The NZ Police, Ministry of Justice, and Department of Corrections recently released an evidence brief extolling the virtues of early childhood education (ECE) as a means of reducing future crime. It is great to see policy makers in Wellington waking up to the importance of ECE, something that TOP has been committed to for some time.
However, there is one massive caveat in the research that policy makers are a little quick to gloss over. While there is some evidence that ECE can reduce crime among disadvantaged children, the key to success is the quality of the education. In our view, New Zealand ECE is often not up to the standard necessary to deliver the positive results we are after. In fact, the evidence suggests the whole way we design ECE is a bit off. High-quality ECE should support children to grow strong relationships, and be integrated with their family/whānau and community.
The evidence brief defines quality education in terms of funding, hours of participation, group size, teacher:child ratios, and teacher qualifications. However, TOP argues that New Zealand’s current regulatory standards do not meet the definition of quality. Examples include:
- up to 75 under-twos and up to 150 over-twos under one license.
- a supervision ratio of 1:5 for under-twos and 1:10 for over-twos.
- only 50% of educators required to hold a recognised qualification.
- allocated space to play per child of just 2.5m2 inside and 5m2 outside.
These sorts of regulations sound more like battery farming kids than high-quality ECE.
Furthermore, over half of the ECE services reviewed by ERO in 2019 were not prepared to implement the early childhood curriculum (first published in 1996 and updated in 2017), despite its international status as a world-leading curriculum.
The brief touches on the quality of adult-children interactions within ECE, which is less easily measured but in our view far more important. Indeed, TOP argues that much more emphasis should be placed on the quality of interactions with all adults in a child’s life, which is crucial to healthy development.
We consider it insufficient to say that participating in ECE of vaguely defined ‘quality’ will reduce future crime.
The brief advocates social skills training programmes as a way of promoting children’s social development, e.g. teaching children appropriate social behaviours and cognitions. However, it doesn’t consider the social skills of adult role models in a child’s life, e.g. ECE teachers, parents, family members, the wider community – even politicians!
Furthermore, the brief largely ignores children’s emotional development. For example, the importance of strong dyadic relationships (responsive, reciprocal, one-on-one) and cultural identity for children to develop the willingness and ability to engage with learning are not mentioned at all.
Targeting disadvantaged communities
The previous Government had clear objectives to increase ECE participation of Māori and Pasifika children and children from low socio-economic backgrounds. However, many of these children are now being systematically removed from their dyadic relationships, families/whānau, communities, and cultures and put into institutional – often culturally insensitive – care situations. Yet, as David Wastell and Sue White argue in The Policy Press, “removal is not a risk-free, brain-boosting antidote to disadvantage and dysfunction […] we need practical help for families rather than a moral panic about damaged brains”.
Evidence shows that such interventions work best if the ECE setting is high quality and accompanied by other supportive services, such as parent education. For example, programmes like Incredible Years Parenting or Ngā Tau Mīharo ō Aotearoa (which incorporates a tikanga approach) provide a social return almost quadruple the investment. Thus, intervention-only models are less effective than approaches that include wrap-around services and family support, and enable collective growth for vulnerable families.
Furthermore, beneficiaries are currently penalised if they choose to care for their own children. Those who do not take “all reasonable steps” to enrol their child in a recognised ECE programme can have their benefit reduced by 50 per cent. This policy undermines trusting and respectful relationships and the principle of integration between beneficiaries and ECE services. It also fails to acknowledge the intrinsic value of parents as educators.
TOP would remove the penalty for beneficiaries whose children do not attend an ECE centre, and incentivise centres to offer culturally sensitive community events to build awareness of and engagement in ECE among vulnerable families and communities.
In many non-Western cultures, communities share responsibility for raising children and enable learning by involving children in everyday activities. Learning spaces are not purpose-built, artificial, and segregated, but rather integrated – with older and younger children teaching each other skills like tolerance, patience, perseverance, and problem-solving. Learning through observation, rather than questions and verbal explanations, is valued in many of these cultures.
TOP sees the current approach of removing children from their communities, families/whānau, and cultures as insensitive, colonial, and bordering on supremacist. It instead advocates a community-wide, culturally sensitive approach to educating children in vulnerable communities.
Justifying a care and community focus in ECE through neuroscience
The evidence brief draws on Ministry of Education publications and some peer-reviewed intervention-oriented articles to substantiate the statement that “early childhood education is an effective way of boosting the cognitive and academic skills of children prior to formal education”. However, none of the references consider child development from a neurological perspective, which applies to all children not just those from disadvantaged backgrounds. TOP believes this should be considered in any discussion of ECE, but especially for more vulnerable children.
All human brains develop in the same sequence, from the brainstem that ensures survival and stores anxiety or arousal/stress, to the diencephalon for movement, to the limbic system for emotion, to the neocortex for thinking, memory, empathy, planning, imagination, and more.
The timeframes in which children go through these developmental stages depend on factors such as birth order, gender, life experiences, and prevalence of toxic stress. As each section of the brain comes online, the other sections are still developing, but in a less concentrated way.
However, if the survival brain is aroused, the cortex can’t function effectively. In other words, when humans are highly stressed, they can’t think properly. If children are highly stressed, the rest of their brain won’t develop properly.
During the early years, dyadic relationships are the most important component of every child’s development in terms of social, emotional, academic, health, and wellbeing outcomes throughout life. In fact, a warm, nurturing, loving relationship with a consistent primary attachment figure is the single most important determinant of resilience and lifelong success.
The importance of parents and family/whānau in early childhood development is well documented and practical steps can be taken to foster communicative, dyadic relationships between adults and children. Adults need to exhibit a caring presence in the moment. Most parents innately love their children, but not all adults know how to demonstrate love, depending on their own upbringing. Some adults are naturally ‘present’ with children as part of their personal demeanour, while others may need to learn to be aware of and alert to their communicative actions (verbal, non-verbal, listening).
Evidence shows that community-led initiatives are well placed to meet the diverse social and emotional needs of children, as such services grow the wider family/whānau and community in the process of caring for the children. Therefore, TOP aims to keep children with their family/whānau for as long as possible while investing in community-led initiatives, starting with vulnerable communities.
TOP would give a universal basic income (UBI) to all families with a child under three (or from the point they have a new child under the age of six come into their care). The UBI would initially be $200 per week for three years, up to a total of $31,200 (compared to a maximum of $15,230 for ‘top earners’ under the current paid parental leave system).
Families/whānau would also have the option of front-loading the payments for the first year of the baby’s life and taking less later on, e.g. $400/week for the first year, $200 in the second year and $0 in the third year.
The UBI would replace paid parental leave and parental tax credits. These entitlements perpetuate social imbalance because they are linked to previous earnings, despite the fact that the cost of raising children is similar for all families/whānau. The UBI would enable all parents to decide how to approach parenthood.
Overall, the interdisciplinary approach of the NZ Police, Ministry of Justice, and Department of Corrections is to be commended for moving beyond the historic 'tough on crime' rhetoric. However, TOP would like these policy advisers look deeper into what drives crime, and think beyond their own perspectives to find solutions that support rather than punish individuals who commit it. Relationships matter at all stages of life, not just in the early years.