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Recent breakthroughs in brain science may show how to solve many of Manitoba's social problems

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Madison (right) and Miley, with an eagle feather, move a smudge around a circle as part of the Little Red Spirit Aboriginal Head Start program.

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Madison (right) and Miley, with an eagle feather, move a smudge around a circle as part of the Little Red Spirit Aboriginal Head Start program. Photo Store

What if there were a fix for nearly everything we care about, everything that's wrong with Manitoba -- from crime to escalating health-care costs to the marginalization of aboriginal people.

There could be, and it's almost as simple as providing really terrific nursery schools.

 

Early childhood development is a policy wonk's catchphrase that covers everything from prenatal care to Head Start programs to parenting classes. Some remarkable new brain science has begun to show just how critical the first few years of a baby's life are. Now, policy-makers say putting that science into practice, in the form of a broad and co-ordinated early childhood system, could be the solution to almost every intractable social problem we have.

"It's pretty close," said Rob Santos, associate secretary for cabinet's healthy child committee and a University of Manitoba researcher. "If you take the science seriously, this is the best place to put our dollars, from all angles."

The trouble is, we're doing the exact opposite. Generations of social programs and government spending -- from police patrols to crisis counselling to adult education -- have it backwards. Those programs are vital, but they kick into gear when families have already failed. Then we spend billions trying to fix the mess and cope with the social and economic fallout, which includes crime, school failure, addictions and poor health.

Instead, it makes better financial sense to build policies around the avalanche of new brain research that's emerged over the last couple of decades.It turns out the stuff googly-eyed new parents do naturally -- the cooing and pointing and talking back to a babbling baby -- actually builds the architecture of all brain development to come. That baby talk with parents is called "serve and return," and it builds as many as 700 neural connections per second in a baby brain, which has tons of growth left to do after birth.

"It's like an RRSP. It's the compound interest of brain development," said Santos. "If the foundation is weak, you've got to spend so much more later working around it, compensating for it."

Parents burdened by other problems, such as addictions or terrible housing or the stress of working two jobs, don't always have time for serve and return. At the extreme, it turns into toxic stress, which sounds a bit new-agey, but which has been found to have a devastating effect on the way a baby's brain develops.

The daily stress of an abusive home, chronic neglect or a struggling parent creates a permanent state of fight-or-flight. If a baby lives in a chaotic and dangerous environment, the stress response becomes almost permanent, overloading the developing brain and shrinking the number and strength of neural connections, according to research compiled by Harvard University's Center on the Developing Child. Toxic stress makes it hard to develop all the character traits needed for a successful life, such as self-control, persistence, the ability to plan and make social connections. It also affects health in later life.

"We always hear, 'Why can't people just pick themselves up by their boot straps?" said Santos. "It's because their brains have adapted to their environment."

Heart disease and obesity rates also increase significantly due to toxic stress, as do addictions.

Roughly 4,000 babies in Manitoba, half of them aboriginal, are born into toxic stress every year, according to data compiled by Manitoba public health nurses, who visit every newborn.

While the brain science is remarkably compelling, finding the right recipe of programs to tackle the gap in early childhood development isn't so easy. As Santos acknowledges, we don't know exactly what programs work, especially on a large scale. There is some promising research in the United States, and similar studies are underway in Manitoba, but what's needed next is to try more things, pilot more programs and get good data on long-term outcomes.

 

Most childhood development experts point to a seminal study out of Michigan, where poor kids from Ypsilanti who were enrolled in a high-quality preschool program were tracked for decades. Researchers found an economic return of $16 for every dollar spent on the program. That $16 was mostly crime savings, but also included saving in future education and welfare costs and more taxes from the former students who got better-paying jobs.

Many of Manitoba's standout programs, such as the new child-care centre in Lord Selkirk Park that has already boosted IQs and the aboriginal Head Start programs scattered around the province, are a good beginning and offer similar hope. And, the province's decade-old Healthy Baby program has had positive, if modest, effects.

But there is still a huge shortage of daycare spaces, and no universal system like Quebec's, which could form the spine of an early childhood education network. The Organization for Economic and Co-operative Development (OECD) says countries should spend about one per cent of GDP on daycare alone, and we're nowhere close. In fact, Canada typically ranks last among industrialized nations for early-years spending.

Early childhood educators are scarce and aren't particularly well-paid. The jury is still out on the long-term value of full-day kindergarten because it might be too little, too late.

And, perhaps most important, it's difficult to reach the people who could most benefit from parenting classes and support from the moment of conception -- the poor and marginalized who are mistrustful of meddling.

Most early childhood programs begin at age three, but the science suggests getting to kids and parents much earlier has an exponential payoff.

"There is nothing I'd love more than a Baby Little Red Spirit," said Cathy Howes, executive director of the Little Red Spirit Aboriginal Head Start program.

The federally funded program sees 60 kids daily at two sites: one in West Broadway and one in Dufferin School. Head Start gets kids ready for kindergarten with a special emphasis on parental involvement and outreach, and in Winnipeg it's targeted to aboriginal kids. Howes, who has pictures of former kids who went on to graduate high school posted on her bulletin board, said expanding to other sites and younger kids would be her dream.

So far, though, Manitoba's early childhood system is a patchwork, and the number of kindergartners who don't have the social, communication or even physical skills to be ready for school in Manitoba stands at about 30 per cent.

"The science is so strong and yet together we are not yet producing the results our community deserves," said Connie Walker, the United Way's vice-president for community investment.

maryagnes.welch@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 16, 2013 A6

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Updated on Saturday, November 16, 2013 at 12:38 PM CST: added colour photo

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