Animal assisted learning, early education AND therapy under one roof? For parents of kids with disabilities this sounds too good to be true. But this one-of-a-kind service now exists on the Sunshine Coast and it is changing the lives of everyone that comes through its doors.
From the outside, Bright Start Early Learning and Early Intervention Centre looks like many other suburban early learning services. But from the moment you walk through the doors, it is instantly apparent that this is no ordinary childcare service.
For parents of kids with disabilities, this centre seems like the stuff of dreams. But this is a very real service that psychologist and Board Certified Behaviour Analyst (BCBA) Sarah Clark has created on the Sunshine Coast. It’s the only one of its kind, and the difference it is already making in families’ lives is immeasurable.
“As a behaviour analyst and psychologist, I would regularly visit family homes for appointments and I often picked up on appointment fatigue—particularly in the early years,” says Sarah.
Appointment fatigue is exactly as it sounds. Following a diagnosis, families are met with a slew of appointments to take the child to: speech pathology, OT, behavioural therapy and physiotherapy.
“I also heard the same story time and time again, how families were struggling to find childcare for their child, due to the child’s additional needs,” Sarah adds.
“I quickly realised that there was a huge need for an early learning service for kids with disabilities. One that could also host their therapy under the same roof,” says Sarah.
Bright Start Early Learning and Early Intervention
Two years later, Bright Start Early Learning and Early Intervention is now a haven for families with children living with disabilities. Providing daily early learning services and childcare for children ages two to six, the centre also has a therapy room for independent therapists to deliver therapy to children.
“Instead of the family travelling to each therapist, or them fitting in appointments at home around all their other family commitments, therapists come to Bright Start to have the appointment with the children in our therapy room during the child’s day with us. The therapist can also chat directly to the educator to immediately implement homework activities into the classroom, it’s a collaborative approach,” says Sarah.
“There’s no travel, no reason for mum to cut her work day short for appointments. It’s a simple yet life-changing solution for families.”
The first five years really matter for kids with disabilities
Children’s brains develop connections faster in the first five years than at any other time in their lives. Millions of connections are formed and this is the time when the foundations for learning, health and behaviour throughout life are laid down. Because of this, early intervention for kids with additional learning needs is critical.
“If a disability or particular need is diagnosed early, we can get to that child and work with them before habits and behaviours are mapped,” says Kristy Thompson Program Manager at Bright Start.
With a Masters degree in Applied Behaviour Analysis, Kristy sits on the therapy side at Bright Start, and her mission for Bright Start is to give all kids the best possible start in life.
“Studies have found that what you do in the first five years can determine how much a person will earn later on in life. So getting numeracy, literacy, and communication skills embedded in those early years is a critical investment in their future,” says Kristy.
“Even if children are nonverbal, we’re still communicating with them in different ways. This could be Key Word Signing, visual cue cards, picture schedules, and PECS (Picture, Exchange, Communication, System). They may not be expressing language, but they are very receptive to all the different modalities of language we offer, taking it all in. It will eventually make sense and fall into place, and the next minute they’re speaking sentences articulately.”
Animal assisted learning therapy
As well as offering early learning and childcare at the Kuluin centre, Bright Start also provides out-of-hours care with animal assisted learning therapy at a local farm.
“We found that most out-of-hours care services have the same gatekeeping as many childcare services. Where they don’t accept children with disabilities.”
“Parents still need to work. So they end up having to reduce their working hours during school holidays, which then also places a financial strain on families.”
Run through the NDIS, this gorgeous therapy farm is home to chickens, pigs, goats, horses and plenty of safe space to play.
“Kids with disabilities can come to the farm for the day to hang with the animals and animal assisted learning therapy. Educators from the centre come over to the farm to care for the kids, whilst mum goes to work or has a break,” says Sarah.
“Most Special schools in the area don’t offer vacation care. So this is a solution for school-aged kids with disabilities or autism spectrum disorder that need holiday care too,” adds Kristy.
Just as they do at the childcare centre, therapists can come to the farm for appointments.
“If a child has a speech or OT appointment that week, the therapist can come to the farm and deliver therapy during the child’s day with us,” says Kristy.
“This is far less stressful for the child and the family. The therapy just slots in between counting the chickens or going for a ride on the tractor!”
Integration into the school system for kids with disabilities
This all sounds great, but what happens to the kids once they reach school age?
To support its students into the most appropriate education pathway, Bright Start is integrated into the school system. This helps to transition students into their next learning stage as seamlessly as possible.
“Whether that child is going to the local state school, a private school, or a Special school, we help to transition that child into an educational setting,” says Kristy.
“We check to see if there are any barriers or behaviours. We chat with the Prep teacher and do a handover to ensure they have a good understanding of the child. And we advocate for the child to ensure a smooth transition.
“For instance, for a child with communication difficulties, we can create a schedule with picture cards of group time, reading time, and morning tea, so they know what is coming up. We then also give the teachers strategies to make the sessions more inclusive,” says Kristy.
“Little things like that can be an absolute game-changer for the child and the school.”
A community for families
The positive impact of Bright Start on family life doesn’t stop there. Through the centre, families with kids living with disabilities meet other families.
“Through our community, children get invited to each other’s birthday parties. And parents have a support network of families with children with disabilities,” says Kristy.
“We’ve created a community and network where these kids stay in touch long after they’ve left our service. The parents still catch up because they know what each other’s going through.”
“It’s a lovely bonus that we now also have that safe, community space for our families.”
Every child deserves the best start in life
Like all children, kids with a disability are very different from one another. Even children with the same diagnosis will have varying abilities and needs. Their learning and development may be influenced by several factors.
“We are inspired by the philosophies of the educators in Reggio Emilia (Italy). This methodology recognises that all children have the right to access the full range of resources and support required to reach their full potential, says Kristy.
“The child is a child. With a unique and individual personality, temperament, capacities, strengths and interests. Just like every other child. So we focus on existing strengths and emerging skills.”
“Rather than saying these children have special needs we like to call it ‘special rights’. It’s just advocating for people less fortunate than ourselves,” Kristy adds.
The inclusion of children with additional needs is common practice at Bright Start. Reflecting the rights of all children to equal access and full participation in children’s programs and society as a whole. This inclusion is realised across the Bright Start programs. Through providing high quality care and education. And maintaining a commitment to social justice principles of equity, participation and respect.
“With the right early intervention and support, these kids with disabilities can go on to live a fulfilling life. One where they contribute to society and can make a difference in the world. But it all starts in those first five years.”
Bright Start Early Learning & Early Intervention Services
- Early Learning Centre
- Animal assisted learning therapy
- NDIS after school care & vacation care
- Social skills groups
- Behaviour therapy
- Speech pathology