Tag Archives: Early Years Study 3

Don’t pinch the public’s pennies for affordable daycare

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For a study in contrasting world views, look no further than the federal Conservatives’ and New Democrats’ respective plans for daycare in Canada.

As the former ramped up its campaign rhetoric this week, promising tax cuts, credits and kiddie benefits for all – in effect, telling Canadians to take their own money and run – the latter unveiled a promising, though lightly coloured, early childhood education initiative that could find government-subsidized spots for up to one million pre-schoolers.

Of the two approaches, the NDP’s – which would charge parents a not unreasonable daily fee of $15 per child – is clearly the more thoughtful.

But the Tory scheme benefits both from its simplicity and its coarse, yet effective, appeal to base emotion: It doesn’t pick your pocket; rather, it appears to line your palm.

Try making the same argument about a multi-billion-dollar child-care program.

Right-wing politicos and their table-banging confederates in the chambers of public policy love to poke the mama bears of this country.

What right, they ponder provocatively, does the state reserve for itself – on the citizen’s dime, no less – when it interferes with a kid’s natural development in the home?

What’s wrong with babysitters, nannies, au pairs, or, for that matter, good, old mum and dad?

Stephen Harper’s “reformers” knew exactly what they were doing back in 2005 (before their ascent to power and prestige) when they promised to axe the Grits’ hard-won national daycare program and replace it with the Universal Child Care Benefit (UCCB), which would dispense monthly cheques (each with a minimum value of $100) to families with kids under the age of six.

At the time, Mr. Harper said, “The only people who should be making these choices (about pre-school) are parents, not politicians, not the government.”

In effect, though, the future prime minister was signaling his intention to wield whatever authority he would soon possess to limit, not expand, options for working mothers and fathers. And recent reports from Ottawa indicate that he hasn’t changed his mind in the run-up to next fall’s general election.

According to National Post columnist John Ivison, writing on Saturday, “The Conservatives are planning to enhance the universal child-care benefit in the upcoming fiscal update, so that parents with children older than six will also receive $100 cheques, multiple sources suggest.”

All of which merely adds insult to the injury inflicted years ago when the Tories first propagated the absurd notion that $100 per child per month was a perfectly adequate, no-strings-attached alternative to universally accessible, publicly subsidized child care for kids aged 2 to four.

Still, many parents will prefer to embrace the Harper approach (and the money it provides) and dismiss the evidence, which is, frankly, overwhelming.

A report last year by Queen’s and McMaster Universities concluded that children who tend full-day kindergarten (FDK) are “better prepared to enter Grade 1 and to be more successful in school” than those who don’t.

A compendium of expert research and opinion on the subject, The Early Years Study 3, published in 2011, also states: “Researchers have found that parents whose children attend programs that are integrated into their school are much less anxious than their neighbours whose kids are in the regular jumbled system. Direct gains have also been documented for children. Evaluations of Sure Start in the UK, Communities for Children in Australia and Toronto First Duty found children in neighbourhoods with integrated children’s services showed better social development, more positive social behaviour and greater independence/self-regulation compared with children living in similar areas without an integrated program.”

Yes, establishing and operating an effective system will cost billions of dollars. And yes, overcoming the inevitable problems, both large and small, won’t be easy.

But, as the The Early Years Study 3 points out, “Investing $1 million in child care would create at least 40 jobs, 43 per cent more jobs than the next highest industry and four times the number of jobs generated by $1 million in construction spending. Every dollar invested in child care increases the economy’s output (GDP) by $2.30.”

With such facts staring us in the face, how can we take the money and run?

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Caring for others starts early in life

He's empathy incarnate!

He’s empathy incarnate!

Empathy, that linchpin of the bonds that keep society from running off the rails, has taken a beating over the past few years. One needn’t spend much time scrutinizing the headlines for evidence of spreading spiritual unease.

We saw it in the financial meltdown of 2008, and in the subsequent, public-sector fiscal crises that afflicted the world’s leading economies. We saw it in cutbacks to social services and poverty reduction programs. We saw it in our communities, on our streets and, perhaps, even in ourselves.

“What, Me Care? Young Are Less Empathetic,” blared a headline in Scientific American in 2011. “Empathy is a cornerstone of human behavior and has long been considered innate,” the article began. “A forthcoming study, however, challenges this assumption by demonstrating that empathy levels have been declining over the past 30 years. The research, led by Sara H. Konrath of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and published online in August in Personality and Social Psychology Review, found that college students’ self-reported empathy has declined since 1980, with an especially steep drop in the past 10 years. To make matters worse, during this same period students’ self-reported narcissism has reached new heights, according to research by Jean M. Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego State University.”

Now, according to a piece in Forbes magazine last December, “research, by Rice University sociologist (Erin Cech) who also has a degree in electrical engineering, finds that engineering students graduate from college less concerned about public welfare than when they entered. . . Cech says her findings suggest that topics relating to empathy and public welfare need to be integrated into all of engineering undergraduates’ coursework.”

In reality, the subject of empathy has moved, of late, out of the health and wellness community and into the marketplace, itself. Some economists are even treating it like a verifiable, measurable commodity in a world that appears to be running out of the stuff.

“The ability to see the world through the eyes of others is an economic imperative,” Todd Hirsch, a Calgary economist wrote in the Globe and Mail last summer. “If empathy were given the attention it deserves, companies would find new ways to please their customers. Innovators would dream up systems that save time and money. Conflicts would be resolved more easily. And maybe – just maybe – engineers would design products that are simple to use.”

But if empathy is such an important social, economic and technological enabler in productive adults, it is a quality that’s best and most easily acquired early in life, when the mind is young and supple.

In fact, one of the central tenets of comprehensive, play-oriented early childhood education (ECE) is teaching empathy to preschoolers. Putting oneself in another person’s shoes. Coping with strong emotions, especially one’s own. Understanding and respecting different points of view, needs and desires. All are essential lessons to learn  in a safe, positive, nurturing environment.

That’s not to say that such environments don’t exist in other settings: schools, community centers and homes. Of course they do. Indeed, far too much time and energy have been invested in the rhetoric of divisiveness, as if the institutions devoted to children’s welfare ought to operate separately behind locked doors.

What a public system of structured, universally accessible and fully integrated ECE should do is open all the doors of the village, as it were.

“The feeling of being included is a prerequisite for early learning,” states the groundbreaking Canadian Early Years Study 3. “Children and their families are part of broader communities: neighbourhood, faith, ethnocultural, school professional and workplace. Children bring traditional practices, values, beliefs and the experiences of family and community to early childhood programs. Their sense of inclusion increases in environments that allow their full participation and promotes attitudes, beliefs and values of equity and democracy.”

This, of course, is how empathy begins to take root in the child and, with hard work, faith and forbearance, grow to full flower in the adult.

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Learning life’s lessons early and often

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Apart from global warming, few issues in Canada provide readier cannon fodder for partisan warfare than early childhood education. That’s because, when it comes to her kids, every mum is willing to fight to the death on the battlefields of ideology.

When should the state intervene with structured pedagogy? When a tyke is five years old, or four or three? When she’s a toddler? What’s wrong with private daycare? For that matter, what’s wrong keeping your youngster tethered to your apron strings for as long as possible?

Politicians on the right side of the continuum love to make hay with this. They frame the debate, literally, as a motherhood issue. And the strategy works to marvelous effect within a certain important segment of the voting public.

The reform-minded Tory team – before it became the federal government – launched a terrific salvo into the camp of the reigning Liberals in 2005 when, as the CBC reported at the time, “Stephen Harper unveiled a Conservative plan on Monday that would give parents of young children $100 a month for child care. The. . .leader made the announcement at a noisy day-care centre in Ottawa. ‘This is just like a caucus meeting,’ he said on a campaign stop for the Jan. 23 federal election.”

The item continued: “Addressing the challenges parents face in raising kids while trying to earn a living, Harper said, ‘The Conservative plan for families will help parents find that balance.’ The Conservatives’ two-part plan includes money to help create child-care spaces as well as the $100-a-month ‘choice in child-care allowance.’ With the new allowance, families would receive $1,200 a year for each child under the age of six. . . .In fact, the only people who should be making these choices are parents, not politicians, not the government.’”

In fact, all the evidence suggested, contrarily, that early childhood education –  universally accessible, structured, and integrated into the public school system – is a boon to kids, their parents and, in fact, society at large.

A new study – reportedly the largest of its kind in Canada – seems to bear this out. The report, released earlier this week, by Queen’s and McMaster Universities found that children who attend full-day kindergarten are “better prepared to enter Grade 1 and to be more successful in school” than those who don’t.

That’s according to a blurb on the Ontario government’s website, which also states: “Comparisons of children with two years of FDK instruction and children with no FDK instruction showed that FDK reduced risks in social competence development from 10.5 per cent to 5.2 per cent; reduced risks in language and cognitive development from 16.4 per cent to 4.3 per cent; reduced risks in communication skills and general knowledge development from 10.5 per cent to 5.6 per cent.”

How much better prepared would they be if they had access to a national early childhood education (pre-kindergarten) system shouldn’t be a matter of conjecture. A seminal report on the subject, The Early Years Study 3, published in 2011, is both categorical and convincing: “Researchers have found that parents whose children attend programs that are integrated into their school are much less anxious than their neighbours whose kids are in the regular jumbled system. Direct gains have also been documented for children. Evaluations of Sure Start in the UK, Communities for Children in Australia and Toronto First Duty found children in neighbourhoods with integrated children’s services showed better social development, more positive social behaviour and greater independence/self-regulation compared with children living in similar areas without an integrated program.”

Naturally, there is a cost. But there’s also a reward. And as The Early Years Study 3 points out, the return far outweighs the investment: “Economist Robert Fairholm. . . (shows) how investing in educational child care (is) a handsdown winner. Investing $1 million in child care would create at least 40 jobs, 43 per cent more jobs than the next highest industry and four times the number of jobs generated by $1 million in construction spending. Every dollar invested in child care increases the economy’s output (GDP) by $2.30.”

These considerations, alongside the evidence of improving outcomes for kids, makes you wonder not whether our society can afford early childhood education, but whether we can afford our society without it.

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