Centre inundated with requests for early childhood development instrument


What elements best prepare children for successful learning? The School Readiness to Learn Project, undertaken by the Canadian Centre for Studies of Children at Risk at McMaster, hopes to find specific variables that affect children as they prepare for school.

“There's been an enormous jump in the interest and knowledge surrounding early childhood development,” says Magdalena Janus, a project co-ordinator in the Department of Psychiatry who is working alongside Dan Offord, the centre's director, on the project.

“Advanced research on brain behaviour and development tells us that early stimulation, support and interaction have a significant consequence on children, both positively and even negatively. We know now that within the first five years the brain is still developing rapidly and to a great extent.”

The duo have developed an instrument called the Early Development Instrument: A Population-based Measure for Communities (EDI) to gauge school readiness. The instrument is based on data from over 16,000 senior kindergarten students collected last spring. The EDI consists of 120 core questions group into five categories: physical health and well-being, social competence, emotional maturity, language and cognitive development, and communication skills and general knowledge, as well as two indicators of special skills and special problems.

It has been implemented in all kindergarten classes in the Metro Toronto and North York sections of the Toronto District School Board, as well as in several other communities that include: the Parry Sound School District, the Ottawa-Carleton School District, the Woodstock School District in New Brunswick, and Baffin District in Nunavut.

Teachers answer the comprehensive questionnaire on their own, without consulting the individual students, based solely on personal observation. At such an early stage of development, the teacher is often the best-qualified judge of a student's aptitudes and abilities.

The results from the testing are compiled based on the findings of the entire class, rather than the individual student. By basing results like this, a detailed look at the factors influencing students is provided.

Previous research has often resulted in fairly generalized conclusions based on sweeping assumptions. Janus points out that such research, for example, often indicates that, in terms of percentages, children for lower-class households are less prepared for the rigours of the educational system than more-affluent classmates. But, in terms of sheer numbers, middle-class students end up more problematic.

“Any intervention that addresses problems can not be simply targeted towards a specific segment of the population because there are examples of problems regardless of background,” she says.

The possibility of acquiring such useful information has intrigued early childhood advocates across Canada and the United States. The centre has been inundated with requests for the instrument.

“There is such an emphasis placed on the importance of keeping score,” says Janus. “Communities want to know how they are doing and what they are and can do better. They want to know how they stack up.

“We are trying not to use this just for the sake of using it. We look to see that communities have ways and devices to build on the information before we consider working with them.”

The project has gained funding and co-operation from the early childhood initiatives of Human Resources Development Canada. The instrument was also included in Fraser Mustard's “Early Years Learning Study” task force for the provincial government last spring. Mustard is a former dean of medicine and vice-president of health sciences at McMaster.