Economically and socially, early learning is a no-brainer investment
When a child begins poorly, the cost is lifelong, both for the individual children and for society. Research over the decades, but in particular the past 10 years, has shown us that the early years of a child’s life profoundly affect later life chances. Early development, particularly brain development, provides a foundation for all areas of later development. That foundation can be weak or strong, positive or negative depending on the nature of the experiences in which children are immersed during the early years. It is the quality of those experiences, relationships and environments that shape what children are to become.
In Alberta, unlike other parts of Canada, the development of young children has not been a prominent part of policy and program initiatives. Preschool programs, such as kindergarten, were implemented in 1974, much later than in most other provinces, and were almost eliminated in the era of Klein cuts. The provision of quality child care has been frustrated by political ideologies — “parents (mothers) only” or “anti-nanny state” sentiments — in a small but vocal minority of the population. The result has been highly fragmented and inconsistent policies, and lack of supports for early learning. The responsibility for the well-being of young children has not been seen as the responsibility of us all, a public good to which we all contribute and from which we all benefit.
WHAT IS EARLY LEARNING?
Let me start by being clear about what I mean by early learning. The phrase early learning refers to the development of children from birth to about six years of age. A variety of labels are often used to refer to early learning:
- Early childhood learning and care (ECLC) or
- Early childhood learning and development (ECLD) or
- Early childhood education and care (ECEC) or
- Early childhood development (ECD)
Regardless of the label, early learning is not limited only to intellectual or academic development. It refers to social, emotional, physical and character development as well. And early learning is not limited to the hours of an early learning program such as preschool, day care or in-home visitors. Rather it refers to the learning and development that is part of a child’s every waking hour, 24/7. So the focus of our interest in early learning must be on the quality of all the environments that touch children’s lives: home and family life, learning and care programs, people and places in the community — everywhere that a baby, toddler or young child can encounter opportunities to build relationships and learn about the world.
EARLY LEARNING THROUGH THE LENS OF ECONOMICS
Making sure that all children thrive in safe and caring environments is, morally, the right thing for us to do. Ghandi was not the only one to declare that a society’s moral fibre is judged by how it treats its most vulnerable citizens. Children are citizens, smaller but not lesser beings than the rest of us.
However, positive early development is also an economic issue that we can view through an economic lens. The economic well-being of our society is very much influenced by early childhood learning and development. Positive early childhood outcomes affect our economic well-being as communities in a number of ways:
- When children have been raised in positive and supportive environments, they tend to grow up to be more educated, skilled adults who are higher income earners. The lifetime earnings of these children are greater and the overall income level of the society rises when young children blossom into strong, capable adults. The overall impact of this increase in productivity is that the economic well-being of our society is improved and the financial benefits in taxes more than cover the cost of the early years investment. (Bartik 2014)
- Parents of children become more able to enter the workforce and earn for their families when they are assisted in raising their children through good quality child care arrangements. Greater employment can reduce poverty rates and dependence on employment insurance and federal transfer payments. In Quebec, for example, child poverty rates dropped by 50 per cent when quality child care was made available at low cost to families. The tax revenue from parents who were thus able to enter the workforce covered the cost to government of the child-care programs. (McCain et al 2011)
- Good early childhood development means we taxpayers all benefit from the lower downstream costs such as special education remediation programs, high school drop outs, incarceration, unemployment and ill health. Evidence from research indicates that for every dollar spent on early learning supports, the savings in downstream costs ranges from $3 to $17, depending on the program (Bartik 2014).
- “Spillover” effects occur because of increased skills in the labour force. Research indicates that the more skilled people entering the labour force, the greater the increase in the number of skilled jobs available. Employers and entrepreneurs make different decisions when there is a large workforce of skilled and educated people available. They are often able to introduce new technologies to improve productivity, source a greater range of good quality products from suppliers who are able to tap into the larger workforce and reap the positive effects of having a larger cluster of one’s industry in a local economy (Bartik 2014).
WHAT IS THE STATE OF EARLY LEARNING IN ALBERTA?
During the period from 2009 to 2014, a study (funded by Alberta Education) was undertaken by the Early Child Development Mapping (ECMap) Project. Part of the purpose of the study was to assess the overall developmental progress of children by the time they enter school. With the assistance of Alberta’s kindergarten teachers using the Early Development Instrument, development data was gathered and analyzed on more than 70,000 children during their kindergarten years. The data provided information on five areas of the children’s development: physical, emotional, social, thinking/language skills and communication/general knowledge for all the communities of the province. Summaries of findings and recommendations can be found at www.ecmap.ca.
Overall, the proportion of children meeting the milestones of development in all five areas of development was low — less than 47 per cent. And the percentage of children experiencing great difficulty in at least one of the areas of development was 28.9 per cent, compared to the national norm of 25.4 per cent. These are not good results and suggest that far too many of our young children are struggling to reach the age-appropriate milestones of development by the time they reach kindergarten.
A closer look at the communities in which the children live reveals that the vast majority of the children who are struggling in their development (approximately 82 per cent) live in middle-class communities, not the low socio-economic communities that one would have expected. In fact, there are many children with poor developmental outcomes in every community of Alberta. No community was exempt (ECMap 2013).
(As director of the ECMap project with more than 40 years’ experience in early childhood education and care in Alberta, I was very surprised by these results. I was expecting to see much higher levels of positive outcomes. My sense is that the early learning outcomes are getting worse, but I cannot be sure. The ECMap project is the first provincewide assessment of early childhood development results, so there is no way to check how they compare to development in previous decades.)
WHY IS EARLY CHILDHOOD DEVELOPMENT IN ALBERTA SO POOR?
The Early Childhood Education Report (Akbari and McCuaig 2014) was released by the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto in 2014. The researchers used 19 benchmarks of quality to measure early childhood development services and supports for early learning in each of the provinces and territories in Canada. Of a possible total score of 15, the highest score was 10, achieved in a tie between Quebec and PEI. Alberta scored the lowest of all the provinces and territories at 4.5. Though this is an increase of 1.5 from the previous assessment in 2011, it represents a drop in the ranking from second last to dead last!
The assessment reveals many deficiencies in Alberta, but three that stand out are
- too little funding,
- limited access for too many children, and
- indications of poor quality in the learning environments.
It would appear that the long-standing lack of investment in early childhood development in Alberta has resulted in poor rates of positive early learning outcomes for children, with potential downstream high costs, both economic and social. As with the built-up debt in the physical infrastructure in Alberta during the past two decades, ECMap and early childhood development reports are revealing a huge debt in early learning with potentially devastating downstream social and economic impacts. And these poor outcomes are not connected to any one social, economic or cultural group. Unhealthy births, poor nutrition and attachments in the first years, toxic stress in early life, lack of “serve and return” interactions and engaging play — these and other features of early life can appear in all families and communities. They represent the daily opportunities we all have to support healthy early learning and development.
We cannot afford to ignore the poor state of early childhood development in Alberta. With this many children giving indications that they have less than optimal development before they even enter formal schooling, we need to change how we support early learning. As Albertans we will all reap the social and economic benefits of high rates of positive early childhood outcomes; it is up to all of us to contribute our time, our talents and our taxes to that goal. Clearly the way we have been doing things is not producing the result we need and want.
With these poor results and one of the fastest growing populations of young children in Canada, Albertans can’t afford NOT to invest in early learning!
Akbari, E and K McCuaig. 2014. The Early Childhood Education Report 2014. Toronto: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE).
Bartik, T J. 2014. From Preschool to Prosperity: The Economic Payoff to Early Childhood Education. Kalamazoo, Mich: W E Upjohn Institute for Employment Research.
ECMap. 2013. Investing in Early Childhood Development: What’s the Payoff? http://www.ecmap.ca/images/ECMap_FactSheets/ECMAP_InvestingInEarlyChildhoodDevelopment_FactSheet_20130903.pdf (accessed April 24, 2015).
ECMap. 2013. How Are Our Young Children Doing? Community Profiles of Early Childhood Development in Alberta.
http://www.ecmap.ca/findings-maps/community-profiles-report.html (accessed April 24, 2015).
McCain, M N, J F Mustard and K McCuaig. 2011. Early Years Study 3: Making Decisions, Taking Action. Toronto: Margaret & Wallace McCain Family Foundation.
A teacher with 45 years of experience in public education, Dr. Susan Lynch is the project director for the Early Child Development Mapping Project (ECMap) Alberta.