Globe and Mail

Searching for the secret

Sean Fine
The Globe and Mail
Thursday, September 16, 1999

How ready to learn are Canada's children? It's no secret to teachers that many are too angry or hungry or unfocused to get off to a good start.

Now, efforts are under way to measure young children's readiness to learn.

Researchers hope to learn what it is about families and communities that help children thrive. The measures are being developed, their proponents say, not to label individual children, but to help understand which communities need help and what kind of help they need.

The biggest such effort is the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth. Begun in 1994-95 by Human Resources Development Canada, the survey tracks 22,831 children (soon to expand to 45,000) from birth to age 11.

Its interviewers show pictures on an easel to four- and five-year-old subjects, then ask them to identify the picture that matches the word the interviewer reads out. This is a test of verbal ability.

The survey also looks at low birth weight, which it considers an important indicator of child health. It studies children's temperament between birth and the age of 3, based on parents' descriptions of their children's moods.

It also measures motor and social development and behaviour.

Together, these results provide a broad measure of child development.

The Canadian Centre for Studies of Children at Risk in Hamilton has been testing a similar child-development measure that it will soon offer to municipalities across the country.

Results so far from the longitudinal survey, as analyzed by authors Fraser Mustard and Margaret McCain for the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, show that:

No matter how wealthy, there is no economic group in which all children do well;

The proportion of children not doing well is higher near the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder;

The number of children who are not doing as well as they might is largest in the middle class, because the middle class is so large;

A key factor is the quality of parental interaction with children in the early years;

Some communities with a high percentage of poor families do as well as or better than wealthier communities.

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