What would a better start look like and how would this affect ECE’s and Teachers?

April 8, 2008

Mandy is one of many who have asked us – “what do you really stand for?”.

Are we all for schools taking the jobs of ECE’s? Do we not know how much ECE’s care? We reply by saying we are in favour of giving our kids the best start. But what do we mean by that? Too unclear for many whose jobs are on the line. So today I will try and describe how I think the system could and should be designed and then we can all see how this might affect us all.

In my earlier posts, I have done my best to explain what I see as the problem, so let’s start there before we launch into the solution.

As I see the problem, mothers have been stripped of the emotional and physical support that all mothers need and have received until modern time. This support was delivered, as for all primates, by the extended family. There were many others to take on the work, to offer encouragement, to coach and to protect. Modern life has stripped away nearly all of this support leaving many mothers isolated – even in a marriage where both have to work.

A baby’s whole development in life – how they see their place in the world, how they learn, how they behave, how they eat – is set in the first 3-4 years of life and is set by how it interacts emotionally with its mother. This process of wiring begins in the uterus. The baby is moulded by her mother’s emotional state. If the mother’s emotional state is in good shape, then the baby gets the best wiring for life.

So what we know now, is that they key to the baby’s future is how the mother feels. Is she at her wit’s end? Is she stressed all the time? It does not matter how strong you are. If your reality is a one bedroom apartment and two kids and no job and no future, you are not going to have much energy left. The same is true for many middle class mums with a job, a working husband a 1,000 miles away form your mum. Is she assured that she is in a safe place herself?

More and more mothers, no matter their income are isolated and hence stretched to the limit emotionally.

We can’t turn back the clock and have the life of the 1900’s. What we can do is see this issue of isolation and emotional attachment. This, not daycare or kindergarten, is the foundation of a healthy child’s development. You all know this. You all start your own discussions about the future with this knowledge. But then most, go on to advocate things that little to do with this reality.

Our job now is to see this gap and thoughtfully find ways of filling it in the context of the world we live in today.

Our job now is to design a system that offers the newly pregnant with advice and emotional support. To build on the support, so that the mother feels safe after the baby is born. To offer the mother a real community that can replace the old extended family.

To offer the toddler the same kind of loving and fun community that all kids have in the traditional setting. Where they explore safely the world.

So the key issues are to find ways to re-offer ALL mothers on PEI the kind of emotional and physical support that puts them in the strongest emotional state from fertilization to when the baby is at least 3.

For babies, the key is to ensure that they have at least someone who is actively engaged and attached to them until they are 4.

For 4 year olds, it is key to ensure that they can have truly exploratory learning – play based learning until they are 6. Push a top down curriculum too early and you close the child down – especially boys. Once you close them down, they don’t wake up.

A system based on this science needs to be designed and built. This is the debate that we need to have now. It is not about who cares the most. It is not about your pay, though that is important to you. It is not about who owns a daycare now, though that is important to an owner. It is not about schools, though that is important too.

The first order of business is to design a continuum of service to mothers and to babies that has the best chance of giving most of them the best start in life.

Remember, what we do now does not. Our vaunted system is not doing the job. Be honest. Look at the results. Is this success?

But I think that we can build a system that does work for our kids and that works for all of us. There will be plenty of work in a universal system of support for mums and kids. But if all we do is fight over the ruins of a system that does not work, we are condemned.


Wonderful Progress!

April 3, 2008

Here is the text of the press release today!!!

“The changes in Ministerial duties and departmental responsibilities reflect the need to improve the way services and programs are provided to Islanders,” the Premier said.  “In particular, I believe the new emphasis on rural development will assist many communities to thrive in a changing world. In particular, I am confident that this approach will offer many more Islanders the opportunity to stay within their home communities – and still participate in a changing economy.”

As a result of the changes, three Ministers were sworn by the Lieutenant-Governor to new responsibilities:
  • The Honourable Allan Campbell is now the Minister of Fisheries, Aquaculture and Rural Development.
  • The Honourable Richard Brown is now the Minister of Innovation and Advanced Learning.
  • The Honourable Gerard Greenan is now the Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development.
 “The decision to blend responsibilities for early childhood development with education makes perfect sense,” the Premier said. “The team that I have the honour to lead is very serious about improving the supports provided to families as they prepare their children for the education system. Government recognizes that education begins at home, and the new Department will ensure that there is a high level of continuity between early childhood and school programs.”
Finally, the new Department of Innovation and Advanced Learning will help government to sharply focus on the province’s inherent economic strengths.
“As I have said in the past, Prince Edward Island is not rich in natural resources like minerals or oil. Instead, our greatest resource is our people,” the Premier said.
“The new Department of Innovation and Advanced Learning will provide government with the tools to invest in Islanders, whether that is through the education system or through appropriate assistance to innovative new businesses.”
Over the course of the upcoming legislative session, further details on government’s specific policy direction will be announced. The Speech from the Throne will be read April 4th, 2008.
“The Speech will clearly spell out government’s plans for the next several years –  and offer a significant amount of detail about the changes that will take place. Of course, the budget will also offer government the opportunity to clearly demonstrate its plans. I am also looking forward to the release of a new economic strategy, which will help to guide decision making about the investment of public resources into areas designed to improve the Island’s economic performance in the years and decades to come,” the Premier said.

What is “Support” and Why is the mother the centre of the system?

March 30, 2008

I hope that I have been able to show you that the future of our children is rooted in the relationship that a child has with its mother. Here is where the physiology and the world view of the infant is set. So she is the most leveraged place for support. If we are to find a better way of helping all children have the best chance of meeting their potential it will have to be when we put the mother and child in the centre of our world.

We have to start with the mother – she is the fulcrum – the child is a dependency. Our new strategy has to be mum centric to help the child.

The mother is central because the relationship begins with conception. Her emotional state during pregnancy affects her immune system and hence the baby’s. If mum is feeling stressed, this will affect her baby. It is the same after the birth. We know that babies before the age of 2, cannot separate themselves entirely from their mothers. If mum is stressed, withdrawn, angry, fearful, isolated then her emotional state affects the baby. We know that the mother’s emotional state is the most powerful vector in shaping baby’s development trajectory.

So to help the child – mum has to come first.

So if you can go along with me, you must be asking so what? What can we do to support mothers? How can we do a better job and helping them have the emotional fortitude to do this taxing job of bringing new life into the world?

We can’t turn back the clock and bring back traditional extended family life and the older form of economy. So what can we do? How can we look at the issue and have a real chance of being successful?

I think that if we can see the “essence” of the support mums used to get, then we might be able to deliver it in a new form.

I see the DNA or the Essence of what mothers got from the natural support system as this:

  • Lots of strokes and grooming from the other more experienced women in the group – no isolation – no expert books to worry about – pragmatic and warm loving help with both carrying the child and having the child – the mum got the right kind of attention
  • Lots of help with the enormous amount of emotional and physical work that is involved with having an infant in utero and in arms. This begins in pregnancy where the changes to a woman’s body, hormones, mind and emotion have to be acknowledged  and follows on after birth with a lot of familiar, trusted help with the work of looking after the baby and with the mother’s own work. Ideally there should be  little separation here between work and home and between those who help and the mother. Ideally we should remove isolation and there is should be no social barrier between those that help and those that are mums.

How does that feel? If you got this would your work as mum have been easier and would such help have helped you be your best? Now let’s   look at what many women face today and see the gap between a natural approach and the institutional approach we endure today.

  • The emotional state of the mother is rarely seen as a key element of the risks/opportunities in pregnancy. We worry about smoking and alcohol and weight but miss the important linkage of all these things to the mother’s emotional state. Our addictions are a product of our emotional state and not isolated actions. Most cannot see this linkage.
  • In our pragmatic world, working mothers who are carrying a child are cut little or no slack by anyone – but everything is in transition for them. They are expected to be the same at work and at home as they were before they were pregnant – this causes huge stress as many just cannot meet these expectations – of which many are set by the mother herself
  • Advice on pregnancy, on child birth and on infant care is often considered like carpentry – skill based that can and should be taught be an official “Expert”  – high skill and often low touch. Just as sex is not really a mechanical act, so carrying and raising a child is not either. It is transforming to see beyond the mechanics but only someone who is herself open to a non mechanical world view can offer this perspective. So our accreditation model focuses on technical skills and not on character and emotional stability. We deliberately separate the mother from the “expert”.
  • After care of new babies is often seen in the context of the medical model – weight hearing etc – this is important but what is really going on with mum and at home is more important and contributes to all the medical issues – again we tend to see the world in terms of mechanics and things rather than in terms of relationships that drive emotions that drives health and developement – we look downstream and not upstream to the root causes
  • A lot of daycare is also set up along a mechanical/institutional model. The pragmatic care is there but the parents are often seen as clients on the outside. This kind of help with enabling the mother to work or study or even have a break from the relentless work of caring for an infant is also not available to all. Finally Daycare is set up as most institutions today to meet the needs of the provider. You think I exaggerate? Think about our current debate! The needs of the mum and her child for access, for personalization, for being emotionally close to the staff and to her baby are not given the same priorities as the needs of the  owners and the staff
  • Our research model and our measurement model does not look at the individual family or child – Nor does it look at what is most important – the emotional state of the mother – instead it looks at broad environmental issues and at groups – so we don’t even track what is the upstream pivot of the system – the mother and the individual child

So, as I see it, the gap is this.

For millions of years humans have raised their young in a setting that gives mothers the best shot at being fully present for their children both in utero and in arms. Over the last 100 years, this essential setting for all primate development, the tribe/troop/extended family has been overthrown. The result is that mothers have been cut off from the support that is central to their being consistently successful in raising the next generation.

What has overthrown our natural systems is a mechanical view of reality that sees us all like machines. The “Support” system that we have created instead for families is built on this machine model as well and cannot really help. It can do mechanical things well – but it puts the system in the centre  and forces the mother and the child to fit into it.

What we need to do is to find ways of putting the mother and the child back into the centre of the human universe.

In my next post, I will offer a few examples and thoughts of how this might be done. The great hope that I have is that progress is being made and that there are now concrete examples of being able to do this. Even more hopefully, I also see in many other fields of human activity,  the media, health, education etc, signs of progress where there too the needs of the person can and will become the priority and not the needs of ther institution.


What do parents really need today?

March 28, 2008

Why is parenting so hard today? It’s always been hard but I think that modern life has made it harder.

For all of human time before the late 20th century, the family was a much larger unit than simply mum, dad and the kids. Today many families are just mum and the kids.  Could a Chimp mother raise her young all on her own? The value of the larger group is that it not only spreads the work load but also recharges the emotional battery of the mother. For successful parenting is not only about having the money to get the stuff and the help but also it is also about emotional energy. Modern life seems to have stripped parents of the emotional and the physical support that they really need.

Two generations ago, most new parents had a lot of help around. Young girls had looked after real babies. Babies were not scary novelties but old hat. Most women had learned as girls what works and what did not. Most were taught by osmosis by observing their sisters, their mother and their aunts. There was always someone to talk to who would not judge – all were sisters of the mystery of raising kids. There was also help with all the workload. Young mothers had sisters, aunts and your mother were close by. There were fewer economic pressures that took the mother away from her baby. Not all families had this support but most did. The timeless stuctrure that all primates use to raise the next generation was there. It did not work for all but it worked for most of us.

This essential emotional and physical structure for raising primates, indeed for raising most mammals, has been eroded and even destroyed by aspects of our modern life.

Today, for many mums, the first baby they hold is their own. They have no hard earned experience. The baby is indeed a mystery and many worry a lot about whether they are doing the right thing. Competing books by “experts” often make you feel even worse. Who is there to support you emotionally? Your girl friends are busy and maybe your sisters and mother live far away?

I think of my own family. My daughter is in Toronto. Her mother in on PEI. Hope has no extended family to draw on at all. She has a mortgage, a full time job and soon a long commute. She has a husband with a challenging business of his own who travels a lot. She is going to be fully stretched without much help when she has a baby. She has a middle class income and will be able to afford daycare. but who will support her emotionally?

What about a single mum with no income and no supportive partner. She is confined to her room and her baby. What future does she dream of at night?

When you are unsure of what to do, how do you feel? When you are alone and exhausted and your baby has returned from daycare and wont eat or go to bed are you strong? When you are alone and exhausted and there is no daycare for your baby and no work and hence no money for you, how might your feelings affect your relationship with your baby? When the man in your life treats you badly how does this affect and hence your baby? When you have no one to talk to that you trust, how do you feel and how does this affect your baby? If no one grooms you, can you groom your baby?

This is the challenge that most mothers face today – rich or poor- they are often drained emotionally and physically. There is not much emotional strength left for the baby.

What kind of support so mums need? If all had access to good daycare, more on what good means in a later post, at least some of the physical drain would be reduced. Also for many, it would be possible to be in the workforce and have the chance o have some economic stability. We all know how draining it is to have money worries and to be dependent.

But my bet is that, just as a baby monkey will chose love and affection over food, our primary need is emotional support. Sure we need to know how best to feed and look after our baby. But we tend not to hear advice from experts. We best take advice from people we know love and trust us. Look at the two girls in the picture. They are experimenting together.

So yes, a great thing would be to have a universal daycare on PEI. But the real gap to be filled is the emotional support gap. Here is link to the next chapter that offer you more detail as to why mums and why their emotional health is so central.

Can this be done? Are there some models that we can learm from? Can we in this modern world find a way of filling in the gap that has been left by the death of the extended family.

I think that there is and I look forward to sharing this with you later.


Why is working with parents and very young children the key?

March 27, 2008

We have seen in the prior post that by grade 3, the battle is largely lost. We can also see that there is a gap between children as they enter school in grade 1. It looks like a small gap but this gap is the key to both the problem and the opportunity.

See the tiny gap between the blue and the red kids before the age of six? Well now let’s follow this gap back to age 0 and see what it means and why understanding this gap is so important if we are to find ways of helping all kids reach their potential.

This takes us right back to 0. We can first see a gap at the age of 2. One group of kids can understand 300 words. The other only 150. This tiny difference seems insignificant doesn’t it? But it is not. It drives two separate trajectories that we see later in school. By the age of 15, the 150 word kids are stuck at a grade 5 level. The 300 word kids are operating at the level of a 2nd year university student.

There is little chance of helping the 150 word child do any better without a very different approach to school – I will talk about what we can do there later –  and the 300 word child almost needs no school to get where she has got to . She is naturally going to be able to learn and to behave as a social being.

What the gap and the trajectories show us is that the strategic place to work to help all our kids reach their full potential is before they arrive in school.

By the way, the difference in outcome is not restricted to reading and doing well in school. It is also connected to addictions, to health, to behaviour and to obesity.  (Here is a link to the costs of not thriving before the age of 6)

So we have to ask – what happened to set these two groups off onto such a different path for life? If we can understand what happens then we have a chance of helping make it possible for most kids to do better.

All the research boils down to one thing that is expressed in two types of action by parents.

It’s all about the nature of the relationship that a baby has with her parents. We learn from mainly our mums when we are very little if we are safe and cared for. This sets up our world view for life.

Parents who treat us as objects – we are clean and tidy, fed regularly etc but are talked at and seen as a thing and not worthy of much affection don’t thrive. Parents who don’t seem to care much and are all over the place even if they are affectionate, make us feel unsafe. Both these kinds of parents of course have their own issues. They too might have been treated like an object and are ordered around. They too may not have been made to feel safe.

What gives children the best chance are parents who are firm about the important things. Who give up lots of space and respect for the rest and who pay attention and are engaged in a loving way.

Makes some sense right? But how does this affect the child? Part of the answer is in language and how the brain gets wired by experience. The two key pathways to high potential are conversation and touch and as you will see they are all part of the same pathway.

By 4 the children in the high potential group had heard an accumulation of 50 million words. The low potential children had heard only about 10 million. A 40 million word difference! By 4, the language pathway has almost closed and while a child that has heard only 10 million words can speak, it lives mainly in an instrumental world. Its ability to perceive the symbolic world, which is now the core of our society,  is very small and the opportunity to add back 40 million words is not possible. Many 4 year olds from a high talk family have a wider vocab than the parents of the low potential child!

It’s not just the words either. It is how the words are said. Babies hear only tone. They hear affection or indifference or anger. The baby that hears a lot of words that makes her feel respected and loved might be sitting on her mothers lap and have her mother playing with her toes and doing “This little Piggy.” This is engagement.  A baby that only hears a few words may be being scolded or told to shut up – she is being treated like an object.

Why is this important?

It is because we are primates.  The core process for all development and for social stability in all primate societies is Grooming. Grooming for humans has two aspects. Babies need to be touched. Baby monkeys will choose touch over food. They need to be touched in a loving way. Babies who are not touched like this can die as we found in Romanian orphanages. Cold processing of babies to feed and change them is not enough. The other pathway for Humans – the human alternative to physical grooming – is conversation. In effect gossip. All that stuff at the office in all those endless meetings and by the water cooler – Grooming! Babies need to have lots of conversations with us – even when they cannot speak themselves.

This is the ideal primate group. A model for us all!

So here then is the bottom line. Our lives have trajectories that are very powerful and that are set when we are very young. These trajectories can be modified but only with massive interventions.  The best time to affect these trajectories is when the baby’s view of the world and her brain is still plastic. This is from the time of conception to age 4.

So if we are to have a chance of giving most of our few and precious children the best start to life possible, then we have to make a a major effort as a society to support parents when their children are very young. We have to make the same kind of collective effort as we have done in the past for when children are 6.

So is it possible to intervene and have a positive effect? For to do so means that we have to help parents be different and changing anyone is hard.

The answer is that we have found out how to do this and I will talk about this in my next post.


Why helping ALL kids BEFORE School is the right thing to do

March 26, 2008

If we really want to help ALL kids reach their potential in the next 15 years – where do we have to focus? I am going to show you now why it may not be school.

The battle for reading is all but lost the day a child enters school. Now that’s a statement! Let me explain by looking more deeply into this slide.

What you see are 2 lines – one red: the kids who were ready – one blue: the kids who were not ready. See how small the difference is when they arrive in school. But by 9 years old, grade 3, the gap is very wide.

By 13 the blue kids can never catch up!

Many in the school system know this. This is why calls for more TA’s are loud. This is why many want more resources put into the early grades at school.

Is this increased investment in school working?

No it is not! This slide shows the impact of all this increase in investment in school. The grey upright bars in this slide of the US public school system show  the expenditure in literacy – look at how the investment has poured in – it’s billions of dollars. The blue horizontal line are literacy rates. In spite of all this investment in the schools. In spite of its focus on literacy, it has had no real effect.

If we are on PEI to give all our kids a really great start in life – improving our schools will help – but the place where where we can make the difference and make it in time is before our children arrive in school.

Tomorrow I will show you the research that will support this claim.


What does “caring” about our kids mean for us?

March 25, 2008

Everyone involved in this debate cares about kids. But What does this “care” mean? I think that in many cases it means that of course we love our own kids and we extend that warmth of feeling to all other kids. But I wonder if we have thought much about what “Care” might imply about what we might all “Do”?

Many would say that Kids are our future. Of course if we lived in a village in the developing world that would be more true than we think. For without children in a society without a state, there is no one to look after the old. But of course this won’t apply to us will it? There will always be the state to look after us – surely?

Many of us of course assume that the State will be here when we are old. Our kids will grow up and have jobs, pay taxes, run government and deal with the problems that life throws our way. After all PEI has been doing this since its early settlement. The many kids of the next generation took up the mantle of running our society. That is how life works isn’t it?

Well neither of these assumptions are valid any more. For the first time in the history not only of PEI, but of our species, there will be dramatically fewer young to succeed us. 2008 will be the year when enrollment in high school will start to decline. If I live to be 80, God forbid, most Islanders will be over 50!

Are you hearing a lot about this? I am not. What can life on PEI be like with so few young to take over from us? Is anyone talking about this?

As you can see, this shift is not far into the future. It is happening now. With so few young, all our young become very precious. All our young have to have the best chance possible to reach their full potential as competent adults. But the picture for most of our young is gloomy. Most will not reach their potential. Most will not be able to make a contribution. You think I exaggerate?

These percentages are the numbers of families who are really struggling to raise their kids. As we all fuss about who owns, who runs and who staffs daycares and kindergartens. most of the children from these families are outside our conversation. They can’t attend. These kids gets the poorest start of all kids on PEI.

The impact of this loss is immense.

About 30% of children arrive in Grade 1 unable to cope, unable to learn and unable to behave. In Grade 1 we have already lost 30% of the few children that we have available for our future. In a society that has stronger family support as in South Korea, only 7% of kids entering school are in trouble.

Teachers and our schools are confronted with behavioural problems that are overwhelming. By Grade 8 the schools begin to lose the battle. Kids become progressively more and more disengaged. This is why PEI has amongst the poorest educational outcomes in Canada.

So then this is what we face. We will barely have enough young in the next generation to take over the role of keeping our society functioning. Most of this small group leaves school unprepared for life.

This is the crisis that we face as a society.

So is there anything that we can do? yes there is. Will we be able to act in time? Maybe. In my nest post we will look at what our choices are. For if we “care” about our children, we have to care about all of them and we have to care enough to act together.

Please follow this link to Chapter 2 that will make the case that simply focusing on making our schools better will not work in time