Feature

The Early Years

Michael Bellrose

Considering its recent assault upon educators and public schools in Ontario, it’s not surprising that the provincial government has been slow to publicize the findings of a report it commissioned in 1998.

Entitled The Early Years Study: Reversing the Real Brain Drain, the report, published last spring, supports what educators and child-welfare advocates have known for a long time: healthy and bright children come from caring homes and communities. What’s more, no amount of tinkering with provincial curriculums, standardized testing or report cards will produce children who are prepared for “ scholastic, career, and social success” in the new millennium and beyond.

Apart from the professional vindication it affords, the report has much to say to educators about why some children are more receptive to learning than others.

Brain development

Perhaps the most interesting and startling component of the study is the research on brain development accumulated over decades of work by behavioural and neuro-scientists. The research, aided by sophisticated brain imaging technologies, has shown that an infant’s brain is largely unformed at birth. However, this same brain will dramatically grow in size, structure and function during the next five years of the child’s life. How children are cared for during these pivotal years has a profound and, in most cases, lasting impact on their intellectual, emotional and social development.

In more detail, the report explains that “positive sensory stimulation through good nurturing helps strengthen brain capacity in ... functions such as cognitive development, stable emotions, attachment and normal balanced arousal responses. Inadequate, or what might be called negative sensory stimulation, can lead to the unsatisfactory development of the parts of the brain involved in these functions. Once the critical periods for brain development have passed... it may be difficult to achieve the brain’s full potential.”

It follows that many children who encounter difficulty in school may be suffering from the effects of poor or disruptive experiences in early childhood. We may have cause to wonder whether children who exhibit behaviour associated with attention deficit disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder are in this category.

Building social capital

The Hon. Margaret McCain and Dr. J. Fraser Mustard, authors of The Early Years Study: Reversing the Real Brain Drain , point to a host of factors that contribute to poor school performance generally, not the least being poverty and the increasing stresses on families with young children. “How economies create and distribute wealth affects social structures for parents and early childhood, which in turn affects the health and competence of the population throughout the life cycle.... Many children in all social classes are not developing as well as they should. Some of this is probably related to parenting engagement and to the availability and quality of care outside of the home.”

In referring to “quality of care outside of the home” the authors are not suggesting we simply make more child care spaces available to families. The reference is to a comprehensive parent and child-oriented arrangement that most Ontario communities lack. Such centres would include parent support and education, play-based problem solving with guidance from early educators and parents, toy and resource libraries, nutrition programs, referral services and prenatal and postnatal support, including a home visiting network. “The involvement of the different sectors of society, both public and private, is crucial for creating the centres and to help build what has been described as social capital or social cohesion, which is thought to be a key factor in long-term economic growth and the maintenance of tolerant democratic societies.”

Of the $17 billion spent annually in Ontario on programs, services and support for children up to age 18, “ less than a third of the expenditure on the younger age group is for

programs that can be considered ‘universal’ in terms of support for early child development and parenting....” The new knowledge about brain development and the significance of the early years “reveals a clear mismatch between society’s investments in the early years and the opportunity to improve the life chances of the next generation.”

The Early Years report describes many possible solutions to Ontario’s “ brain drain.” The solutions - including increased parental and maternity leave benefits, family-friendly workplaces and tax incentives for businesses that acknowledge the needs of their employees with young families - are as progressive as any that you are likely to come across in discussions involving education, social welfare and public policy. To date, the Harris government has acted on a mere fraction of the proposals found in the study: five earlychildhood pilot projects are being funded across Ontario. In addition, on March 30, 2000, the Atkinson Charitable Foundation announced it will contribute $1 million to innovative early-childhood programs. “We’re interested in models and projects which show how children and parents can have access to totally interdependent, integrated, seamless early childhood programming,” said Charles Pascal, the foundation’s executive director.

With a strong sense of urgency, the report’s co-chairs conclude that helping children who experience problems inside and outside school should be the responsibility of everyone in the community. Moreover, ensuring that more children come to school ready to learn should be Ontario’s primary focus well into the foreseeable future - a society that neglects its children now must be prepared to pay a high cost in the future.

As any experienced educator knows, the number of children who have problems in school has increased over the past two decades. As teachers, we have a responsibility to advocate on behalf of the children we teach and for those who have yet to enter our classrooms. The solutions to Ontario’s “brain drain” have been identified. Lobbying our elected officials and mobilizing the community as a whole would appear to be the next step.

Michael Bellrose, a member of ETFO’s Human Rights Committee, teaches grade 5 at C. R. Judd Public School, Capreol. Copies of Reversing the Real Brain Drain: The Final Report of the Early Years Study are available from the Children’s Secretariats Office, 1075 Bay Street, Suite 601, Toronto, ON M7A 1E9. Tel: (416)325-7601. Fax: (416)326-3793 or may be downloaded from www.edu.gov.on.ca.

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