The Big Tent Project

A project that leads to real change, real impact, in the lives of vulnerable children.

The Big Tent Project commenced in 1991 in response to a growing awareness and need around vulnerable families in Australia. Australian families experience a great deal of disadvantage. This disadvantage might take the form of financial disadvantage, the impact of mental health on family functioning, and particularly the impact of trauma on families.

In Australia, we record high levels of notification regarding vulnerable children;

  • 2011-12; 33.8 per 1000 children
  • 2015-16; 42.0 per 1000 children,
    (AIHW, 2017)
  • In Victoria, 14,888 substantiated cases of children being harmed, abused or neglected (AIFS, 2017).

The impact of early childhood events spreads throughout childhood and into adulthood. Often children who have experienced developmental disadvantage become parents who are also at risk of disadvantage. Trauma, family violence, the impact of drugs and alcohol, the impact of chronic health issues and mental health issues can have a compounding impact on our children, and then their children. In Australia, 1 in 3 children are identified as developmentally vulnerable.

Early childhood developmental vulnerabilities impact on;

  • attachment
  • cognitive growth and learning
  • behavioural outcomes
  • development of relationships
  • health and physical wellbeing
  • emotional regulation.

Some of the families experiencing the greatest challenges might be the families who are not in contact with services, who are reluctant to ask for help and support. Issues of service literacy, service trust and stigma, geographical isolation and financial struggles, and mental health issues are just some of the factors that can lead to a family who really need support, not accessing those supports. This often means professionals such as maternal and child health nurses are the first point of contact for vulnerable families, they are often the first professional to enter a family home and see the family setting in real time. Sometimes they are working with families who don’t realise that they are struggling, and don’t realise that supports can be available. Sometimes they are working with families who are highly disengaged from community systems, and sometimes with families who are fearful about engaging supports.

The Big Tent Project supports early childhood professionals in their understanding of complex families, vulnerable families, and works build their capacity to support all families, with a reduced risk or experience of burnout. The Big Tent Project aims to increase the sustainability of work and careers in this sector, contributing to the ongoing growth of experience and knowledge and reducing staff turnover.

How do we reach so many children? We work with those who are at the frontline.

The Big Tent project seeks to build capacity in the early childhood sector with people who are likely to have contact with vulnerable families.

Our purpose and goal is to support people in the field who WILL have contact with hard-to-reach families. We work with Maternal and Child Health Nurses and Kindergarten Preschool Field Officers.

In Victoria, our Maternal and Child Health Nurses are employed through city councils and provide early contact post-birth with babies and their parents. In most areas, one of the first visits is a home visit.

In addition to weighing and checking the baby, watching for growth milestones, feeding, maternal health. Their visits also include sighting where the baby sleeps and doing a quick safety check. More recently, their screening might include questions around family violence and safety. Embedded in their sessions are screening tools for postnatal depression and mental health. Maternal and Child Health Workers are working with our most vulnerable families and are often the only health worker to step inside a family home.

Preschool Field Officers; Government funded workers supporting Kindergarten teachers and families. PSFOs work with families where developmental concerns have been identified by the kindergarten such as;

  • challenging behaviours
  • social and/or emotional difficulties
  • speech, language and/or communication difficulties
  • delayed development
  • diagnosed disabilities.

They support families and kindergarten teachers with education, referrals and liaison and planning around programs and targeted initiatives to help families at risk. PSFOs often come from an educational background and have early childhood specialisations.

The Big Tent Project works!

We are seeking to support early childhood professionals in their understanding of complex families, vulnerable families, but we also seek to build their capacity to work with all families with a reduced risk or experience of burnout, and we are aiming to increase the sustainability of work and careers in this sector, contributing to the ongoing growth of experience and knowledge and reducing staff turnover.

The Big Tent Project underwent an evaluation that was completed in 2018.

We found that there was a relationship between age with older workers receiving higher scores on Compassion Satisfaction (were more satisfied) AND higher scores on Secondary Traumatic Stress.

What that tells us is that those that stay in the profession build and register higher levels of compassion but are also impacted by the events and experiences they are exposed to.

Evaluation demonstrated that, in 6 sessions of our Big Tent Project, we were able to reduce the reported levels of perceived stress and secondary traumatic stress.

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Participants liked;

  • Facilitated space with peers to explore challenges, role boundaries and opportunities for systemic liaison.
  • Collective wisdom approach.
  • Using the educational approach first was helpful to establish shared language and understanding.

The value in the project is the interactive learning aspect, and in the discussion component where participants learn from each other, share insights and build on each other’s experiences. By working with a group teaching and supervision model, The Big Tent Project increases knowledge of participants, decreases perceived stress and decreases secondary traumatic stress.

Reaching across Victoria

In the last 3 years, The Big Tent Project has reached the areas of Wallan, Warragul, Bendigo, Mildura, Warrnambool, Monash, Sunshine, Manningham, Shepparton, Mitcham, Yarra Ranges and Broadmeadows.

A total of 15 participant groups benefited from the program in 2017, 9 in 2018, and 3 in 2019.

In the next phase, The Big Tent Project will use digital technologies (e.g. webinars, video conferencing) to extend our reach across Australia and beyond.

Supporters and Donations

The Big Tent Project is made possible by many individual benefactors and supporters. We wish to acknowledge The Windermere Foundation for their support for the development of this program and The Research Branch of The Victorian Department of Education and Early Childhood Development for providing ethics approval for the implementation of research into the project.

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Coming Online Soon

The six-session online training program is expanding, with interactive group supervision via secure remote webinar providing opportunities to explore the issues regional and remote early childhood workers face.

The Big Tent Online Program provides:
  • A responsive approach to communities experiencing specific trauma.
  • A structured, outcomes-based six-session program for early childhood workers in health or education.
  • Remote or face-to-face group supervision and discussion that bring together collective experience and theoretical models to support work with vulnerable families and communities.

To register your interest and be notified when we go live, please email us.