By the age of six, most children are familiar with:
Early childhood is a period of very rapid cognitive development. Rapid improvements in language, number and problem-solving skills reflect remarkable changes that are happening in the brain. These changes are affected by the richness of a childs experiences and establish millions of neural connections and build the cognitive maps that are part of each newly acquired skill. (53)
Modern research has expanded our understanding of brain development and focused attention on the importance of early life experiences. Among other things, we now understand that:
This scientific knowledge reinforces what has long been observed that early childhood experiences are critical building blocks in healthy child development.
We also know that learning is more than isolated experiences triggering neural responses. Childrens learning is a social activity, involving caring relationships with parents, other adults and other children. Children do not learn language by watching television. (11) They learn first by listening to their parents talk to them while they are cuddling or playing. They expand their language skills as they get older by engaging in discussions with people who encourage them to speak and listen, and respond to what they have to say.
Children learn by touching, seeing, smelling, tasting and manipulating things, by playing with toys and interacting with other children, by reading stories with adults, and by discussing events, feelings and activities. (99,33)
Influences on the positive outcome: Appropriate language and learning skills
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Childrens parents are their first teachers and their homes are their first learning environments. Both the quality of the parent-child relationship and the daily experiences provided by a childs parents are important to the childs intellectual development and preparation for starting school. A range of studies have found that the following parental factors are related to childrens cognitive development:
Families need time and energy to provide a stimulating and supportive environment that promotes their childrens development. It takes time and energy to listen, to read and to play with children. It takes time and patience to provide the kind of parenting that helps children learn by doing things for themselves. It takes time and energy to use non-punitive discipline strategies consistently. Less stressed parents find it easier to be supportive and patient with their children. (53)
While studies show that the quality of parenting a child receives is more significant than the level of household income, adequate and secure financial resources can make a difference. Adequate resources help to reduce parental stress, purchase quality child care for working parents, and pay for stimulating toys and recreational activities. Although the effect of income on childrens academic success is not well studied, family economic conditions, particularly in the early and middle childhood years, have been shown to influence achievement, ability and schooling outcomes. (54)
Childrens homes are their learning laboratories. Families are most likely to provide the environment children need to learn if they have good general parenting skills. Parents can establish a learning environment by:
Investment in schools means investing in the next generation of parents. Age-appropriate classes on human development and family life/human relationships would help prepare young people for their future role. (33)
The tension between home and work is increasing for many Canadian families. Parents who are stressed and have little time are likely to create less stimulating environments for their children. A very high percentage of parents with children are in the labor force. In fact, 68 percent of families with two working parents have children under the age of five. (232)
Employers can take a number of steps to support families and increasingly see it as in their own interest to develop family-friendly policies since less stressed workers are more productive. When asked what employers are doing that helps ease their stress, mothers and fathers identified the following (232):
Many mothers would like to work fewer hours, but are unable to do so. Hours of work relate directly to the amount of time parents have with their children, and hence the time they have for activities that promote their cognitive development.
Governments affect the quality of life in individual homes through their social and economic policies. However, they also play a significant role in influencing and shaping public opinion. Governments, together with support from other sectors, can significantly increase public awareness of the importance of the preschool years to healthy child development and of the significant role parents play as their childrens first teachers. Public awareness of these issues is a minimum prerequisite for family-friendly public policies. One such an initiative is the Colorado Task Force on Parent Education and Involvement.
Families with adequate incomes are better able to provide the range of stimulating resources and experiences that contribute to their childrens development. Governments (provincial and federal) through their taxation and income support policies, have a major influence on the economic well-being of families. While discussion of specific policy options are beyond the scope of this resource guide, they can nonetheless have a positive affect on family income through:
Governments also establish the basic rules of employment through labour legislation. Legislation related to the following would help allow parents to spend more time with their children:
Quality childcare and preschool education
Children who benefit from quality child care are better prepared to start school.
Unfortunately, the reverse is also true. Child care that does not provide sensitive stimulation and positive interaction with the children can have a negative affect on their behaviour, social skills with peers, language development and school skills. (53)
Numerous programs have demonstrated the benefits of quality child care programs to improve the social and cognitive skills of children from poor homes. Well designed programs can have long-term benefits for children. Various programs have shown less grade retention, less placement in special education classes, fewer behavioural problems, lower rates of teen pregnancy, and better school completion rates. These programs are usually combined with a range of other family support services and may be carried out along with other community development efforts targeting many issues in a neighborhood. (288)
Although all well-resourced programs generally show improved outcomes for children, each program needs to be adapted to the specific needs and culture of the community. Program results vary in the intensity and duration of the initiative but, generally, programs that begin when children are under three and are more long term have more enduring results. (53)
Non-parental child care is a necessity for many children. In 1994-95, close to 37 percent of all Canadian children five years of age and under (850,000 children) received some form of regular non-parental child care while their parent(s) worked or studied. (53) Over 45 percent of these children relied on non-relative, unregulated child care. We have relatively limited knowledge about unregulated care situations, but available studies indicate that, in general, they are not as supportive of positive child development as regulated child care centres.
Parents help to ensure the quality of child care outside the home by being involved in choosing and monitoring the care received by their children.
Develop cooperative relationships with local child care and preschool education centres so students can learn about human development and family life.
A range of public and private community-based agencies provide all child care and early childhood education services in most provinces. Although local governments are limited by funding policies of more senior governments, they can help in a number of ways.
Although a few very large employers have established child care centres for their employees, this is not common. However, employers can support the child care needs of their employees and contribute to enhancing early childhood education services in the community.
In 1994, only 25 percent of children two years or under and 33 percent of children aged three to five years were in regulated child care. Some provincial governments provide a limited number of subsidies for low-income parents, but most parents pay for their own child care. In 1993, the cost of placing a child in full-time regulated child care was between $6,000 to $10,284 per year. Quality child care is labour intensive because of the need for low child to staff ratios.
There is increasing recognition of the importance of quality child care to childrens positive development. However, there has been both a lack of public consensus on how this should happen and a corresponding lack of government commitment.
Governments are significant partners in developing and monitoring regulations which promote quality child care, and in providing financial support to increase the availability of quality child care. As well, governments can support training programs for child care providers, research how the changes in labour force participation are affecting childrens development, and promote public appreciation of the need for and importance of quality child care in the community.
Prepared primary schools
Childrens levels of skill vary considerably when they start school for the following reasons:
A real danger for children who do not fit into the expected range of "normal" cognitive skills is that they are negatively labeled and that the label itself becomes self-fulfilling as they proceed through the school system. (54)
To support healthy child development, schools "readiness to teach" is as important as a childs readiness to learn. (100) This means schools need the capacity to respond to the diversity of skills of children starting school. Studies that look at how certain conceptual understandings evolve in children illustrate how schools can become more adaptable. (35)
Children who come to school with general insights about mathematic respond well to first arithmetic instruction. By the age of four or five, most preschoolers have an intuitive understanding of the following numerical concepts:
Between the ages of four and six children learn how numbers differ four and five are no longer just big numbers, five is bigger than four. They also develop an understanding of adding and subtracting. As childrens knowledge of counting and quantity grows, it gradually merges into a single knowledge network referred to as a central conceptual structure.
This process involves a change in how children understand this information. It changes from something "out there" to something they can model in their own heads. (36) When children start school they may not have completed the early stages of this sequential process and are unable to comprehend the numerical tasks they are being asked to learn.
Since schools are generally not prepared to diagnose these subtle differences, a childs difficulty is easily misidentified as a difference in ability rather than knowledge.
The increasing number of students being diagnosed with special needs suggests there is a need to examine teaching strategies that emphasize building on childrens skills and helping them be successful. (100) Success in kindergarten and grade one increases a students chances for future academic success. This approach would not require schools to reduce academic expectations.
Establish initiatives that promote communication between schools and communities.
Governments set policy that is implemented by provincial education departments. It is within the scope of provincial governments to encourage approaches that recognize childrens developmental needs in their first year of school and to establish curricula that help teachers build on the current knowledge of child cognitive development.