Summer is over. Our children are back at school and our representatives have returned to the Legislature. We hope this means that we'll also get back to a discussion about how Ontario will implement the recommendations of Charles Pascal's recent report on early learning, With Our Best Future in Mind. We share this hope personally, as citizens who believe our province cannot afford to waste the talents of even one child. As child health professionals, we wholeheartedly support the report's recommendations describing a program that will impact the health and well-being of Ontario's next generation.

Last year at Sick Kids we were privileged to host Canada's expert on early learning, Dr. Fraser Mustard, who addressed how social and educational experiences become biologically embedded in humans – literally under the skin. We're hard-wired in the first years of life. What we experience in early life becomes a critical part of who we are. The Pascal report translates this knowledge into a new and improved reality for our children and their parents … and our society.

There is increasing evidence about the link between the effects of social and economic conditions on health and development. Both during pregnancy as well as early in life, specific exposures have long-lasting effects, some positive, some negative. Simply put, the brain – like all the other organs in the body – is environmentally sensitive and requires specific sensory input at particular times in order to develop pathways. The richer and higher quality the stimulation, the richer the resulting connections. Strong associations have been demonstrated between increasing traumatic childhood events, for example, and a variety of serious illnesses in adulthood such as coronary artery disease, depression, alcoholism and even teen pregnancy.

There can be no doubt that the early years of a child's life are marked by the most rapid development, especially in the central nervous system. Stress-induced brain remodelling and connectivity of neuronal structures have been demonstrated in animal models; imaging techniques allow us to see similar findings in children. Reduced hippocampal volume has been demonstrated with prolonged perceived stress, and decreased prefrontal cortex volume has been seen in individuals self-reporting a lower socio-economic status. These areas of the brain correspond to the major sites of memory, learning and executive functioning. In short, science shows both nurture and nature drive development.

One-quarter (and in some neighbourhoods as many as 70 per cent) of our children are not kindergarten-ready by the time that they start school.** These Ontario children arrive in Grade 1 with vulnerabilities – physical, emotional, social and/or learning difficulties – that will challenge them throughout their lives. As well as insufficient experience with words and numbers, this high percentage of children commonly lack age-appropriate social skills which allow them to interact in a friendly way with other children.** We know from internationally recognized, long-term studies by Richard Tremblay at the University of Montreal that this is highly correlated with subsequent classroom behaviour and high-school completion. These gaps only increase once children are in school. We can help to lessen the risk to the most vulnerable children in our society by providing a nurturing, resource-rich environment, enabling all of our children to reach the potential they deserve.

Ontarians have been presented with a treatment plan supporting transformational change for young children and their families. The Pascal report is firmly grounded in what is best for children and families, making use of the considerable evidence that has accumulated on best practices in early childhood education and care. Putting this program into action will go a long way toward beginning to transform Canada's last-place dismal Early Childhood Education Council record, at least in Ontario.

Early learning addresses our economy's needs in the short and long term. It is about immediate stimulus through new infrastructure and job creation, and it is about positioning Ontario's workforce to excel, to meet the global challenges that lie ahead and ensure a prosperous future for all of us. Overwhelming evidence tells us we can expect a positive influence on the health-care system over the full adult lifespan through better lifelong and upstream practices, and better health choices in life.

As pediatricians affiliated with the Hospital for Sick Children and the University of Toronto, we applaud the premier for his initiation of this major advance, a progressive move. The transformation to a coherent early childhood education and care system will be a most welcome one. When this plan is implemented, Ontario will fast become the leading jurisdiction in Canada on the early years with access, outcomes and innovation. We can only hope that every jurisdiction will choose a similar path.

Dr. Denis Daneman is pediatrician-in-chief at The Hospital for Sick Children and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Toronto. Dr. Elizabeth Lee Ford-Jones is a pediatrician at The Hospital for Sick Children and a professor of Pediatrics at the University of Toronto. Dr. Dina Kulik is a medical resident in pediatrics at the The Hospital for Sick Children, University of Toronto. (…)


Source: Toronto Star –