National Child Day Op-Ed: Investing in children’s development is good for kids, and for Canada

OTTAWA, Nov. 20 2014  – There is no doubt that children and youth are our country’s most precious resources.

But for them to be all they can be now and in the future, Canada must give its children the best support possible during their early years.

The years from before birth to the age of six are the most important time of development in every child’s life. This is when brain architecture is built through trillions of neural connections. Research suggests that 90% of a child’s brain is developed by age five.

Given this, you’d think Canada would be a world leader in supporting our children during their important young age. Yet, early childhood care and education in Canada lags behind other developed countries, including Norway, Sweden and France, according to key OECD indicators.

Currently, Canada also spends far below the OECD standard 1% of GDP on early childhood care and learning — with the majority of this spending occurring in Quebec.

We need to do better.

The foundation of childhood development is building emotional, social, physical and language skills. Young children learn these skills from adults through what’s called serve and return interactions. Like a game of tennis or volleyball, various communications are “served” by a child and “returned” by an adult, be it a parent, grandparent, early childhood professional, nanny or babysitter.

These positive and repeated communications are essential for children. Everything from running, climbing and jumping to listening, speaking, singing and recognizing symbols (crucial to learning to read) relies on them.

But young children are fragile during their most intensive development. They need stable, nurturing relationships, especially if they have adverse childhood experiences, such as physical or sexual abuse, conscious or unconscious neglect, poverty, or prolonged toxic stress.

Indeed, science shows the root of many chronic diseases are in childhood.

Without nurturing, close relationships and a sturdy foundation to support development through their teens and into adulthood, children are at higher risk of developmental mental and physical health problems. These include obesity, diabetes, various cancers, addiction, and mental illness. These same children are also more likely to fall behind in school, engage in criminal behavior, be in abusive relationships and have trouble holding down a job.

These problems and conditions can be passed from generation to generation.

But this cycle can be broken.

The Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada and its partners have issued 15 practical recommendations to improve our children’s childhood education and care, including three important first steps.

One: That the federal government increase funding for early childhood care and learning, with a target of 1% of our GDP. This would bring Canada in line with other developed countries.

Two: The federal, provincial and territorial governments work together to build a comprehensive early child development system that supports families and includes culturally appropriate support for Indigenous children and families living both on and off reserves.

Three: Home visiting programs be made available to all vulnerable families in Canada. These programs provide prenatal support, educate parents, promote positive parenting, and help monitor for signs of child-abuse and neglect.

The time to take these steps is now.

With children, an ounce of prevention is truly worth a pound of cure.

Our health system commits tremendous resources to treating obesity, diabetes and other health issues. Yet science shows that investing early in children, and the families and communities around them, is more cost-effective than trying to correct the illnesses and lost productivity that arise later.

In fact, effective early childhood education programs can do more than pay for themselves. Research done on targeted U.S. preschool programs, for example, found a return on investment of between four and 17 dollars for every dollar spent.

Canada can, and should, be a world leader in supporting its children.

By better understanding and supporting parents and child development, we can make our communities stronger, improve our health and reduce the burden on our health-care system.

It’s good for our kids, and for our country.

Dr. Cecil Rorabeck, OC, FRCSC,
President,
Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada

SOURCE Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada

For further information: Media contacts: Tom McMillan, tel. (613) 218-9570, tmcmillan@royalcollege.ca; Sandra Shearman, tel. (613) 730-8177 x464, sshearmant@royalcollege.ca

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