental health in rural and remote Australia, in the Parkes Shire context.
Serious concerns were raised by the community around the growing rates of mental health and developmental vulnerabilities in young children in the Parkes region, compounded by the lack of access to services, teacher training and support.
Parkes Deputy Mayor Barbara Newton commented, ’Royal Far West's The Invisible Children report shared staggering information about the risks to rural children's development.
‘Project Sprouts was established to develop into a referral service linking families and educators to service providers and enabling our children to have the best beginning available.’
Coordinated with Project Sprouts, from 22 to 26 March 2021, Royal Far West visited 10 schools and preschools in Parkes, Trundle, Tullamore and Peak Hill. Prior to the visits, conversations were undertaken with each school and preschool to identify their particular needs, with the workshops having a focus on capacity building sessions for parents and educators, building on the screening sessions conducted in 2020. Information on speech and language development, emotional regulation and motor skills were also presented, with opportunities for questions and collaboration.
A survey captured feedback from parents, educators and staff, and showed that 85 per cent of respondents reported the workshops helped them ‘a great deal’ or ‘quite a lot’ in understanding more about the development of their child/students.
- ‘Ideas to further educate the children through lessons and play-based experiences’ (in reference to what was most useful at the workshop).
- ‘The visit was beneficial to staff and was good to help us strengthen connections between school and supporting agencies’.
While governments are working hard to increase the recruitment and retention of clinical workforces in regional areas, it is equally important to strengthen the understanding of developmental needs and support strategies in existing high-trust settings, including schools, preschools and day care organisations.
This approach, supported by Project Sprouts and Royal Far West, harnesses existing strengths and connections in rural communities to develop highly trained wraparound support services to close the gap on children’s developmental vulnerability in these communities.