Execs in Training: how all-day kindergarten can be brilliant for your kid

Execs in Training: how all-day kindergarten can be brilliant for your kid

(Image: Jason Schneider)

A few years back, when my son was four, I tried to sweet talk his way into Bruce Junior Public School in Leslieville, which offered a play-based, full-day kindergarten program that integrated before- and after-school daycare at a subsidized rate. He has an oral-motor planning disorder, a condition that affects his brain’s ability to tell his mouth how to form sounds. We feared he might get overlooked, or ridiculed, at a regular school. Since we lived 10 houses north of Bruce’s boundary, we had to get on a waiting list. And when a staff person told me that the list was full, I shamelessly played the diversity card: I suggested that our interracial two-mommy-headed household and our son’s special needs would be a good fit for Bruce. Turns out it wasn’t the straight flush I assumed it would be. She turned me away.

He ended up in a kind of full-day kindergarten anyway. He attended JK at another nearby school in the morning, and in the afternoon, he went down the hall to an Aboriginal Head Start class. These programs help native kids—who often struggle in school and have a much higher high-school dropout rate than the general population—by boosting their language skills, monitoring for learning disabilities and delays, and gently introducing them to the rigour of Grade 1, through a schedule that is more regimented than the typical daycare. My son spent his days engrossed in the meaningful play experts prescribe: puzzles to develop math skills, nursery rhymes to increase his language capacity, drumming and traditional stories to connect him to his native roots, Lego to understand planning. Mostly, though, he learned how to be a good learner. His teachers showed him how to organize his belongings, transition from one activity to the next and communicate his frustration in ways other than whacking people on the head with a plastic shovel.

Eventually, every kindergartner in Ontario will have the opportunity to experience a similar kind of enriched school prep. This fall, the province is rolling out its all-day kindergarten initiative. The first phase will cover 35,000 four- and five-year-olds at 579 Ontario schools—71 in Toronto, many of them in poor neighbourhoods. The full-day structure emphasizes learning through play. Each class will have an average of 26 students and be taught by both traditional teachers and a tag team of early childhood educators (or ECEs, who are college trained to work specifically with toddlers and preschoolers). In addition, 39 per cent of the phase one schools will offer optional before- and after-school care (when there is sufficient demand) for a fee below the current market level—roughly $27 a day, compared to the going rate of $50. By 2015, the kindergarten revolution will go province-wide. At that point, its operating cost will be an estimated $1.5 billion a year.

Only a professional idealist could have drafted such a scheme. In 2007, Dalton McGuinty conscripted his special adviser on early learning, Charles Pascal, to be the architect of full-day kindergarten. Pascal was a canny choice—a psychologist, university professor, education specialist and former executive director of the Atkinson Charitable Foundation, which supports the work of social-justice groups. He’s also a garrulous and unapologetic social reformer, a blue-sky optimist, an experienced political operative (he was a deputy minister under Bob Rae) and a schmoozer extraordinaire.

Not surprisingly, then, his report for McGuinty—With Our Best Future in Mind: Implementing Early Learning in Ontario—doesn’t just offer the classroom blueprint, but recommends an overhaul of education and social services, including revamping the curriculum and establishing enriched summer­time and March break activities, as well as new child-and-family centres that will integrate and improve such offerings as parenting workshops and health care services. Pascal’s idea is bigger than kindergarten: it’s for a combined child care and education system, serving babies in the womb and kids up to age 12. The plan may seem extravagantly ambitious—public school boards are broke—but Pascal insists there’s a direct correlation between early childhood education and healthier families and communi­ties.

And there’s an arsenal of studies to support him. This summer, an academic report researched, in part, by Harvard economists concluded that kids who do well in kindergarten are more apt to attend college, earn more money in their careers and save for retirement. These findings echo the work of the Nobel laureate James Heckman, a professor at the University of Chicago, who contends that a solid investment in early education leads to better economic and social outcomes in adulthood. In other words, that corny bumper sticker is right: everything we need to know, we really did learn in kindergarten.

Meanwhile, so-called “executive function” has become the focus of many neuroscientists and educators. This is the ability to plan ahead, follow a task from beginning to end, regulate emotions, respond appropriately to stress and process information. Without these skills, no kid, no matter how smart, can absorb the lessons being taught. A young child’s ability to adapt behaviour, emotions and attention to the demands of different situations can be a better predictor of later academic achievement than IQ tests.

There is a cognitive growth spurt between ages three and five when the ability to learn self-regulation peaks, meaning this is exactly when kids need to be taught it—not by lecturing and punishment, but through dramatic and creative play. It turns out the synthesizing, problem-solving, improvisation and co-operation required to host a teddy bears’ tea party involves the same brain work as writing an essay, preparing a budget or chairing a meeting later in life.

Pascal’s plan allows for more opportunities for social interaction with peers and trained educators, more exposure to vocabulary (particularly important to kids who speak a different language at home) and more time for kids to focus on their games with less interruption. Unlike many typical daycare-school handoffs, there’s continuity in the care: the ECE who looks after the kids before school stays with them through the morning class; over lunch, a second ECE comes in and stays with the children until pickup. This makes transitions easier for the kids.

In its Platonic ideal, Pascal’s vision is a Scandinavian-style cradle to the elementary school system—with lots of family-friendly extras. It’s not clear yet how many of his recommendations will be adopted (the integrated network of family support and the idea of longer paid parental leave are still under review by the province), though in Toronto, turning schools into community centres with clinics and camps would make excellent use of all the half-empty buildings that are being threatened with closure.

In many ways, our new system would be similar to some of the radical programs taking place in the U.S., like the flourishing social project known as the Harlem Children’s Zone, under the leadership of education guru Geoffrey Canada. In the 1990s, Canada established a soup-to-nuts community initiative in the inner-city neighbourhood that included parenting workshops, family health services, a first rate all-day pre-kindergarten and two academically demanding charter schools. Canada’s belief in improving not just a child’s school but also his or her environment has been borne out by the program’s success: for the 2009–2010 year, 100 per cent of third graders at the charter schools scored at or above grade level in statewide math tests, and 90 per cent of seniors coming out of one of the Harlem programs were accepted into university.

Where Ontario’s program diverges is that it’s not just targeted at poor kids but at every kid. Although poverty is one reason why kids fail in school, it’s not the only one. According to a number of studies, more than 60 per cent of the children considered vulnerable to falling behind are from middle-class or affluent homes.

In provinces that offer full-day kindergarten, the research so far is encouraging: a report from Alberta showed that children with low reading and writing skills who moved to full-day were able to catch up with their half-day peers.

Ontario’s inclusion of before- and after-school care is a long-awaited acknowledgement of how little has been done to address the fact that most parents rely on outside support to look after their kids. A quarter of Toronto families with kids are headed by single parents. Meanwhile, between 1976 and 2006, the number of working Canadian women with children under three doubled. And so, even before the pregnancy pee stick hits the bathroom trash can, parents begin the frantic search for prime daycare spots.

One early snag, however, is that the province lingered too long in revealing the cost of before- and after-school daycare, and many families were reluctant to give up their existing child care arrangement for one with an unknown price tag. As a result, none of the TDSB schools with full-day kindergarten have sufficient demand to offer this care during the first year.

Of course, implementing a reform as large as this is bound to have its missteps, but our kids clearly need help, and so do we. So much of parenting boils down to logistics: the endless revising of timetables to accommodate a work meeting that’s run late, a babysitter who cancels at the last minute, a carton of milk that’s gone sour when there’s nothing for breakfast but cereal, a kid who throws up in the kitchen section of IKEA. And in between all the scrambling, we suffer from the increased pressure of our endless, privileged choices: what food, what toy, what school, what activity will enable my children to reach their potential?

Modern life has already been transformed by working parents, single moms and dads, immigration and migration. In many ways, the new education reforms are just catching up to how we live now.