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Investing in children: Interview with Dr. Clyde Hertzman

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Dr. Clyde Hertzman is Director of the Human Early Learning Partnership (HELP) at the College for Interdisciplinary Studies at UBC; Canada Research Chair in Population Health and Human Development; and Professor in the School of Population and Public Health at UBC. 

Q: Some of your research identifies the vulnerability of children on five areas of child development -- physical health and well-being, social competence, emotional maturity, language and cognitive development, communications skills and general knowledge. Based on these factors, what has your research at the Human Early Learning Partnership identified? What are some of your findings related to geography, neighbourhoods and early childhood development?

In B.C., like the rest of Canada, more than 25 per cent of children are reaching kindergarten "vulnerable" (that is, behind where we would like them to be) in their development on one or more of these domains. Anything more than 10 per cent is avoidable under optimal conditions of early childhood, so we can say that approximately two-thirds of the developmental vulnerabilities children bring to school are avoidable. Moreover, the range of vulnerabilities across B.C. neighbourhoods goes from less than 10 per cent to more than 65 per cent. So, there is a great deal of neighbourhood inequality in children's development that is due, in part, to family and neighbourhood socioeconomic factors, but also to things that are not directly related to SES (socio-economic status), such as access to quality early learning and care programs and parenting styles.

Q: At HELP (Human Early Learning Partnership), scholars range from neurology, biology, epidemiology, psychology, education and other fields. How has the interdisciplinary nature of the research been beneficial?

Because of the mixture of disciplines associated with HELP, we are able to go way beyond just measuring the state of early child development in B.C.. We are able to approach the early stages of human development "from cell to society." That is, we start with the insights from EDI and go in four different directions.

a. we go "micro" -- that is, we go down to the level of the cell to understand how early experience influences the way in which genes express themselves; and how intimate environments influence physiology and development.

b. we go "macro" -- to understand how broad social factors and social policies influence early child development; and we produce evidence-base policy frameworks, like "15 by 15" that we think could reduce early developmental vulnerability.

c. we go "back in time" -- to study how factors from pre-conception, pregnancy, and the very early years influence development by school age.

d. we go "forwards in time" -- to create developmental trajectories that help us understand how the years influence development in school age and into adulthood.

Q: Where have significant improvements in child vulnerability rates occurred and why?

There are several communities in BC and other places in Canada where there is reason to believe that EDI vulnerability has come down in a sustained way. There seem to be some general principles regarding why this happens:

* strong community engagement -- ongoing commitment of key organizational and community leaders, across key sectors, to work together on ECD (Early Childhood Development) over the long-term, and not just delegate downwards through their organizations.

* focus on EDI (Early Development Instrument) outcomes -- EDI data and each of the five scales are used for planning purposes; keeping community planning "outcome oriented."

* multiple layers of programming and support focused on families -- with good planning and coordination, it is possible to reduce barriers of access to quality programs for families with children; radically reducing fragmentation, isolation, rules/times of operation/etc. that do not work for families 

* vertical coordination -- resources coming from the community are matched and supported by resources from senior governments, so that agencies are not running from grant to grant, on a shoestring.

* school system leadership -- in all successful communities, a prominent role is being played by the school system in creating continuity of development from pre-school to school; integrating programs; and creating an environment where ECD is understood to be about "universal access for opportunities for development" as opposed to compensatory policies for families "in trouble."

Q: Scandinavian countries spend about 2 per cent of their GDP on early childhood development compared to Canada where we spend about .5 per cent.  In a comparative context, how is Canada faring in terms of outcomes related to early childhood development compared to other countries?

As mentioned above, approximately two-thirds of the developmental vulnerabilities that Canadian children bring to school would have been avoidable if they had had better early experiences.  Moreover, early vulnerability predicts school success, the development of numeracy and literacy skills, as well as physical and social-emotional development. There is reason to believe that, if Canada were to spend 1.5 to 2.0 per cent of GDP in an effective way, on early development, we could increase school success; reduce the proportion of Canadians with limited literacy and numeracy skills; and reduce obesity and the burden of mental health problems in Canadian society.

Q: What are your policy recommendations for government?

See our "15 by 15" report.

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