About the Organisation

ABOUT THE ORGANISATION The Parenting Research Centre (PRC) is dedicated to helping children and families thrive by advancing effective methods of supporting parenting. PRC collaborates with governments and community organisations to build their capacity by putting the best evidence on parenting support into action.

We Spoke With

Kate Spalding
Senior Project Manager

Vincent Lagioia
Senior Specialist

Antony Gates
Implementation Specialist

AT A GLANCE

smalltalk is a collection of evidence-based parenting strategies that empower parents to enrich the home learning environment for their children from birth to school age. By enhancing their home learning environment, parents can help improve the long-term developmental outcomes for their children.

smalltalk was initially conceived for delivery through supported playgroups. Trained supported playgroup facilitators deliver smalltalk in a conversational and supportive manner to parents who are participating in the playgroup, as they normally would, with their children.

Structured as a 10-week curriculum designed to align within a standard Victorian school term, the facilitator engages participants, either individually or in small groups, in discussion each week about strategies that are effective at supporting young children’s language and communication development. Through the session, parents are encouraged and supported to practice each week’s strategy, with the intention of increasing its use outside of the session.

The smalltalk model involves supporting parents to:

  • Create a stimulating learning environment at home with activities such as play, reading together and establishing routines.
  • Increase the frequency and quality of everyday interactions to build warm, positive relationships between parents and children, while expanding their learning opportunities.
  • Build their confidence as a parent, so they can be the parent they want to be – to turn knowledge into actions.
  • Consider their own self-care, because parents who are happier, healthier and well-rested are better able to engage with and provide a positive learning environment for their children.
  • Connect with their community and services to help them make friends and have valuable formal and informal help when they need it.

While smalltalk is primarily delivered in a group setting through supported playgroups in Victoria, smalltalk also has a home-coaching component to support those families who might benefit from extra assistance in using the strategies at home. Home-coaching sessions can run concurrently to a family’s participation in the supported playgroup or be delivered as a stand-alone intervention prior to the family joining a supported playgroup.

smalltalk home-coaching has also been used by other parenting support professionals as a soft entry point into more intensive family support services. smalltalk has been carefully designed to treat parents as capable and knowledgeable about their children, while helping them build their parenting capacity through partnership with a professional.

A parent who had participated in smalltalk said: “It’s the little things; now they seem obvious, but it really points out what is important.”

The Challenge

In 2022, the PRC received funding from the Paul Ramsay Foundation to investigate the viability of scaling up smalltalk so that it could be delivered elsewhere in Australia. If the reach of smalltalk was to be expanded, it was necessary first to understand the key drivers of the successful scaling in Victoria.

Participant and practitioner consultation – To understand the expansion of smalltalk across Victoria, we consulted 41 parents and carers and 12 supported playgroup facilitators, through a mix of individual and group consultations. We also surveyed 66 facilitators via an online questionnaire and interviewed a representative of the funding body.

Lessons Learned

  • Build the evidence base: A strong evidence base can help build confidence and buy-in:
    Ongoing evaluation of the program has reinforced the long-term benefits to children. smalltalk was built upon the findings of a significant research program in Victoria, called the Early Home Learning Study. Inclusion on various ‘menus’ of evidence-based programs and approaches has boosted smalltalk’s reputation, such as School Readiness Funding in Victoria and the Communities for Children Facilitating Partners Evidence-based program profiles published by the Australian Institute of Family Studies.
  • Funder buy-in: The scaling-up of smalltalk has been driven by government support:
    The Victorian government integrated smalltalk into established services as a requirement for funding. Champions within the government helped promote smalltalk and address some of the barriers to implementation.
  • Service provider buy-in: Evidence base and government endorsement drove engagement with providers:
    Having a solid evidence base readily available helps service providers see the value of incorporating smalltalk into their work. Provider activities are often locked into funding cycles – establishing buy-in ahead of re-funding timeframes enables inclusion of smalltalk in proposals and funding agreements.
  • Sustainability: Programs need active support if they are to continue to be used, in the way intended:
    The PRC offers training and guidance from a central source to ensure providers can get implementation support. At a societal level, the recognition and promotion of the benefits of early learning prior to formal education has increased uptake by families. Opportunities exist to make the program more robust against staff turnover through approaches such as ‘train-the-trainer’.

The Journey

The Parenting Research Centre developed smalltalk in 2009 in response to the Victorian Government’s request to undertake a large-scale effectiveness study into enriching the home learning environment. The aim of the study was to determine whether a brief group parenting intervention, delivered within existing community services, could improve the capacity of parents experiencing social and economic disadvantage to provide a rich home learning environment.

Following the  successful completion of the study in 2012, the Government continued to fund and the scale up smalltalk. By 2017, it was included as a standard feature of all Victorian Government-funded supported playgroups. It is now available in all 79 local government areas across Victoria, delivered by a mix of local government providers and community service agencies.

A long-term follow up of smalltalk undertaken by Latrobe University between 2016-2018 revealed that 5-years after participating in smalltalk, children whose parents participated were able to recognise more words, could sound out more unfamiliar words and had better spelling skills than their non-smalltalk peers.

The Outcome

Our findings suggest that scaling evidence-based approaches is possible where there is a strong evidence base, alignment with government policy and buy-in from service providers. However, scaling is a complex process that takes time and is not as simple as replicating what works in one environment, to another. We have learnt that the process is not a linear one. There are many factors and circumstances that need to be considered and accounted for as you move into new places. The need to ensure engagement of a broad target audience requires advocacy with government departments, peak bodies, and non-government organisations as well as innovation in how we further develop and deliver smalltalk.

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