When it comes to preparing kids for kindergarten, two British Columbia communities are worlds apart. Around 38 percent of the children of kindergarten age in Vancouver start their education "vulnerable" compared to just 6.7 percent of Revelstoke children.
Recent research by Human Early Learning Partnership (HELP), an inter-university research network headquartered at the University of British Columbia, studied early childhood vulnerability which can have a serious impact on a person's chance of staying healthy and thriving as an adult.
The study is the third wave of population level data collected by HELP. The agency has monitored children in British Columbia since 2000 using the assessment tool called Early Development Instrument (EDI). The tool covers language, cognitive, social, emotional, and physical health.
“Now that we have at least three data collection points, trends in children’s development over the entire period of time can be considered,” said Dr. Clyde Hertzman, Director of HELP, Canada Research Chair in Population Health and Human Development and Professor in the School of Population and Public Health at UBC.
“The trends provide a solid understanding of children’s development now and in the future. For example, we can use the vulnerability scores to predict their learning, health and behaviour later in life.”
The highest vulnerability rates in B.C. were in Kitimat and Prince Rupert where the rates are 57.6 per cent and 48.1 per cent respectively. Some areas of Vancouver had rates about 40 per cent, the worst rates were reported in the Downtown Eastside at 46.5 per cent. The least vulnerable children in Vancouver came from West and North Vancouver.
“The good news is that most childhood vulnerabilities are avoidable and preventable. Biologically speaking, the provincial rate should not be above 10 per cent. Young children in B.C. would have the best start in school and life if the province invested in policies that support parents and their children during their early years. This includes allowing parents to enjoy more time to care personally for their children, and providing them with adequate access to income as well as a range of community supports. At present, we are compromising this start for far too many.”
HELP has been suggestions to decrease the vulnerability for children in B.C. outlined in “15 by 15: A comprehensive Policy Framework for Early Human Capital Investment in BC” last month. Author Dr. Paul Kershaw, assistant professor in Interdisciplinary Studies at UBC has six key recommendations that would help the children and families at risk thrive.
1. Extend maternity and parental leave to 18 months per pregnancy, reserving time for fathers.
2. Shorter full-time working norms to support work-life balance for fathers and mothers.
3. Build on income support policies to reduce family poverty.
4. Enhance developmental monitoring of infants from birth to 18 months.
5. Enhance early learning and care services for children age 18 months to age 6.
6. Build on the work of local planning tables to support greater coordination of services for families with children from birth to age 6.
Kershaw stressed that steps have to be taken to reduce the vulnerability rate to 10 per cent. Those steps will require both the federal and the provincial governments investing higher funds for early learning programs and services.
“If we’re going to make a difference, incremental policy change is no longer adequate. The current rate of vulnerability is three times higher than it should be. So we need to reprioritize smart family policy to reflect the enormous importance it has for other social programs and economic growth.”