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.


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.