A program that’s unique to Wollongong TAFE is not only training students to deal with children with special needs, it’s giving their parents some well-deserved respite.
It’s the only TAFE campus in Australia to run the My Time program, whereby parents can leave their children with disabilities in a simulated ‘childcare’ facility run by student educators.
It gives the students, who are undertaking a Diploma of Early Childhood Education and Care, some experience working with children with additional needs before they gain employment.
During the two-hour session, parents can gather in a separate room on the campus for a break. If they wish, they can seek advice and support from an Interchange Illawarra facilitator who’s made available for them.
And, importantly, the sessions offer a nurturing, educational and supportive environment for the children who attend.
TAFE early childhood teacher Jenny Hopkins said the program, which started in 2010, was beneficial for all involved.
“It’s a partnership between Big Fat Smile, Interchange Illawarra and TAFE – and is partially funded by Playgroup Australia,” she said. “It gives parents some respite, and allows children to play and learn with a play facilitator.
“Meantime students gain professional practice and learning before they go out and be educators in early childhood centres.”
Student Shannon Walker, 33, said the hands-on experience was invaluable.
“Early childhood education has always been a passion for me, as I really enjoy working with children,” she said. “The My Time program is a great opportunity – if we want to be good carers and educators, it’s important to be able to care for children with a variety of additional needs.
“Having hands-on experience with these children, and their families, helps us become more inclusive in our practice and better understand the stages of development.”
For mum, Sarah Shannon, the sessions give her a chance to unwind.
“Joshua, who is four, has autism, and I can also bring his sister Isabella, 3, along,” she said. “For me it’s a chance to chill out – other playgroups you have to be in the room but here you get to go to a separate room.
“You’re able to relax knowing your children are safe and secure, and it’s also a chance to talk to other parents who have children with special needs, and share tips and stories.”
Illawarra parents who’d liked to attend the free sessions, from 9am to 11am every Thursday during TAFE semesters, are invited to turn up. “We’d like more parents to come along,” Ms Hopkins said. “They don’t have to ring, just come on in.”