We spend a lot of time talking with people directly involved with issues of intergenerational disadvantage, including teachers, counsellors and principals of the local primary schools and kinders.
Many are really struggling to cope each day with the demands children present with. In the very early years these demands are manifest in very low levels of development across a range of measures. In the higher primary years these are manifest in behaviours that are very difficult to manage and that effect not just the child but all those around him or her. In the upper years, into secondary, these demands are manifest in more severe behavioural issues including extreme mental health problems, total disengagement in education and involvement in the justice system.
Our conversations on the Mornington Peninsula tell us that in the early years the lack of development is most acute with regard to oral language, which leads directly into lack of capacity to engage in reading and writing. Having a very small vocabulary and not being able to articulate basic sounds results in a myriad of behavioural problems including intense frustration on the part of a child who cannot express themselves and remains isolated and mis-understood. Toilet training is also often not achieved by kinder or prep which is challenging for the child and very time consuming for the staff. Fine and gross motor skills are often poor, so activities usually prescribed for kinder or prep children are not possible.
The stimulation the young brain requires to grow to appropriate functionality is often not provided in a home environment which may be experiencing heightened levels of stress, fear and uncertainty and related behavioural issues associated with living in poverty. Children in these families, which tend to cluster in particular geographical areas and therefore particular schools, experience limited opportunities both in the home and outside it. Life experiences are much less rich that those of children in less financially stressed families and development of the brain and associated behaviours significantly below the average. Expecting them to engage at the average level without recognising the barriers and adjusting for them, leads to a concentration of crisis issues that take up most of the time of staff. But adjusting to these issues requires change which itself presents multiple challenges.
One school counsellor keeps a stash of clothes for children who wet or soil themselves. She sees children who are constantly hungry. She’d love a hot meal to be provided each day. Regular basics that many might take for granted, like nutritious regular meals, regular bedtime and a safe home are often missing. The lack of safety keeps the child in a state of constant alert, unable to switch the brain to a state of calm, engagement and learning. At 11 years old, one girl regularly absconds to Frankston where she meets older men. Sex education in the classroom seems somehow out of step. One family is living in a tent in the backyard of a commission home.
Kids learn quickly how to survive. But learning to read? That’s just too hard. In the early years they do try as they don’t yet know how different they are. Teachers tell us that around grade four that does change and they become aware that while others can read, they might just as well be in darkness. Indeed, the lights in their eyes go out. And it is all about survival.
These are the conversations that inform our work, that give meaning to the statistics. We are working closely with a number of schools to see what action we as a foundation can take to address what is a largely hidden but a very significant issue in Australia – the rising inequity between rich and poor, the compounding nature of disadvantage and the unfair hand that kids are dealt.