Early Childhood Education May Harm Children

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on September 11, 2006. Partner content is not updated.

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on September 11, 2006. Partner content is not updated.

Early Childhood Education May Harm Children

This July, while kids across England revelled in the freedom of a summer break from school, a new law called the Childcare Act was receiving royal assent. It requires all early learning and child care facilities - public or private - to follow a universal framework for what to teach young children ranging from infants and toddlers to four-year-olds. Come September 2008, under the Early Years Foundation Stage model, there will be compulsory programs with standardized educational goals in place at any centre for kids. The aim is for all children, no matter where they are or what their family situation, to have the opportunity to learn the same skills in the same way.

It's an admirable objective, but there's probably more to learn from the ferocious debate that erupted when this EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION bill was announced last autumn. The federal department for education said the bill would simply make law the "Birth to Three Matters" framework that had heretofore been merely a series of recommendations for early learning and child care centres to follow voluntarily. In essence, it would create a national curriculum for toddlers. Immediately, reports forewarned of babies having to take exams and recite multiplication tables, and of a Soviet-inspired education system - one whose jurisdiction even included potty training. "We are now in danger of taking away children's childhood when they leave the maternity ward," huffed a spokesperson for parents' associations in England. "It's absolute madness."

As it happens, there were no such plans, and the Birth to Three Matters framework is incorporated within the Early Years Foundation Stage. But the public panic that reverberated throughout England reflects an increasingly common anxiety that parents - and governments - around the world experience over what to do with young children to ensure their future success. Conventional wisdom says that when it comes to learning, the sooner the better; kids are like sponges, so flood them with information. And early learning centres such as daycares and preschools are almost invariably touted as the most promising arena for that education.

Some studies have, certainly, shown gains among children in high-quality child care. A recent report by the Waterloo, Ont.-based Canadian Centre for Knowledge Mobilisation evaluated the findings of 66 scientific studies on the impact of child care centres on early development. It concludes that exposure to these places produces better cognitive and language development in children. What's more, it suggests that the sooner kids start at early education centres, and the more time spent there, the better their development.

But now there is a growing collection of evidence that suggests just the opposite: that early childhood education actually harms children. Cognitive benefits are inconsistent at best. According to one surprising study, the more time spent in early learning facilities, the more likely that a child's social development will slow down. And mounting expectations for kids to achieve and succeed at younger and younger ages is being characterized as "white-collar child abuse" by at least one observer, Maxine Schnall, co-author of From Suckermother to Smart Mom. "The extraordinary pressure that parents exert on children at an early age to learn beyond their developmental level has created physical and emotional problems in children. And that's abuse," she says. "What makes it all so sad is that it's not intentional."

Of course not. Early childhood education is supposed to help parents help their kids. And truth be told, it helps many parents, too. Economics has made putting children into the care of others an increasingly appealing idea, if not entirely unavoidable. "Part of it might come out of necessity for us," explains Diana Skinner, whose first son, Elliot, just turned two. She chose to stay at home with him while her husband, Matt, worked as a teacher in Toronto. But that will likely change. "Heading into the fall I'm looking for work, because we just don't have enough income," she says. Approximately two-thirds of mothers with children younger than age 6 are in the labour force, according to a 2003 Statistics Canada study. Other parents go back to work out of boredom, according to Schnall. "They feel deprived of adult companionship and the ego satisfaction that you get from the outside world that you don't get being isolated with children," she explains. No matter the motivation, for many parents early learning centres - preschools, daycares or nurseries - hold particular value as babysitting services with educational benefits.

Nevertheless, parents also put a lot of faith - and money - into early learning because they believe it will give their children a head start. The popularity of Baby Einstein products and the array of "educational toys" available is proof that parents are in a hurry to start their children's academic careers. And given the weighty pronouncements from organizations such as UNESCO, which states that "the foundations of human development are laid during the child's early years," it's no wonder they feel a sense of urgency about when and how to get that underway. "You're always worrying about doing the right thing, that's definitely always on your mind," says Skinner. Adding to the rush is fear among some parents that they're not capable of teaching their kids all the skills and information they'll need heading into kindergarten. Others fret about depriving children of a life spent playing with kids, and learning how to share and co-operate with others. And so the race to get them learning - with toys, in classrooms or with other children - is on. An early learning program developed by a Duke University professor even has five-year-olds deconstructing sentences and speaking foreign languages. "Parents really do believe that this is going to help their kids be smarter," Skinner observes.

Whether it actually will depends on a slew of variables. For starters, in Canada, early childhood education isn't defined in any one way across the country, which makes setting goals and tracking kids' progress all but impossible. "Child care is not conceptualized as education in Canada," says Martha Friendly, coordinator of the Childcare Resource and Research Unit at the University of Toronto, who supports equal accessibility to child care. Each province and territory has its own ways of providing early childhood education, and it generally comes under the jurisdiction of the department of education or social services. Lately, federal governments have debated a national program (under the Liberals) or a taxable benefit to parents and the creation of new child care spaces, as is the current plan under the Conservatives. Political rhetoric endorses early education as a panacea for social and economic problems, or as a fundamental human right.

Australian psychologist Steve Biddulph takes a radically different view. The author of Raising Babies: Should Under 3s Go To Nursery?, he had a complete reversal in his views on early childhood education. He used to advocate the use of daycares, but says the swelling body of research showing negative effects on development and mental health has convinced him parents should stay home with their kids for as long as possible. "The rapid adoption of nursery care in the early years has been a social experiment," he recently wrote, "a gamble taken by millions of parents. The results of the experiment are now emerging." Over the past decade, researchers have learned that the brain grows in response to love and affection during the first two years of life, he says; without this, babies' brains don't develop fully. "Children raised without sufficient loving care do not fully become the human beings they were meant to be."

But even observers who take a more generous view of preschool disagree with the presumption that all children benefit greatly from early education. "They're arguing that preschool helps all kids for a very long period of time. And I don't know of any scholar that's found that result," says Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at the University of California at Berkeley. Researchers there and at Stanford University published a report last November entitled "How Much Is Too Much?", which analyzed the influence of preschool centres on children's development in the U.S. The Berkeley-Stanford study suggests early learning best serves the poorest children in society, who tend to show the strongest gains in pre-reading (for example, recognizing letters, counting blocks) and math skills after attending preschool. "Kids from poor families have much [fewer] resources in their home. Their parents may have less time, less materials, and are less likely to read to them," explains Friendly. That's why a recent paper published by the C.D. Howe Institute, a Toronto-based think tank, suggests directing child care centres at neighbourhoods with at-risk families. "[It's] not been shown that for stable, middle-class families, early childhood education adds much, if anything," says co-author John Richards, an economist and public policy professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.

Conversely, the Berkeley-Stanford study shows children from middle- and upper-class homes see only modest gains compared with their peers who don't attend preschool. But the most surprising - and arguably most worrisome - suggestion was that any cognitive gains from early childhood education may come at the expense of social development. The study warns against children attending preschool or daycare for more than five or six hours a day, or up to 30 hours a week. "Institutions, no matter how small and warm and fuzzy, start to regulate kids' behaviours," says Fuller. "Once you rigidify and routinize that, then kids start to shut down, and their cognitive growth starts to slow down." That makes intuitive sense to Skinner.

The Berkeley-Stanford study found that child care centres suppressed children's social development, self-control, interpersonal skills, and motivation once they entered kindergarten. Kids were more aggressive and impulsive with one another. The worst affected were children who attended early learning centres before age 2. "So if kids spend more [than 30 hours a week] in preschool centres, they're simply not keeping pace in their acquisition of social skills," says Fuller. Another C.D. Howe study, this one published in February, came to a similar conclusion. It examined Quebec's universal early education and child care program. Its conclusion: "children were worse off" since the program started in 1997; it connects the increased use of child care to a decrease in the well-being of children, who exhibit anxiety and hyperactivity. "Parents have to think, when their child comes home counting to 30, do those skills outweigh some modest slowdown in social development?" says Fuller.

Parents, it seems, should also be thinking about how they will be affected by putting their kids into early learning or daycare centres. According to the Quebec study, parents are worse off since the child care program came into play. Mothers of children in daycare are more depressed than their average counterparts. More of them report hostile or "aversive interactions" with their kids. And there is a significant deterioration in marital relationships. None of this is good for children, and it comes as no surprise to Schnall, who believes that the pressure parents put on kids reflects the pressure they feel themselves. Child care, for instance, doesn't come cheap. "Many families, in order to keep up their financial level, have to work really hard. That creates a lot of pressure. Throw kids in the mix, and there are a lot of arguments about who's not doing enough, and why," surmises Schnall.

What's more, she says, many parents suffer from chronic guilt and insecurity. They want the best for their child, but there's no clear consensus on what that means. And there probably never will be because every family has different financial needs and a unique list of priorities and child-rearing philosophies. Fuller says research helps raise parents' awareness "that they need to think about and observe what their children are getting out of preschool, both on the cognitive side and on the social development side." But the only certainty, he says, is, "Little kids are active seekers of new stimuli. They're active explorers of new tasks." There's no disputing that children's education begins at birth. Where, when and how it should take place is another matter.

Maclean's September 11, 2006