One in five children struggling, study finds

by Stephen Dafoe

The majority of children five and under in the Morinville area are developing well physically, socially, emotionally, and intellectually, according to data compiled through the Early Child Development Mapping Project (ECMap).

The University of Alberta’s Dr. Susan Lynch, EcMap Project Director, was one of the several speakers at the Morinville and District Chamber of Commerce’s luncheon Apr. 6. Lynch presented the project’s research findings and some advice on what can be done to assist those not doing so well.

The project is based on research into neuroscience and the notion that neurons in the brain become connected through environment during the early years of life.

“The growth and development starts prenatally, and most of the neurons in the brain are forged during that prenatal period,” Lynch explained. “They’re not connected to each other. So when a baby is born, fully capable of growing all the abilities, the growth comes from the environment having an effect on what the children are doing. And that environmental effect connects the neurons with each other. That’s what establishes a child’s ability to do all the magical things that they learn to do in the first five years.”

The EcMap Project looked at children under five for physical health and wellbeing, social competence, emotional maturity, and language and thinking skills. Results were in three categories: developing appropriately, experiencing difficulty, and experiencing great difficulty. Children diagnosed with special needs were removed from the study and compiled into a separate study.

The data shows 86.1 per cent of children in the Morinville and area study group were developing appropriately on physical health and wellbeing. Another 8.6 per cent were experiencing difficulty, and 5.3 per cent were experiencing great difficulty.

On social competence, the findings show 81.5 per cent of local children developing appropriately, 13.9 per cent experiencing difficulty, and 4.6 per cent experiencing great difficulty.

Similar results were found for emotional maturity with 81.8 per cent developing appropriately, 11.6 per cent experiencing difficulty, and 6.3 per cent experiencing great difficulty.

The majority of Morinville and area children are doing well in language and thinking skills with 83.4 per cent falling into the developing appropriately category, 11.6 per cent experiencing difficulties, and 5 per cent experiencing great difficulties.

While Lynch’s numbers are encouraging, and slightly above both County and Provincial numbers in all four sectors of development, the University of Alberta academic stressed the importance of addressing those experiencing difficulty or great difficulty in their development.

“Those percentages form about one-fifth of the children in your community,” Lynch said. “If you take the number of kids that we had in the file and do the math, you are looking at a fairly substantial number of children that are struggling.”

With close to one in five children struggling, Lynch is concerned with problems in later years.

“Although the largest percentage of children are meeting the developmental milestones that you would anticipate for children at age five, you’ve got a large number of children who are not. That’s worth paying attention to.”

Lynch said the struggling children indicate something was missed in their developmental span from birth to age three. If children are having difficulty by age five, downstream consequences can be predicted.

“The downstream consequences are expensive. They tend to be health problems,” Lynch said. “They tend to be problems in and around the justice system. They tend to be problems around educational program, which tends to correlate to high school dropouts. The cost of us not doing a better job in those first three years winds up being substantial.”

Lynch said it is a mistake to look for a single root cause such as bad parenting or poverty as a reason why one in five children are struggling.

“Always look at it as a multiplex of causes that underly the picture of early childhood education,” she said. “Because the causes are multiple and interacting … it is complex enough that you can’t do a single program.”

Lynch recommends communities work with the Early Childhood Development Coalition inventorying what kind of things families and grandparents and caregivers of children offer as supporting resources.

“Link up with the people who already have knowledge of those supporting resources, and see what you can do to enhance that,” she said. “Don’t look for single ones. Look for multiple ones.”

Another round of data collection is taking place this spring, ad another will take place in three years.

For more information on the project, visit

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