In this past week, somewhere around 7,400 babies were born across Canada, and already they are preparing for their first day of school.
They came into this world busily hardwiring their brains — building the neural connections that will serve them for a lifetime.
This process of hardwiring will continue for the next ten years, but it will be most intense, and most important, in their preschool years.
Hardwiring is a mechanical process. The children were born with billions of neurons (or nerve cells) waiting to be hooked into circuits. When their senses are stimulated, neurons are activated, and nerve circuits are created.
It’s the number and routing of these circuits that will shape their capacity to think, their behaviour, and their ability to handle stress — all key elements governing ability to learn.
If they don’t get enough stimulation, or if the stimulation is of the wrong kind, then they will enter school ill equipped to learn.
For instance, if their primary babysitter was a television set, they may not have developed enough circuits to handle the brainwork school demands. On the other hand, if they received stimulation of the wrong kind, say through neglect or abuse, they will have developed circuits for anxiety, anger, fear, or frustration that will impede their learning.
Fraser Mustard, former president of The Canadian Institute for Advanced Research in Toronto, and Dan Offord, of the Centre for Children at Risk at Chedoke-McMaster Hospitals in Hamilton, are two of the people who have been trying to focus greater public attention on early childhood stimulation.
They want communities to take responsibility for ensuring their children are ready to learn when they enter school.
« Good affordable day care, . . . or early childhood education for all sectors of society, is key for a future learning society,’’ says Mustard. He refers to a study by Victor Fuchs and Diane Reklis, two researchers in Stanford, California, who say, in a 1994 study, that « the characteristics of children (such as readiness to learn in kindergarten), and of households (such as the level of a mother’s education) have much larger effects on NAEP test scores than do variables that measure school characteristics (such as student-teacher ratios).’’
NAEP refers to the U.S. National Assessment of Educational Progress. The study dealt with results from a grade eight mathematics test.
I would go farther than Mustard or the Stanford researchers, and say that national or province-wide tests in public schools are meaningless unless they take readiness to learn into consideration.
Of what value is a test of learning if you know nothing about the capacity to learn?
The federal government has recently become interested in this issue, and thank God it has. If we are going to have sustainability in this country we will need to develop the kind of learning society that Dr. Mustard talks about.
In the Speech from the Throne last month, the government promised to « measure and report regularly on the readiness of Canadian children to learn, so we can assess our progress in providing our children with the best possible start.’’
It plans to do this by expanding the scope of the National Longitudinal Survey on Children and Youth. The survey is a long-term study that is tracking children into adulthood. It is being conducted by Statistics Canada and Human Resources Development Canada.
Preliminary analysis by officials involved in the study indicates that « up to 15 per cent of Canadian children may not be school ready.’’
Since the survey will be measuring readiness to learn on national and provincial scales, it will be dealing in averages.
That’ll be a great help as far as it goes. But we’ll also need to know about the highs and lows behind the averages, and for that, Dr. Offord has already developed detailed questionnaires that teachers can follow in testing children as they enter kindergarten.
What remains is for communities to acknowledge that it’s up to them to make sure their children get whatever they need to prepare for school. A first step would be to press for testing in the schools — and for whatever funding it requires.