|In 2018, KidsCan launched a pilot early childhood education [ECE] programme which provides children with nutritious lunches and snacks, head lice treatment, raincoats, shoes and socks. As a part of setting up this new programme, KidsCan commissioned the University of Waikato to conduct an independent evaluation to inform any further developments.
The purpose of this evaluation was to:
• determine the value of initiatives individually and as a package in supporting sustained participation in ECE, and contributing to health and wellbeing outcomes;
• build an understanding of the factors that contribute to any positive changes for families and children from their involvement in the KidsCan programme.
The research utilised a mixed methods approach (Creswell, 2008), incorporating both quantitative and qualitative data from two cohorts of children and whānau in 24 ECE services. Cohort 1 data were collected prior to the KidsCan programme starting in the ECE service. Cohort 2 data were gathered when children had received at least six months of the ECE KidsCan programme.
The participants identified the many challenges that families faced in getting their child to ECE. The child’s health, the health of family members and the impact of wet weather were the main barriers to ECE participation for both Cohort 1 and Cohort 2. Although the KidsCan programme could not address all the barriers that families faced, it was attributed with playing a key role in reducing absences due to financial difficulties and the children’s sickness.
The findings demonstrated that the KidsCan programme had a number of benefits for children, such as good nutrition and keeping them warm and dry. These positive impacts were particularly noticed if the children did not otherwise have access to the items provided. The benefits were also associated with reduced absences, engagement in learning, increased energy and attention span, and fewer small health issues, which all improved the quality of children’s participation in ECE. There were positive environmental changes too. For example, if early childhood centres had been investing a lot of money into the resources now provided by KidsCan, it allowed the centre to use their funds to enhance the learning environments through increased teacher time devoted to teaching and learning and/or more educational resources to stimulate and support children’s learning. Families reported that the KidsCan programme relieved some of the stress and financial pressures they were experiencing and the provision of the programme to all meant it was very favourably received and there was no stigma attached to receiving the support. Teachers and whānau reported this was also associated with an enhanced sense of belonging in the ECE community and improved social relationships. The range of beneficial changes for children and environments are shown in Figure 1.
Not every child experienced the same benefits and the evaluation highlighted the complex interactions of factors that help to explain the different outcomes. For example, reduced absences may not be possible if a child already had good attendance. However, that child may experience improved nutrition and associated learning and energy benefits. On the other hand, if reduced absences are not possible because sickness, transport difficulties, family work patterns or other barriers prevent the child from attending ECE they frequently miss out on both the programme provision and the other associated benefits.
Overall, the KidsCan programme had the most favourable impact when a number of positive changes for children and their environment(s) were experienced. An example of this is a child who has improved nutrition and is warm and dry is likely to experience better energy levels and be more engaged in learning. If this focus on learning interacts with enhanced learning resources and experiences, along with a strong sense of belonging and positive interactions with less stressed caregivers, this creates the possibility of beneficial changes to the developmental pathway. If the child’s heath improves and they attend ECE more often, this further strengthens these possibilities. Figure 1 illustrates how these processes, which will be shaped for each child through the interactions of different person characteristics and features of their environments, can set up potential long-term benefits such as enhanced cognitive, social and health outcomes that children take to new contexts such as school and beyond.
In terms of recommendations, whānau strongly supported all the elements being retained in future programmes. Allowing children to take any uneaten perishable food home to avoid it being wasted was really appreciated by teachers and families. A number of teachers recommended including opportunities for families to try to the food and share the recipes to support the healthy food extending to homes.
Overall, while the KidsCan ECE programme cannot address the larger problem of the very low incomes that are leading to poverty and disadvantage, this report provides strong evidence from whānau and teachers that the pilot KidsCan ECE programme is making a valuable positive difference to the wellbeing of participants.