Let's Start in the Tiwis

A program for pre-school aged kids with behavioural problems nurtures stronger relationships between parents and children.

The Tiwi Islands communities nestle in a glorious tropical setting off the coast of Darwin in the Arafura Sea. They are perhaps best known for their export to the mainland of gifted Australian Rules footballers with names like Long and Rioli.

But another success story is emerging. The ‘Let’s Start’ Parent-Child program is also putting the score on the board.

“Let’s Start came out of a program picked up by the Tiwi Health Board in 2000, which was designed to address the high levels of suicide on the islands,” explains Associate Professor Gary Robinson, from the Centre for Child Development and Education (CCDE), at the Menzies School of Health Research.

“The program, which is for pre-school aged kids with behavioural problems, is specially adapted to meet the needs of Indigenous people. We have run the program since 2005 – in Darwin for four years – and continuously on the Tiwi islands.”

A detailed evaluation of the program conducted in 2009 attests to its effectiveness.  This demonstration that the program produces high quality results saw Let’s Start expanded to more communities in the Top End.

Today a dedicated team from CCDE is working with young children and their parents, across the Tiwi Islands, and in four communities in the Victoria-Daly Rivers Shire, away to the south-west of Darwin.

Let’s Start seeks to build the confidence of parents, and to help them nurture stronger relationships with their children. For their part, children learn about rules and co-operation. They are encouraged to recognise their own feelings and to think about the feelings of others.

“It’s about trying to support the kids’ development and make them feel comfortable at school. We want to see improvements in kids’ behaviour, confidence, and general social-emotional skills - in the classroom as well as at home,” explains Robinson. “We also want parents to feel more confident, and improve their responsiveness to the child, so that the stress and anxiety of parenting is reduced.”

Transition to school can be a difficult time for a young child says Robinson. Kids can be shy or anxious, and reluctant to leave home to go to school, but this innovative program helps to bridge the gap “Let’s Start is like a quiet kind of schoolroom with your parent there.”

The program is built around 10 weekly two-hour sessions over a school term. Between five and eight children participate in each group program, with one of each child’s parents present for the sessions. The programs are delivered by team-leaders from CCDE, in collaboration with trained local people who supply the critically important cultural expertise.

Parents can self-refer to the program but a lot of referrals come from schools and from childcare centres, health centres, and other key agencies in the community. The Let’s Start team invests time and effort in forging links with these organisations and with families.

Importantly, Let’s Start is fun. The program uses play and expressive activities that involve both parents and children.

“We play a series of games with themes around getting to know each other, and of doing tasks with the parent like making play dough or doing a big drawing,” says Robinson. We use an exercise called Stop Think Do which teaches kids the idea of thinking before they leap.”

This is an occasion for learning - not for shame or guilt. Successes are reinforced and strategies to overcome the frustrations are discussed.

“It’s a good opportunity for parents to have the kind of reflective, supportive conversation that they may miss in the hurly-burly of home life.”

Let’s Start is enjoying great support amongst the local people. “We get lots of spontaneous feedback from teachers about improvements in kids’ behaviour,” says Robinson.

“We also see parents who become very strong advocates for the program, who talk about the things they learned and the things that they felt safe to say that they hadn’t been able to say before. We’ve had parents who have enrolled themselves for three separate courses with three different children.”

The Let’s Start Parent-Child Program is another impressive example of Menzies researchers helping to create a brighter future for Indigenous families and children.  Associate Professor Gary Robinson and his team look forward to taking this ground-breaking program to an even larger number of families in the future.

For more information visit the Let’s Start site.