BY ALEX GREGORY
A new drop-in program is helping to lighten the load for families throughout the region. Earlier this month, Peel Region unveiled its new Early ON Child Development Supports program, which gives parents and caregivers access to experts who can offer a wide array of supports and services. The new program, which is offered at existing Early ON centres throughout the region, is billed as the first program of its kind in Peel, and allows parents to talk to Resource Consultants, who can discuss opportunities for specialized services, answer questions about their child(ren)’s development and connect them with play based learning activities. Early ON Centres in the region offer free drop-in programs for families with children aged six and under. The Child Development Supports offer better and more meaningful supports to families, a regional manager told Peel Weekly News earlier this month. “It’s a critical program for us… it’s the first of its kind in Peel,” said Nakiema Palmer, the manager of the region’s Early Years and Child Care programs. “Families, regardless of where they enter our system, should have access to this resource.” One of the Region’s key priorities is to provide inclusive, welcoming child development services to families throughout the region, specifically accessible play-based learning opportunities and access to local resources. For Palmer and the Early Years team, understanding the barriers that prevented parents from learning about the Early ON program and building supports for a child’s early development was a key factor in the creation of the supports. “We wanted to take a critical look of the program and understand where the gaps were for dedicated support for families for childhood development,” said Palmer, who noted that the team wanted to understand factors like / geographic area, socioeconomic level and language that influenced their choice of daycare program. “We wanted to ask the question, ‘Why do families use Early On centres?’ For families who didn’t use the service, we wanted to understand the barriers.” The region saw an increase in consultations with families at Early ON Centres from Oct. – Nov. 2019, as regional staff rolled out a pilot version of the program. The feedback they received from the early consultations made them realize that early identification of a child’s needs is paramount to fostering healthy development, said Palmer. Children often process a large amount of basic information before the age of five, and recognizing their strengths and abilities can help influence their success in school and through the rest of their life. To that end, the Development Supports Program was created in partnership with the region and Peel Children’s Centre. “I think the new service is accessible because it is meeting families in a comfortable community program setting at the Early ON,” said Peel Children’s Centre resource consultant Melissa Wells. “This is helpful because it is an environment their child attends, plays and grows in already. Families are excited to receive informed answers to typical child development concerns. They also appreciate having a safe place to voice their questions about their child’s development needs and receive resources and/or referrals to next step options.” Wells’ view is shared by the region’s Early Years and Child Care director, Suzanne Finn, who said that a key priority is providing inclusive and welcoming child development services to all families. Special needs supports are provided to children attending before and after school programs, as well as licensed child care, though the region. The same supports will be made available through the Early ON Centres. / “How do we create opportunities where families feeel empowered as they move out of Early ON? We’re giving families the tools and resources they need to ask the right questions,” said Palmer. Families who use the program will receive the information and connections they need to support their child’s developmental journey, said Bhupinder Heer, manager of clinical services at Peel Children’s Centre. “This service will help parents and caregivers feel more confident in their parenting role by building trusting relationships with a variety of resources in the community.” The pilot for the Development Supports will continue through the balance of the year, and Early Years staff will report their findings regarding the program and feedback this fall at regional council.