INCOME Vs LEARNING
The prevalence of vulnerable children (aged 4-11)
by family income in 1998-99:
Below $33,400: 29.5%
Over $77,000: 18.5%
By ERIN ANDERSSEN
Globe and Mail: Monday, March 29, 2004 - Page A4
Robert is a month shy of his fifth birthday, and a fistfight away from being
expelled from junior kindergarten.
He trips, pinches and punches, and his teacher complains that he cannot work in
a team or even on his own for very long. He is smart -- a recent test put his IQ
at 148 -- but he is in danger of falling behind. One more misstep, his private
school has warned, and he's gone. (At least until he is required to show up
somewhere for class this fall.
"We thought he was just being boyish," says his mother.
"Imagine," sighs his father. "Expelled from junior K."
Educators see kids like Robert all the time: An estimated one in four children
show up on that first day of school, short on the basic tools they need to
succeed, from simple language to fine motor skills to co-operating with
Study after study shows that children who do not arrive "ready to learn" fall
behind, are rejected by peers and sour on school, setting them on high-risk
paths toward unhealthy, unhappy adulthoods.
Robert's troubles come as a shock to his attentive parents, a pair of PhDs with
good jobs, a house full of books and a playroom cluttered with toys. If
anything, they have been too doting on their firstborn. (They spoke only on the
condition that their son's real name not be used.)
Until recently, even experts assumed that children headed for problems were easy
to spot: They came from poor backgrounds, the offspring of drug addicts and
alcoholics, abused and neglected by their parents.
It is just not that simple, and recent findings have bolstered criticism of
Canada's early childhood policy, which has largely targeted low-income families.
Yes, money matters: Children who grow up in poverty are more likely to arrive
unprepared for school than their financially better-off counterparts. But in
real numbers, more than 60 per cent of vulnerable children in Canada are more
thinly spread throughout the middle classes of the country, in families that
look a lot like Robert's. They show up in comfortable two-parent homes, awash in
Fisher Price and Playmobil, the brothers and sisters to scholastic stars.
A national study of 22,000 children from birth to age 11, using parental surveys
and home visits, found that 37 per cent of children in the poorest families were
vulnerable on one or more skill sets: They had difficult temperaments, limited
communications skills or below-average physical abilities.
But even among Canada's wealthiest families -- the top quarter of earners --
almost one in four children (24 per cent) were also flagged with problems.
A second study evaluated every kindergarten student in the city of Vancouver and
reached the same conclusion: True, the proportion of children with
school-readiness shortfalls increased dramatically as one moved from the most
affluent west-side neighbourhoods to the poorest east-end parts of the city. But
the largest number of vulnerable children were spread through the city's
"This is a vitally important story," said Clyde Hertzman, the University of
British Columbia researcher who is now mapping the entire province. "The numbers
game [says] that if you concentrate all your energy in the least-advantaged
group, then you miss the majority of kids who are developmentally delayed. These
are issues that apply, one way or another, across society."
Jim Grieves, the director of education for the Peel School Board, remembers from
his days as a school principal the students who arrived in designer clothes but
without consistent parental support. Now, when he presents the statistics to
middle-class audiences, their first reaction is to "rail against" them.
"We're raised on the notion that if you have money and advantage, you can pretty
much assume everything will turn out fine," he said. "But then they assess the
pace of life, and the way they are struggling to maintain even middle-class
status, and they see there are lots of holes in the way we are raising our
children. It's pretty scary, actually."
Of course, the majority of children in Canada are raised in middle-class
families, so it might seem natural that most of the children at risk would come
from their ranks. But the findings toppled a long-standing hypothesis. Experts
and government officials expected to find a mass of children with problems
clustered among poor Canadians, and the offspring of the middle class doing fine
and looking pretty similar to each other, apart from the luck of genes and IQ.
This was the very theory that Doug Willms, director of the Canadian Research
Institute for Social Policy at the University of New Brunswick, was asked by
Ottawa to prove. When he began to analyze early data from the National
Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth, he found the cluster was there -- but
at the same time, two-thirds of children from families earning less than $25,000
were arriving at school as ready to learn as their wealthiest peers.
Either something was protecting them from the effect of
income, or income was not as significant a factor as previously believed.
As it turns out, both are true.
Childhood troubles, current research suggests, work like heart disease: The less
money you have, the more likely you are to have them. The impact of income and
parental education on school performance in Canada falls between those of the
Scandinavian countries (with their comprehensive early-childhood programs) and
of the United States, where a wider gulf exists between rich and poor --
although there is evidence that the gap here is growing rather than shrinking.
When testing preschoolers on what words they understand ("receptive
vocabulary"), Dr. Willms found that, on average, children raised in the
second-lowest income bracket scored about nine points lower than children in the
second highest. Even so, the majority of children who scored below average were
from middle and upper-middle class families, and many low-income children scored
There was no magical social-economic status by which a child's readiness for
kindergarten was guaranteed -- although for every $10,000 a family's income
increased, the percentage of vulnerable children declined somewhat, even between
the two wealthiest groups of families.
On the other side of country, Dr. Hertzman began collecting anonymous data on
every kindergarten student in British Columbia using the Early Development
Instrument, a program that allows teachers to score their students on a broad
range of cognitive and behavioural measures.
He then mapped out the location of students based on their scores. Across the
province, neighbourhood income, and even parental education, wasn't always a
consistent marker of success. Overall, for instance, a higher proportion of
children in the resort community of Whistler were vulnerable in their
development than those in several neighbourhoods in the working-class sawmill
town of Squamish, where the median family income is $10,000 less and half as
many parenting-aged adults have a university degree. A smaller proportion of
kindergarten children were vulnerable in the city of Vernon than in Kelowna,
despite lower education rates and family earnings.
This is because, Dr. Hertzman says, most children are shaped not by major events
or clear deficiencies in their upbringing, but by more subtle day-to-day
In the same way that parents can make major differences in development by doing
simple things like chatting a lot with their children, a series of small
negatives can leave larger hurts.
What makes kids vulnerable in middle-class homes?
Dr. Hertzman has a long list:
- maybe their siblings mistreat them when the
parents are away;
- maybe their boring nanny does nothing but babysit;
- maybe their parents are too strict and
inflexible, or too permissive and indulgent,
- may be their parents are working all the time;
- maybe their working parents are too tired
to read to them each night;
- maybe their families are socially isolated from
other relatives and adults who may understand the children better;
- maybe their neighbours, though middle class,
aren't all that neighbourly.......
Consider, Dr. Hertzman suggests, family homes where parents can see the
backyards from their kitchen windows.
"That could make the difference for one kid to get all sorts of chance to go out
and play and blow off steam, and also develop all those muscle groups and
cerebellum connections that cross-fertilize into math skills, versus the kid who
To take another example, even in the least transient, wealthier neighbourhoods,
fewer than 20 per cent of the children born in one Vancouver area were still
living there by the time they turned 9. For most children now, Dr. Hertzman
says, the connection to their neighbourhoods and the constancy of their
friendships -- both boons to development -- tend to be much diminished from what
their parents experienced in a past, less-mobile time.
Many researchers believe the neighbourhood plays a key role. In Saskatoon, one
study found that children were doing extremely well in a lower-income area where
the parents were employed and less likely to move. In that part of the city,
said University of Saskatchewan researcher Nazeem Muhajarine, parents could
count on their neighbours to watch out for their children.
"It affects how people interact with each other on the street, and at the
grocery story," he said
When you're a preschooler, your neighbourhood is your world. So the increasing
stratification of Canadian cities is worrisome, researchers say, particularly
for young children.
In Vancouver, for instance, Dr Hertzman found that low-income children who lived
in mixed-income neighbourhoods did better in kindergarten than those living in
poorer places (and their presence didn't hurt the performance of their
The science shows, Dr. Hertzman says, why Canada's piecemeal policies, aimed
largely at boosting incomes for poor families, make little progress compared to
nations like Sweden and France, with their programs of universally subsidized
childcare, family allowances, parental leaves and parenting courses. When he
gives presentations around the province, he points to empty classrooms in
neighbourhood schools that could be transformed into daycare centres and sites
for parenting lectures and family literacy training -- offering individual help
while fostering community.
Targeted programs are cheaper and often reach those most in need, but can
stigmatize parents. And they can be too narrowly focused to change the overall
environment for a child. Universal programs are costly, and need to be designed
so that poorer families can access them; one recent study found that more than
half of the subsidized daycare spots in Quebec were filled with families earning
at least $65,000 a year.
Middle-class parents tend to be more efficient advocates for their children when
problems arise, assuming the problems are found early enough -- even by the
early school years, solutions become more difficult and expensive.
Robert's parents, for their part, eventually hired a psychologist, developed a
new at-home parenting plan to encourage his independence, and negotiated an
arrangement with the school to extend their son's probation. This included
bumping him up to senior kindergarten early, to give him more of a challenge.
"Parenting is not always intuitive," says Robert's mother. "Mostly you are just
responding to the things as they happen. It would be nice to have more tools."
That's true regardless of family income, and is the reason why many researchers
in the field make the case for a combination of targeted and universal programs,
including a play-based, full-day preschool curriculum, reciting the benefits
reported in Western European countries that have adopted this system.
But Canadian parents are split on the question, as evinced by the recent debate
in Alberta over junior kindergarten; in a Globe and Mail poll of 700 parents
conducted by Ipsos-Reid, less than half thought that day-long programs starting
with three-year-olds was a good idea.
"We hang on to the notion that kids should be at home," says Pat Dickinson, a
former literacy co-ordinator for the Halton, Ont., region -- "even though nobody
is at home."
Those pushing a more universal approach to early childhood development have a
convert in David Dodge, the Governor of the Bank of Canada. He recently defined
to an audience of early-childhood experts the economic case for spending more
money on the youngest citizens, where the nation would see a larger return on
But Canada, he said, does the opposite: It spends more public funds on
post-secondary education, while leaving families to spend more privately in the
early years. Given that a small cohort of children will eventually have to
support a larger group of retiring baby boomers, he said that it is even more
important each one of them become as productive as possible.
"The real challenge," Dr. Dodge said, "is not delivering bigger cheques to poor
families, it is how to reach all parents in their communities.
SOURCE: DOUGLAS WILLMS, VULNERABLE CHILDREN:
U OF A PRESS
|Editor J. Douglas Willms
|All children in Canada live
with risk. They are susceptible to disease and injury, and as they grow and
learn, they must face numerous challenges that threaten their mental and
physical well-being. Most children experience times of vulnerability, and it
becomes necessary to intervene on their behalf. For the first time in
Canada, we are able to measure and analyse a wide range of children’s
developmental outcomes and identify the main factors that contribute to
|Copublished with Human Resources Development Canada.
|Price: CND$ 34.95, USD$ 34.95, euro 19.5
|Publication Date: September 2002
|"For those of us who care
about Canada's children, this is a very important book. We know that many
children in our country are vulnerable and we are concerned that the number
seems to be growing. But how many are there? Where are they to be found? Why
are the vulnerable? And, most important, what can we do to help them grow up
healthy, stay in school, and engage with life in a positive and constructive
manner? These are questions that have long preoccupied us. Now, thanks to
the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth (NLSCY) and the
thoughtful and intelligent analyses of remarkable academics like Doug Willms
and the others whose work he has brought together in this fascinating
volume, we have some clear answers.”
The Honourable Landon Pearson, The Senate of Canada Advisor on Children's
Rights, from the Introduction
|"Capably edited by J.
Douglas Willms (Director of the Canadian Research Institute for Social
Policy), Vulnerable Children: Findings From Canada's National Longitudinal
Survey of Children and Youth is a compilation and comprehensive analysis of
findings from a seminal, scholarly, and ground breaking research project. A
variety of essays by a series of learned authors cogently address such
topics as socioeconomic gradients for childhood vulnerability, the effect
maternal depression has on childhood vulnerability, the roles of peer groups
in pre-adolescent behavior, and much, much more. Packed with research
findings, educational discourse, conclusions, recommendations, and warnings
for the future, Vulnerable Children is highly recommended reading for
governmental policy makers, teachers, social workers, counselors, and anyone
else who regularly works with young people.”
Carol Volk, The Midwest Book Review