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Off-the-street smarts

Program improves IQs of Manitoba's most at-risk kids

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Lord Selkirk Park Childcare Centre supervisor Carly Sass enjoys playing and working with the children at the centre as they learn in an interactive environment.


Lord Selkirk Park Childcare Centre supervisor Carly Sass enjoys playing and working with the children at the centre as they learn in an interactive environment. Photo Store

In a province struggling to harness the power of a booming young population stuck in poverty, a program in one of the most troubled areas of Winnipeg is having some astonishing results.

In just over a year, it has improved IQs of the most at-risk youngsters in Manitoba and may be the best bet for breaking out of poverty.

It's not rocket science. It's playing games such as peekaboo with babies and having conversations with preschoolers -- simple things developing young brains need but don't get when kids are neglected.

The Abecedarian Approach equips very young, at-risk kids with brains and social skills strong enough to break the cycle while helping their parents, not judging them, said Carolyn Young, director of the Manidoo Gi Miini Gonaan Lord Selkirk Park Childcare Centre. Last year, it became the first and only Canadian site to offer the world-renowned treatment program.

In one year, it has increased average IQs by 10 per cent among the youngest residents of Lord Selkirk Park housing project, said Young. Long-term studies in the U.S. suggest these kids have more successful, productive lives.

Instead of starting kindergarten behind their peers, not knowing the alphabet or how to express what they want other than by pointing and grunting, they're conversationalists who can count backwards from 100 to zero. They're ahead of the game and on an upward trajectory for the rest of their lives, the research shows.

The Manitoba government says at-risk kids who need the most help are the hardest to reach. Their families live in chronic poverty with parents battling its symptoms -- depression, addiction and child neglect. Healthy Child programs that attract pregnant women with an income supplement struggle to stay connected with families once their babies are born.

Nearly 10,000 Manitoba children are apprehended every year, the majority from poor families -- most of whom are aboriginal. A ton of research shows they have poorer outcomes in life. Investing in the very young to counter neglect and helping their parents keep it together will produce better returns for everyone, said Young.

Nineteen aboriginal, newcomer and Caucasian families in Lord Selkirk Park won the lottery to get their kids in the program, and parents are benefiting, too, said Young.

"When they first came, all were unemployed and on social assistance," she said. Many have gone back to school to get their Grade 12 and gone on to post-secondary training, she said. "Two of the dads got jobs," she said.

Their hard work and success don't mean their kids have to leave the heavily subsidized program or move from the place where rent is geared to income, she said. "We want them to stay -- to be role models and mentors," said Young, who's worked in the area for 23 years.

"They don't want to stay in poverty. People want the best for their children."

But moving from crisis to crisis takes a toll on parents, she said. Some were never nurtured as kids and didn't learn how to interact with their own children. Playing simple games and communicating with the very young are crucial to brain development, but that interaction doesn't come naturally or happen at all in some homes, said Young. Parents who were maltreated kids may be 25 now, but their emotional development may have been stunted at age 12, she said.

Making up for lost time with their babies and preschoolers, eight hours a day, five days a week, is what the specially trained early child educators do using the Abecedarian Approach at the centre.

"This is a sort of treatment program," said Young. It was announced by the province in March 2012. There are nine infants, 23 preschoolers and 15 school-age children.

The provincially funded, licensed daycare has lower child-to-adult ratios. There are three babies per adult instead of four and six preschoolers per adult instead of the allowable eight.

It's based on adult-child interaction with an enhanced education component. Learning is part of the caregiving all day, every day -- even a diaper change is an opportunity. The "enriched caregiving" happens throughout the day, with caregivers explaining what they're doing, counting and naming the objects they touch and their colours and textures. If it's a routine task, the adult asks the child what comes next.

The program includes a set of 200 LearningGame activities shared between an adult and one or two children. It's simple but intensive and ongoing.

"It requires you to really be 'on,' " said Young.

One worker carries around a backpack full of prescribed activities to do every 15 minutes with the kids in her care. There is conversational reading that isn't old-school "storytime" with a grown-up reading to a large group of children. It's one adult with one or two children reading an age-appropriate storybook, talking to the child about what they're seeing and getting them to engage. Clara, 11 months, is reading a colourful book with a smiling alligator. "See the alligator's teeth?" her teacher asks. "Where are your teeth? Where are my teeth?" Clara points to them.

Language is key to the program that turns the old adage "children should be seen and not heard" on its head. When a child makes an attempt to talk to an adult, the adult responds warmly and tries to create longer conversations. ("I saw an airplane in the sky," says the three-year-old. "Where do you think it's going?" asks the adult). The teachers speak softly to the kids and make direct eye contact. And they do it over and over every hour throughout the day.

The children are developing their intellect and vital social and communication skills, said Young. If they don't, they won't be ready to start school and the die is pretty much cast for the rest of their lives.

"It sets you up for always being behind," for dropping out of school, early criminal behaviour, violence and gang recruitment. The Abecedarian Approach is the antidote, research has shown.

Randomized, controlled trials in the U.S. investigated the impact of the Abecedarian Approach on poor and at-risk kids over 30 years to see what difference high-quality early-childhood education made, if any, in the long run.

Kids who didn't get the enhanced education fell out of the normal IQ range at four years of age. Those at-risk kids were more than twice as likely to be placed in a special education class by age 15. By age 18, the kids who received the extra education were higher in math achievement, had fewer risk-taking behaviours and better vocabulary.

"This approach helps children to have more self-control," said Young.

The research shows that by age 21, almost 70 per cent of the children who received the enhanced early education were attending a four-year post-secondary program or were employed in a skilled job (such as electrician) compared to 40 per cent of the at-risk kids who didn't.

Their mothers benefited, too. More than a third were teens, 80 per cent of whom went on to post-secondary education compared to 30 per cent of the other teen moms whose kids didn't receive enhanced early education.

"Parents are so happy to see a change in their children -- they know their children are smart," Young said. All of the children were tested before getting into the Winnipeg Abecedarian program and their development will be tracked and compared to a control group for years to come, she said.

Parents had to agree to home visits to be eligible for the program. It took time for home visitor Debbie Urbanski to win their trust.

"You're never going to be close with them if you're judging them," said the early-childhood educator, who grew up in the neighbourhood.

She's been able to befriend the parents and show them how to play the baby games many advantaged people take for granted. She helped them figure out how to remove some of the barriers that kept them from their own education.

She's stepped in during a domestic dispute, calmed everyone down and taken the sobbing kids to the daycare. Instead of being apprehended and split up among strangers, the children were taken to a familiar place, and their parents sorted it out. No police. No Child and Family Services worker. The kids are all right.

"The biggest thing is people don't care what you know, they want to know that you care," Urbanski said.

When they saw they did care, members of the community stepped up to help, said Young. One elder volunteer doing smudge ceremonies with the children and another woman does drumming.

"The dynamic has changed," said Young.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 13, 2013 A6

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