Springvale Service for Children: ‘Everything comes back to relationships’
Springvale Service for Children (SSC) is an integrated service offering a range of services for young children and their families. This includes child care and kindergarten, maternal and child health, play groups and toy library.
The linguistic and cultural diversity of families accessing the centre reflects that of the broader community. For example, of the 160 families currently attending the early learning programs, approximately 98% of children have English as an additional language.
The ELP team leader and director were interviewed for this case study.
Springvale is approximately 20 kilometres south-east of central Melbourne, and is one of Melbourne’s most culturally diverse suburbs.
Almost 70% of Springvale residents were born overseas, and they come from almost 100 countries. Almost 80% of residents speak a language other than English.
Taking time to develop relationships with families is central to the way SSC engage with their community:
‘A relationship must be formed before you can make any decisions. It takes time to understand what it is that families and children need.’ (ELP Team Leader)
A welcoming environment
Creating a welcoming environment for children and families is the first step in engaging families at SSC. The venue has been designed so that the toy library (including the many toys and resources) is located at the front of the building, and is visible to families on arrival.
The service has rooms that are accessible to community groups. This creates a safe, accessible space for all community members (not just children) who speak languages other than English.
An open space adjacent to the kindergarten and child care rooms allows staff to meet informally with children and their families. The area includes comfortable chairs and soft furnishings and includes many books, and toys for young children.
Cultural awareness and inclusivity are key to building relationships with families:
‘You come and look for ‘culture in our centre’ - do you have photos of that culture? We don’t need all those things - everything about this centre is multicultural. It’s in our practice, it’s what we are modelling and the time we take to develop relationships and find out what’s appropriate. It comes down to the willingness to find out and not making assumptions.’ (Director)
SSC informal assistance includes helping EAL families navigate complex cultural expectations within and outside the early learning context.
Supporting home language
The maintenance of home language is supported through the relationships that are formed at SSC. Relationships between bilingual educators and families enable the maintenance of home language, which may otherwise have been lost.
The role of multicultural staff:
‘We have the gift of having such a multicultural staff here. We had a case where a family’s home language (Vietnamese) was not as strong as it used to be; the educator in the room spoke fluent Vietnamese and taught the daughter to speak Vietnamese. The family has asked for this to occur and they are supporting the language at home and reconnecting to their first language.’ (Director)
‘While bilingual educators have the unique ability to communicate with families, relationships between educators within rooms are built on the foundation that all staff are to be inclusive of all (other) staff in the room, everyone has a responsibility to support the relationship building and everyone has a role in the room.’ (Director)
Supporting English language learning
Bilingual educators ensure that EAL children in the classroom are fully supported. This extends to family preferences for language in the classroom. Preferences for learning and speaking home language or English are respected and supported.
For example, some families don’t want their children speaking Vietnamese. They want them to learn English and to go to school speaking English well. When educators at SSC who speak both languages say something to the children in Vietnamese, they then say it again in English.
Supporting transition to school
SSC approaches transition to school as an extension of the relationships that have been built between educators, schools and families. To avoid a ‘tokenistic’ approach, the ELP team leader is responsible for the transition to school program. She plans the program and focuses on fostering relationships within the community:
‘We are a community engaged service and part of our community is the school’. (ELP Team Leader)
A hands-on transition process
SSC ensures that all educators share a philosophy for working with families around transition. The first step is to meet with families to ascertain their transition needs. SSC supports their information seeking and encourages their participation in transition processes. Families are invited to share their perspectives and expectations of school, asking for example: What do they think it will be like? What will happen there?
SSC documents the transition process, and clarifies language and other processes that are unfamiliar to families.
Engagement with schools takes diverse forms, from contact with individual teachers, school visits and working to ascertain what sort of information needs to be included in transition statements so as to be of use to schools in Prep year.
Innovative methods to engage children in transition planning at SSC have involved facilitating visual or narrative representations of children’s perspectives of school. This has informed broader transition planning.
Promising Practice: Relationships as a foundation for transition for EAL children and families
SSC has learned from previous practice that a western model of providing information at a formal transition session has not been effective with families and does not ‘value our community’. There has been a re-thinking of the process.
The service has undertaken engagement with educators, families and schools to develop a common understanding of transition. This firstly involves working directly with families to find out their transition needs.
Similarly, relationships with schools are required as a key part of the transition process:
‘In our establishment days, it was about having schools represented on our boards of management, so for the first three years we had the principal of a local school on our board, because we wanted transition to be part of that.’ (ELP Team Leader)
Physically visiting a local school is important as an introduction to a school for children. It provides a context for SSC educators to observe how children adapt to this setting:
‘We’ll go over to the school, walk there, play. We encourage our educators to document the experience and share this with our families. This is an opportunity to add to the transition statements - but really having quite a structured observation and documentation that will inform what we will do.’ (ELP Team Leader)
The high number of schools that children attend after leaving SSC presents practical challenges in terms of engaging with each and every school. Transition, however, is about more than getting to know a particular school:
‘It’s not about the children getting to know the school; our families are already doing that. It’s about the teachers and staff getting to know the families and supporting their transition. We want to support communication with the school; that’s our message.’ (ELP Team Leader)
Engagement with schools has led to a better understanding of how transition statements can be useful to teachers, in this case ‘Prep teachers said they’d value a relevant transition statement, where parents have a voice. It’s not necessarily about the skills a child may have, it’s more about the information you can’t pick up by meeting a child.’ (ELP Team Leader)
Close engagement with families also means that the transition process can be explained and any areas of confusion can be clarified:
‘We had one family whose child was enrolled in an independent school. They went to the open days and attended formal meetings and they were asked to attend an ‘interview’. The father asked us what would happen at this interview. We explained that the school wanted to meet them to get to know the family. The father had taken the interview to be some form of assessment and was concerned that the child might not be accepted after this interview. This child had already been accepted but they called it an ‘interview’. It comes back to how important language is.’ (Director)
The way SSC engages children in the transition planning process is innovative, and allows for their voice to be central:
‘I asked one child what he knew and thought about the school from the visit. He was able to put the intricate details of the school emblem into his conversation and he drew a picture. Another child sat for some time drawing and did an A4 page of lines. I sat for 10 minutes waiting for that child to explain; he just sat there and drew in the lines and sighed as he did this. Then eventually I had to say “So can you tell me what’s happening here?” and he answered, “You have to do a lot of forms to go to school.” English wasn’t the family’s first language, this family didn’t know where they were going to be living from week to week, and this was a huge thing in their life; an enormous thing. A four-year-old boy could tell me that.’ (ELP Team Leader)
Lessons learned from EAL transitioning
The lessons that the service has learned from transitioning EAL students are many:
- Building strong, respectful relationships within Early Years Services (EYS) with EAL families and children and with schools is the foundation for a good transition process.
- Cultural awareness is a journey - it’s about listening, learning from mistakes and not making assumptions.
- It’s important that all educators within an EYS share the same vision and values for a transition process.
- Engagement with families to determine their transition needs, in ways that are culturally appropriate, enables the process to have maximum benefit.
- Children have the capacity to be actively involved in the transition process, using visual methods.
- From an EYS perspective, transition is less about ‘visiting schools’; it’s more about using existing relationships with families, and relationships with schools and making connections between these.