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Early Childhood supports- Is change coming?

Sally explores the NDIS Review’s proposed changes to the way children and their families receive support, both inside and outside the NDIS.

By Sally Coddington

Updated 19 Apr 20242 Apr 20246 min read
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Let’s break down what's happening with the proposed changes in support for children and their families, both inside and outside the NDIS.

We know from research that early intervention for children with developmental issues, delays, and disabilities not only helps the child’s development and improves family well-being but also makes good sense for society in the long run. It can save on healthcare costs, improve education, and boost workforce participation - all things the NDIS aims for. While the NDIS has been a game-changer for some families, for many others, it's been a bit of a letdown. The NDIS Review uncovered seven big issues with how it's been working for children and families and proposed seven actions to overhaul the NDIS and create an ecosystem of support for children with developmental concerns, delays, disabilities, and their families.

Before we get into, let me remind you that the recommendations of the NDIS Review Report are just that – recommendations. The moment we know more, we’ll be sure to let you know.

Let's get into those issues.

The NDIS Review identified 7 issues with the support for children and their families:

1. There is inconsistency in spotting and supporting children with disability and developmental concerns early on. Despite the importance of early intervention and regular monitoring from infancy, some children are not receiving the support they need, leading to potential widening developmental gaps. Families often face challenges accessing evidence-based and accessible services, driving them to turn to the NDIS for assistance.

2. Inclusive education is good for children, but we still have a long way to go in Australia. Children with disabilities and developmental concerns often face hurdles in accessing early childhood education and care, as well as navigating the transition to school and staying enrolled.

3. Families are feeling unsupported and in the dark, lacking information, advice, and peer support. It's common for parents and caregivers of kids with disabilities and developmental concerns to feel isolated, exhausted, anxious, and stressed out.

4. Many children get into or stay in the NDIS via access lists, which contain diagnoses or conditions likely to lead to permanent impairment. While these lists can simplify access for some, they create barriers for others with similar needs who lack a diagnosis on the list or don't meet the age criteria for developmental delay. Plus, putting too much emphasis on diagnoses can hide what the child and their family really need because it might not take into account their individual strengths, preferences, and situations, which are important for giving effective early support..

5. As with other Participants, budget setting for children can be a real maze - it's complex and inconsistent. The result? It often depends on how good a family is at speaking up for themselves, which can lead to some unfair and inconsistent funding outcomes.

6. We're not quite hitting the mark when it comes to delivering top-notch support for kids and families. Best practice involves focusing on the family, building up their skills, working together as a team, and providing support where kids naturally spend their time.

7. Progress monitoring procedures aren't improving outcomes. With supports all over the place and a shortage of ways to track and evaluate progress, we're missing out on opportunities to make the kinds of adjustments to the system that would boost developmental progress.

What does the NDIS Review Panel think we should do about it?

The Review recommendations centre on establishing a well-coordinated support system for people with disabilities, encompassing Mainstream, Foundational, and Specialist supports. This framework serves as the backbone for a comprehensive continuum of assistance for children with developmental concerns, delays, and disabilities, along with their families. When it comes to early intervention, here's what the key components of this setup look like:

Mainstream Supports: These are the building blocks of support for children and families, focusing on things like nation-wide developmental monitoring and screening (to save on expensive assessments) and making sure children are included in early childhood education, care settings, and schools.

Foundational Supports: These would be capacity building for families and best practice support for children early on.

Specialist Supports: If children need extra help, they can tap into specialist support from the NDIS. But the Review wants to make sure this happens in a fairer way, based on what the children really need, not just their diagnosis. Here are the seven recommendations from the Review made for children with developmental concerns, delays, and disabilities, and their families:

  • Action 6.1: National Cabinet should agree to jointly invest in a continuum of mainstream, foundational and specialist supports to address the needs of all children with disability and developmental concerns.
  • Action 6.2: The National Disability Insurance Agency should reform the pathway for all children under the age of 9 to enter the NDIS under early intervention requirements.
  • Action 6.3*: The National Disability Insurance Agency should introduce a more consistent and equitable approach to assessing developmental delay.
  • Action 6.4*: The National Disability Insurance Agency should change the basis for setting a budget to a whole-of-person level and introduce a new needs assessment process to more consistently determine the level of need for each child and set budgets on this basis.
  • Action 6.5*: The National Disability Insurance Agency, in partnership with the Department of Social Services and the National Disability Supports Quality and Safeguards Commission, should require early intervention capacity building supports for children be based on best practice principles and evidence.
  • Action 6.6*: The National Disability Insurance Agency should develop and implement an approach for ongoing monitoring and evaluation of the effectiveness of early intervention for children.
  • Action 6.7: The National Disability Insurance Agency should implement reforms to support the continuum and pathway for children using an iterative, inclusive approach to design and testing and ensure participants experience a smooth transition to the new arrangements.

The Report emphasises that early intervention support for children should be based on the evidence of what works to give children and families their best start in life. It recommends:

  • Making sure all providers offering capacity-building support in early childhood are registered, to ensure they're following best practice.
  • Backing this up with a consistent approach to continually monitoring and evaluating the effectiveness of early intervention for children.

The recommendations highlight the need to bring in a Lead Practitioner role as a central part of the proposed support system for children. These Lead Practitioners would step in to assist children who aren't eligible for the NDIS, helping them develop skills and take part in everyday activities. Picture them as expert professionals—whether in health, child development, or early education—who work closely with families. They're there to coordinate the team around the child, offer advice and support, identify needs, and help families advocate for themselves. Lead Practitioners would also give families information on child development, boosting their confidence and know-how in supporting their child's daily routines. Together with the family and their Navigator, they'd craft a plan of action, regularly reviewing and adjusting it as needed.

What does the Review say about how we get there?

The Review Report doesn't dive too deeply into how we'll shift to this new landscape of early childhood supports, but they reckon it's going take some time. They're thinking around five years to put their recommendations into action. Four of the actions above marked with a * are going to need some legislation tweaks. And making the panel's vision for children and families a reality means getting all sorts of government services—like Health, Education, and Child Protection—on the same page, along with making sure state-level promises are fulfilled. But there's already some progress happening for children and families in improving the NDIS and its early childhood supports as part of the NDIA's ECEI Reset project. If you want the nitty-gritty, read the ECEI Reset two consultation papers and for details on, what's already changed and what's coming up, you can check out the ECEI Reset project.

Australia is on the verge of what the Review panel sees as a significant change in how we support children and families. The Review looked specifically at children under 9 who are NDIS participants, totalling around 145,000 children, which is roughly 5% of all Australian children under 9. But, the Final Report uncovers that 20% of school students need educational adjustments due to disability, making support for children with disabilities and learning difficulties a mainstream issue that needs serious, widespread attention. The early intervention recommendations from the Review are just one piece of a larger puzzle of reforms for children and families. Keep an eye out for updates from the Early Years Strategy, Autism Strategy, National School Reform Agreement, and Productivity Commission inquiry into early childhood education and care. It's all pointing towards some pretty big changes ahead for children, families, and the support services they rely on.


Sally Coddington

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