''THE main hope of a nation lies in the proper education of its youth." So wrote Erasmus centuries ago. But its truth is self-evident and remains relevant today. The question, however, is what exactly do we mean by "education"? What is it we want to teach our children and who exactly is responsible for ensuring "it" happens?
Our educational system has, for some time, expanded its mission beyond the basic three 'Rs' of reading, writing and 'rithmetic to include music, art and physical education. While some may dispute these extensions, others argue that the system has become even more diluted with "non-essentials" and that schools are taking on tasks best left to parents such as social/emotional instruction, interpersonal skills or anger management. There is concern that this comes at the expense of basic skills needed to survive in the working world.
There may well be merit in some of these arguments. The foundation for learning begins long before formal schooling starts. Education does not grow in a vacuum and suddenly spurt in kindergarten. It begins at birth. Informal language development and cognitive and reasoning abilities are the first tools children need to learn, and parents are their first teachers. According to Daniel Goleman in Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ (1995), children learn fundamental lessons in the family unit that will last for a lifetime. And I would propose that the best foundation for learning the three 'Rs' is the three 'Ss' -- safety, security and stability. I believe that if these three basics can be provided, many behavioural and academic concerns would fall by the wayside, as well as the costs associated with them. In fact, Goleman suggests there is an emotional malaise that appears to be universal for modern children, and that schools are left to correct the social and emotional deficits.
In their book High Risk: Children Without a Conscience (1987), Ken Magid and Carole McElvey point out this malaise is caused by a break in the bonding process between parent and child. When normal bonding between infant and primary caregiver does not occur properly, children do not learn to love and trust. Many develop an attachment disorder that can result in an antisocial personality. This becomes readily apparent in the frequency of reports of cars stolen by youth, even some so young they can barely see above the steering wheel, dangerous fire-setting by youngsters barely out of kindergarten, problem graffiti, vandalism and the widespread use of medication in our schools. These are just a few of the symptoms of a malignant disease that seems to be spreading in our society. Magid and McElvey tell us that underlying the unattached child is a "deep-seated rage... born of unfulfilled need". They attribute the increasing numbers of 'unattached' children to a demographic revolution in a significant increase in family breakdown and changing family structures.
For example, Statistics Canada reports a continuing trend in the increase of lone-parent families from 13.5 per cent to 14.3 per cent while blended families rose from 2.3 per cent to 2.5 per cent between 2001 and 2006. Interestingly, the number of intact families with children actually decreased from 42.9 per cent to 40.4 per cent in the same period.
Although music, video games and violence on television may contribute to the problem through modeling and desensitization, research suggests that poor attachment in the early years is critical to leaving children vulnerable to their influence. This is further supported by a 1990 document from Health and Welfare Canada, Foundations for the Future. It highlights the importance of familial relationships and states that failure to develop appropriate attachments puts children at risk for development of mental health problems.
How does normal attachment occur? According to Jean Piaget, a Swiss philosopher and developmental psychologist in The Origins of Intelligence (1952), children begin to construct a world of permanent objects through which attachment to significant others occurs from birth. They organize their world through a process of assimilation and accommodation. Children incorporate aspects from the environment that become an integral part of themselves. They also learn to modify or adapt to new information. In our kaleidoscopic world of separation, divorce, changing environments and families, how can a child construct permanent objects or develop trust?
And we know from a 1998 report from the Canadian Institute of Child Health in Ottawa called The First Years Last Forever, that scientists can now show there is a pattern of brain cell wiring that accounts for the explosion of learning, which takes place in the first three years of life. From birth, stimulation by the environment triggers a cascade of biochemicals that are linked to memory and learning. The neurons will grow and connect into complex systems and with repetition, become well defined. This wiring will become the foundation for functioning throughout life. These windows of learning and development, if unused, may atrophy.
While this may present a frightening burden and sense of responsibility, what an opportunity the early years provide to shape the neural architecture that will be indelibly coded for life! The first tool we give to our children with which to learn is brain development. This includes the intellectual, social and emotional foundation necessary to enable learning to occur.
When positive circuits are laid down, the child will enter the school system emotionally and academically ready for learning. We have the knowledge to ensure that future generations of children are provided with the necessary tools to set them on the road for life. Learning the three Rs will be child's play to those fortunate children who have been provided the three Ss -- safety, security and stability.
Libby Simon is a freelance writer and retired school social worker with the
Child Guidance Clinic of Winnipeg.