Families as peer workers in early childhood intervention organisations

Families as peer workers in early childhood intervention organisations
Organisation: Plumtree Partner: Hunter Prelude
Contact: Melanie Heyworth

This project investigated how peer workers could assist workforce shortages, providing much needed assistance to early childhood intervention (ECI) services and achieving positive outcomes for children with developmental delay or disability and their families. It examined how peer workers (parents of children with disabilities) can be engaged and well supported to become effective members of ECI services.

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The Context

Peer workers have valuable lived experience and offer opportunities to deliver supports and services that may have been previously unavailable. Peer workers at Plumtree are continually facilitating new peer-led service delivery options including the Circle of Security Early Intervention Parenting program, NDIS First Plan Ready workshops, a quarterly interest group for parents of children with autism, as well as Plumtree’s award winning Now and Next program within the Plumtree community. Peer workers have led the Now and Next program in multiple languages to ensure access to service users who may be otherwise unable to participate.  The peer workers ensure that the program is culturally sensitive and they have providing the program in Arabic, Vietnamese and Mandarin.

The project had initially identified that work with another ECI organisation, Hunter Prelude in northern NSW would be undertaken to trial the resources and supports developed through the project.   Due to significant changes in the organisation, implementation of the peer support workers has been unable to be implemented, however some significant insights and information about understanding what is involved in integrating peer workers into an organisation have been identified.

The project will investigate the best way to engage and integrate peer support workers in organisations. 

The Problem

Attracting and retaining skilled allied health practitioners is becoming an increasing problem within the ECI sector.  The current workforce with expertise in this area is inadequate to meet the projected demand for supports.  In addition, best practice early childhood intervention relies on building the capacity of the parent to understand how to best support their child’s development.  Peer workers can offer a unique and lived experience that can be very beneficial for families, relying less on a medical model of early childhood intervention support services.  Scope and services offered to families may be increased through the use of peer support workers.

The Solution

Peer workers can offer a unique and lived experience that can be very beneficial for families, relying less on a medical model of early childhood intervention support services.  Scope and services offered to families may be increased through the use of peer support workers and gaps in the allied health workforce can be alleviated.

Expected Impact

ECI services have access to additional support workers that have lived experience and varied backgrounds and skills that can be utilised to services that may not be available without the addition of peer support workers.

Organisations will have a better understanding how they may attract new and suitable workers to the sector, demonstrating how peer workers are an untapped potential NDIS workforce to complement and support specialist staff in the ECI sector, offering an alternative to the ‘expert’ model.

It is also expected that peer workers will offer unique perspectives on service experience and design, which improves service user satisfaction and encourages positive family engagement and active partnership between the ECI service and family.

Stage and Spread

This project was led by Plumtree, an ECI service in Sydney region.  Plumtree recruited new peer leaders to its peer workforce to fulfil several roles (from facilitation of group programs, to administrative work, to therapy assistance, to blog writing). Through the research, Plumtree ascertained what roles peers are fulfilling, and their work satisfaction and retention.

A comprehensive literature review has been undertaken about the use of peer support workers in human service delivery. It provides the evidence base for the positive impact of peer worker initiatives. These learnings and the way in which peer support workers have been used in other environments to add value have created the basis for the project.

Lessons and Insights

Through independent facilitated workshops with staff, Plumtree has gained considerable insights into some of the factors that need consideration when planning to introduce peer workers into an organisation.  As such, resources and information developed through the project to be shared with other organisations will identify and reflect the insights and lessons learned.

Some of these insights and factors hadn’t initially been identified or anticipated as challenges. Consistently staff were concerned about a sector that was changing rapidly and the introduction of peer support workers was another change that employees needed to understand.  Some staff were concerned that their role and functions may change significantly. ‘We need an innovative workforce that can respond to demand but in a way that continues to build on best practice approaches. Engagement and acceptance of the value of peers support workers by the organisation at all levels as a whole is critical to success.’

Having a deliberate focus on the project has been important particularly during the NDIS roll out in Plumtree’s service delivery areas. Staff have been required to adjust to the increased workload that has been associated with this and it has been important to continue to have a focus and priority on the peer support project.  Staff have been enthusiastic to participate in the project but allocating specific time to focus on the peer support worker project has at times affected progress.

Roadblocks and Risks

One issue is how best to proceed with financial sustainability modelling for the project. Plumtree has ideas about how peer workers might be used under the NDIS, including employing them to:

  • work with families as therapy assistants (thereby representing substantial cost reductions over sole use of traditional allied health professionals and educators)
  • be leaders of group programs which build the capacity of the family
  • work on an individual basis with families to build their capacity.

Demonstrating the value of peer support workers within the project will be beneficial, particularly focusing on whether service users’ reliance on traditional therapies and formal supports decrease with the influence of peer workers, who teach service users how to implement and utilise informal supports more effectively. A full cost benefit analysis would require an additional project stage, once the model had been embedded for some time.