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Daycare revisited: Non-maternal care linked to behavioural problems in children

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A researcher in Sweden has found that "two generations of universal daycare have left their children less educated, and more distant from parents." Jonas Himmelstrand, at a conference held in Ottawa on May 5, 2011, said Sweden has had a universally accessible, government-funded daycare system since 1975 and that, while there are no babies in daycare, 92 per cent of all children aged 18 months to five years are in daycare.


Moreover, he cautions the social toll is the negative outcome for children and adolescents in the areas of health and behaviour. While direct causation is tough to prove, "many health-care professionals point to the lack of parent involvement beyond the first 16 months as a primary contributing factor." Himmelstrand concludes that "making child-rearing a state responsibility has not proven to be a success."

Yet there is a growing movement sweeping across Canada that is transforming early education. It was propelled with a report by Charles Pascal in 2009 called, With Our Best Future in Mind. A comprehensive plan was developed and the first phase has now been implemented in Ontario. It includes full-day kindergarten for four- and five-year-olds with gradual expansion to one-stop centres for children from the prenatal period to age 12.

In our own province, the Manitoba Child Care Association reports that some school divisions have already introduced a variety of preschool and nursery school programs for four-year-olds and full-day kindergarten for five-year-olds with hopes for greater expansion of services as proposed in the Ontario report.

But these plans raise several questions. What do we mean by "education"? How should it be delivered? And how does it fit with attachment theory?

Most would agree that education, albeit informal, begins at birth. Most would also agree with Pascal's evidence-based assumptions that "families have the strongest influence on children's early learning and development; and that strong parent-child relationships and the quality of parenting are powerful influences on immediate and long-term development and learning."

These assumptions suggest the foundation for learning is not academic skills but on the development of love, trust and empathy that emerge in our first relationships. Informal language development and cognitive and reasoning abilities are the first tools children need to learn and they evolve within the family -- our first school.

According to Daniel Goleman, children learn fundamental lessons in the family unit that will last for a lifetime. And I would propose the best foundations for learning the three Rs -- reading, writing and 'rithmetic -- are the three Ss -- Safety, Security and Stability.

These are the underlying substructures and building blocks of formal education. If these three basics were provided, many emotional, behavioural and academic concerns would fall by the wayside, as well as the costs associated with them.

John Bowlby, a British psychoanalyst, and the father of attachment theory, with Mary Ainsworth, an American psychologist, emphasized the significance of our first bond with the mother (or substitute) in a historic study on attachment and loss. Attachment is essential in developing trust and empathy and is the root for establishing meaningful relationships with others. It is a necessary prerequisite to a successful learner and is learned within a safe, secure and stable home with a consistent caregiver.

The recent explosion in neuroscience research can now show these developmental changes are neurologically and biologically based. For example, The Canadian Institute of Child Health in Ottawa reports the brain at birth is highly underdeveloped. While billions of cells are built into the physical structure, the wiring between them will be laid out by environmental stimulation.

This triggers a cascade of biochemicals that affects everything from emotions to movement to memory and learning. Simple interactions, such as a mother's touch, trigger the neurons to grow and connect into complex systems, and with repetition, become well-defined. This wiring will become the foundation for functioning as it shapes the neural architecture that will be indelibly coded for life.

These findings are extremely significant, not only in developing healthy children ready to learn, but in preventing the growing social problems in children and youth.

For example, a trend in the violent crime rate among young people in Canada shows an increase of 12 per cent in 10 years, and 30 per cent since 1991, with homicides in 2006 reaching their highest point since data was first collected in 1961.

And the widespread use of medications for attention deficit disorders (with or without hyperactivity) continues to put pressure on parents and schools as it affects learning and behaviour.

StatsCan indicates a classroom will have one to three children with this disorder, with boys being diagnosed three times more than girls. Similar trends are shown in mental-health disorders, such as suicides, as well as in bullying behaviours.

This increase in social problems among the young coincides with an eight-year profile, which shows the proportion of children in daycare has also increased.

In 2002-2003, for example, 54 per cent of children aged six months to five years were in some form of child care, up from 42 per cent in 1994-1995.

This correlation may not necessarily be the antecedent conditions, but Bowlby cautioned us decades ago that "when the care of children is neglected they become a source of social infection as real and serious as are the carriers of diphtheria and typhoid."

Should this trend of warehousing children continue and prove to be the causal factor, then the following generations may well be swamped by a tsunami of social problems. If, as Bowlby states "attachment is a biological necessity... and a key to survival," how do we reconcile extending non-maternal and institutionalized care in the formative years with attachment theory?

The best-funded and the best-constructed daycare, even dressed up as early childhood education, cannot fulfil the child's biological need for parental attachment. Consistency and stability cannot be ensured even in the best of daycares. Sufficient ratios of adult to child will always be a struggle to maintain. Staff will change as their personal lives dictate. This is a job, after all, and emotional investment is not the primary bond.

The underdeveloped child cannot adapt to the variety of individual personalities, both adults and children, nor be separated from home and parents for long periods of time, often in changing environments. A study by The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (USA) found "the more time children spend in any of a variety of non-maternal care in the first 4.5 years of life... predicts problem behaviour... assertiveness, disobedience and aggression."

Ontario is entering unchartered territory. A Globe and Mail editorial in 2009 headlined, Early education is not everything, notes that, aside from a lack of studies showing the effects of such a program, Quebec has had a provincially funded daycare program since 1997. The results indicate their high-school dropout rate is high, while high schools in Alberta, with few early-learning programs, score high on international tests.

The studies noted above indicate Canada appears to be heading in the same direction as Sweden and suggests provincial governments should consider carefully whether this is the best future for our children. Ontario's $1.5 billion price tag would likely cost less and be better spent to support parents through tax credits and other initiatives while freeing up the extra dollars on support services for those who need it.

The basis of intellectual development depends on the first nurturing attachments with a caring person within a safe, secure and stable home. "Feed the emotions, the intellect will follow."


Libby Simon is a Winnipeg freelance writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 22, 2011 J11

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