A statewide program targeting preschoolers' development has been welcomed by healthcare advocates.
Rural and remote families will gain crucial insights into how their children are tracking under the program, providing free health and development checks for children before they start school.
The NSW Department of Education and NSW Health will deliver the program, making free checks accessible to all four-year-olds attending participating Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) services, including public preschools, community preschools and long day care centres.
Two out of five children in Australia are starting school developmentally off track.
The health checks will consider the five Australian Early Development Census domains - a child's physical and cognitive development, social and emotional development, and speech and communication skills.
Royal Far West (RFW) CEO Jacqueline Emery has applauded the roll-out.
"If a child is struggling on one of those development domains, then it can interfere with their day-to-day functioning," Mrs Emery said.
"If they have a language delay, that may impact their learning ability. It also might impact their ability to communicate with their peers, teachers and families.
"For young children, that can cause a lot of frustration, and they may become withdrawn."
RFW operated an eight-year screening program called Healthy Kids Bus Stop, which revealed that 80 per cent of the children they saw required a referral to another health service provider.
They shared their experiences from the program, which contributed to the consultation for this new roll-out.
"It is such a fantastic initiative, and I'm thrilled it's now rolling out," Mrs Emery said.
"The main areas were speech and language issues, which are so common in children, as well as audiometry (hearing) and emotional regulation, which can play out in behavioural issues.
"If these developmental concerns are not picked up, then as a child goes through school, it can often lead to mental health issues - particularly anxiety and mood disorders.
"If you can identify these issues under the age of five, then you have a much better chance of addressing them and, in many cases, resolving them.
"That improves that child's lifetime trajectory."
Mrs Emery said a shortage of health professionals in rural and remote areas added to the complexities of improving health outcomes for those communities, but the program would help bridge the equity divide regarding access to services in rural and remote areas.
"We know you are twice as likely to be developmentally vulnerable if you grow up in a rural or remote area," Mrs Emery said.
"The mandatory statewide checks will reveal the very strong need for supporting children in their early years, and I think it's important once that need is identified that the services are in place to support not only therapy and treatment for those concerns but also many of those kids will need much more detailed assessments to really understand what is going on for them."
Forbes Preschool has already established strong relationships with health partners in the community, with nurses operating from the preschool during the week, providing a pop-up clinic.
"The health checks we do are in line with the good old 'blue book' that the nurses use, and other checklists we have developed in conjunction with our early intervention preschool team," said Forbes Preschool director Amy Shine.
Mrs Shine said early intervention was key to ensuring the best long-term outcomes for children.
"Having our children access early intervention early, from early detection, sees our children thrive later," she said.
Mrs Shine said it was important those children who require a referral are not placed on a long waitlist.
"For some families this is a real barrier, the cost of seeing a specialist, the travel when living in rural communities and of course the anxiety of what next while waiting for an appointment," she said.
By the end of 2023, implementation of the program will be underway in almost all local health districts across NSW, and will be available statewide by the end of 2024.
By the end of 2023, implementation of the program will be underway in almost all local health districts across NSW, and it will be available statewide by the end of 2024.
The Minns Labor Government has committed $111.2 million over four years to the program.
"We want to support long-term health and development outcomes for all children across NSW, regardless of their family's postcode, income or circumstances," Deputy Premier and Minister for Education and Early Learning Prue Car said.
"These important checks are intended to support families to give every child in NSW the best possible start to life. We know the first few years of life are some of the most important for a child's long-term health and development.
"This is why we are investing in this important program to help identify and address health and development issues or delays early on."
RFW has the capacity to accept new referrals for NDIS services.
For families seeking support to utilise funding for therapy either onsite for a week of therapy (this can include speech therapy, OT, psychology) or via telehealth (speech therapy, OT, psychology, they can email email@example.com or visit the RFW website.
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.