I was in a meeting prior to Christmas in which one of the presenters said, "We used to think the important (educational) work occurred during Grades 1-12". She went on to say," I have learned over the years the most important work occurs ages 0-6 years." I believe we could have ended the meeting right there. She told us how to support a student's success in school - get off to a good start.
Since 2001, the University of British Columbia has hosted a research project called the Human Early Learning Project (HELP). This project explores how different children's early environments and experiences contribute to their development and account for their varying degrees of health and wellbeing throughout life. HELP uses an Early Development Index (EDI) to gather information from kindergarten teachers across the province concerning the skill levels of each student. The questionnaire asks 104 questions across five themes: physical health and wellbeing (for example, being able to hold a pencil); social skills (the way a child cooperates with their classmates); language and cognitive skills (the traditional "ready for school" skills); and communication skills (understanding simple instructions and being understood at an age-appropriate level). These five sets of skills have a life-long impact on a person's health, learning, and behaviour. So if we can support a child to build them in the early years (birth - 6 years), we are preparing them for the rest of their life.
The information is collected in kindergartens but compiled and analyzed at the neighbourhood and school district levels (so no single child or kindergarten is identifiable). This EDI information is collected in most provinces in Canada and 14 countries around the world. HELP collaborates with these other provinces and countries to learn what we can learn. Since 2001 EDI data have been collected in over 2000 neighbourhoods across Canada - so HELP has a pretty impressive picture of communities in BC and elsewhere where children thrive, and communities where some children struggle to build these early skills.
Over the years HELP has seen that by age 5 (kindergarten) approximately 10 per cent of children in any given community demonstrate signs they are struggling in at least one of the five themes mentioned above and are "at risk" of having difficulties in school and beyond. Over the 12 + years this research has demonstrated that many of the children predicted to be "at risk" in kindergarten do go on to struggle in the later grades.
But this information has also helped communities increase our understanding of how to support children. For example, the StrongStart program at Cayoosh Elementary. StrongStart provides early learning activities for parents/caregivers and their 0-5 years children, at no cost. The children have activities and social interactions, including stories, music, and art to help get ready for success in kindergarten. The adults learn new ways to support their child's learning and make valuable connections with other supports.
As well, the Gold Trail School District conducts screening (assessments) of speech, language, and hearing for all kindergarten students to identify any special needs they may have as they enter their educational careers. I was surprised to learn that so far this school year, 66 kindergarten students (72 per cent of all kindergarten students across the District) have been referred on from this initial screening for more detailed assessment. I was even more surprised to learn that this 72 per cent is not abnormal. Each year we refer roughly three of every four kindergarten students for a detailed assessment of their speech, language, and hearing. As a result, the speech-language specialists work closely with the teachers in the classroom to design and deliver individual and group exercises that benefit the class as a whole. The speech-language specialists also support (mentor) the teachers to repeat and reinforce these exercises in the specialist's absence. If you have any questions or comments, I am always interested in hearing from you: Jim MacArthur (250) 256-3287. The toll free number to reach the school district office is 1-855-453-9101.