Fayth O’Connor is happy, she says, that at school she has a special-needs assistant who can come to take her out of class when things get overwhelming.
“We go to this place, it’s called the rainbow room,” says Fayth, who is 7 years old, leaning back into the couch in the sitting room of her home and playing with her fingers.
“There’s like this toy house, and go on the roof and jump off the roof into a bean bag,” she says.
“They gave me like a squishy, they give me this play dough,” she says. “It’s so stretchy, they give me this squishy and all that helps me calm down.”
In the afternoons after school, Fayth usually goes to Dolphins Early Education & Child Care, which is in her apartment complex in Donaghmede.
But at Dolphins, she doesn’t have an assistant who can take her out of the room when she needs a break.
That can make it overwhelming for her, and for the creche, says Lorna Carrig, Fayth’s mother. “The level of the noise, the over-sensory. Too many people for her. It’s a nightmare when she gets home.”
Carrig’s three-year-old son, Lenny, also attends Dolphins and also needs extra support.
Under the Access and Inclusion Model (AIM), a government funding stream that provides support to childcare providers so that children with disabilities can attend, Dolphin’s creche can hire more staff so that Lenny can get more attention. But not for Fayth.
AIM funding comes through the Early Childhood Care and Education Programme(ECCE), the scheme which provides parents of children between the ages of two years and eight months, and five years, with free childcare for three hours a day. Older children, or younger children, don’t get funding from that pot.
Marian Quinn, chairperson for the Association of Childhood Professionals of Ireland, says it’s past time for there to be funding available to other-age children with disabilities to attend childcare outside of school, through AIM.
“They’ve seen that it works. They’ve seen that it allows children to be included. So without a doubt, it needs to be expanded,” Quinn says.
A spokesperson for the Department of Children said on Tuesday that it is currently preparing an evaluation of AIM, and plans to publish it in the autumn.
It will look at extending AIM to all early learning and care services, school-age childcare services, and to children with additional needs other than a disability, they said.
How AIM works
AIM was introduced in September 2016, and through it – after an assessment by a service coordinator – childcare providers may get funding for extra resources, materials, to learn strategies or hire more staff so they can provide for children with disabilities.
Children don’t require a diagnosis for the childcare provider to get more funding, says Quinn, from the Association of Childhood Professionals.
They’re trying to move away from having to put a label on a child for them to get extra support, she says. “They will chat with the provider, maybe chat with the parents, and say, ‘Actually, this child does need support.’”
Jennifer Healy, the owner of Dolphins Early Education & Child Care, where Fayth and Lenny go, says AIM is run very well.
The AIM service coordinators are quick to come out and visit, Healy says. “They’ll assess the child for a day, let’s say, or a couple hours, and then they go off and we’ll get approved.”
So far for the coming year, Dolphins has 103 children enrolled. Fourteen of them will need more support under AIM, says Healy, so she has gotten funding for five more staff.
“There’s some of them, their needs aren’t that severe. They don’t need one-on-one, but they do need extra support around their behaviour, or social skills, things like that,” she says.
Outside of ECCE
Children who get funded supports under the AIM scheme are all within the age-range for the ECCE programme, which begins for children who are over the age of two years and eight months in September and under the age of five.
Healy says this means that while parents of children outside of that age range who don’t need support under AIM can pay for their children to be in Dolphins the whole day, children with disabilities have to go home.
Dolphins doesn’t have funding to pay for enough staff to care for them, she says.
Parents might have to consider going to places that cater for only children with disabilities, she says. “There’s very few places available.”
Quinn says there should be additional funding for children of any age, she says, “where it’s identified that they need additional support.”
Without it, parents face tough decisions, like whether or not to work, says Quinn, because they might not be able to get care for their children.
“There’s no other way, without the extra support, of them being able to do that,” she says.
AIM is really great for children with disabilities to be included in mainstream childcare, rather than parents sending them to institutions exclusively for children with disabilities, says Quinn.
“It can benefit the child, in terms of going to an after school with their friends,you know, getting support for homework, you know, multiple different things, the activities they have there,” she says.
“Absolutely the child should be supported to be able to be there,” she says. “And the parents should be able to be supported to have their child there.”
If the Department of Children were to broaden the age range of those able to avail of AIM funding, it would have to identify how many children in the country would need the additional support, in order to determine how much a scheme like this would cost, she says.
“They’d have to do a scoping exercise to see roughly how many children across all the different ages,” she says. “They need to be doing it.”
From those, like Fayth, who have a special needs assistant (SNA) in school, it should be obvious to the department how many need extra care in afterschool, she says.
The Little Things
Right now, Lorna Carrig is trying to work out whether to send Fayth to afterschool with school back in session, even without the extra care.
Fayth really wants it, she says. “My friends are going.”
But her mum worries, she says. Over the summer, Fayth has had therapy sessions to learn to manage her emotions, but that won’t fully make up for the lack of assistance, she says.
Carrig has had a glimpse of what could be possible. At the back of her mind is the pandemic. There weren’t as many children in Fayth’s afterschool class then so she got more attention, she says.
Staff were less stretched, she says, and Fayth loved it. “Time to sit with her, to hug her, to reassure her and just give her that little bit extra more time.”
When more kids returned to Dolphins, there was a massive change in her behaviour, says Carrig. “She was coming home. She was throwing tantrums, she was an absolute nightmare.”
It would really help her to get more time from the teachers in afterschool, says Fayth. “I didn’t have a break time. It was hard.”
“I’d love to see, you know, nearly like, an SNA or extra support in the classroom for them,” Carrig says. “Whether that’s to sit with her, read her a little story, sit with her and do a bit of technique.”
In school, as well as going to the rainbow room or for a walk with her SNA, Fayth also learns how to regulate her emotions and is rewarded for doing so, she says.
“When I’m crying and I calm down so good, I get a sticker to put on my chart. When my chart is done, I get a surprise,” says Fayth. “I didn’t get to finish it yet.”
Carrig says she can’t look after Fayth herself in the afternoons. She’s a single parent working from home, she says. “I’m on calls and in meetings. So she’s left sitting there. That’s not helping her.”
But she’s still not sure what to do, whether to risk sending her to afterschool. “I am not joking. I have not slept because my stomach is sick at the thoughts of her going back to school,” says Carrig. “It’s going to be drastic.”
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