By February 2021, Canada’s workforce had 78,000 fewer women than it did the previous year – a mass attrition attributed primarily to COVID-19′s disruptive impact on daycares and schools, which left thousands of mothers with little choice but to stay home to look after the kids.
But while the pandemic did trigger the closure of daycare facilities across the country and drove schools to switch to online learning, the real problem it brought to the surface dates back many decades: a widespread lack of access to high-quality early learning and child care.
“Science tells us that the earliest years, from zero to six, are the most important years for human development,” says Margaret McCain, who, together with her late husband Wallace and their four children, founded the Margaret and Wallace McCain Family Foundation, which promotes early childhood education for all Canadian children. “We’ve been missing the boat all these years, waiting until kids turn five or six to go to school.”
This delay in learning leads to a multitude of consequences, including hampering the mental and psychological development of children and creating inequities in society.
Significant change is, finally, underway
In 2021 – two years after the Margaret and Wallace McCain Family Foundation first released a study called Thriving Kids, Thriving Society, which argued the case for early learning and child care in Canada – the federal government committed up to $30-billion over five years to creating a national early learning and child care system with provincial, territorial and Indigenous partners.
With a goal of reducing the cost of child care to $10 a day per child, this program builds on previous commitments announced since 2015, and on a $100-million program launched in 2018 to support innovative practices in early learning and child care.
“Child care is not babysitting, and early learning is not just counting the fingers on one’s hand,” says Eric Jackman, a psychologist and founding chair of The Psychology Foundation of Canada, whose Strong Minds Strong Kids charity promotes the mental well-being of children and youth through evidence-based psychology programs. “Every dollar invested in early learning and child care provides a significant payback. Kids are more likely to be better adjusted, better students, grow up with less stress and become more productive and happier adults.”
The fourth and most recent version of the Thriving Kids, Thriving Society study compares the benefits against the costs of early learning and child care and concludes that the estimated return on every dollar of government investment is between $1.50 and $6.
This estimated dollar return will be underwritten in part by the return to work of Canadian mothers, who make up a significant part of the country’s workforce. “Beyond returning female workforce participation to pre-COVID-19 levels,” the study’s authors wrote, “expanded early learning and child care could bring as many as 90,000 more women into the labour market.”
It can also stimulate immediate and long-term economic activity by creating good jobs for educators and providing a financial boost to local communities where most quality learning and child care programs are located. Immigrants are also more likely to stay in these local communities, leading to more vibrant and diverse populations.
With a national system for early learning and child care, Canada will see a significant reduction in social and economic equity gaps, says the study. Every family will have access to these critical programs, not merely those with the financial means or who qualify for government subsidies.
Perhaps most importantly, the benefits of early learning and child care will be evident in healthier and mentally stronger children whose early launch into positive learning trajectories will provide a solid base for a well-trained and stable workforce in the future.
Dr. Eric Jackman
Psychologist and founding chair of The Psychology Foundation of Canada
“In addition to having a national system for early learning and child care, the other thing that’s important is that it has to be a high-quality system,” says McCain. “We have to have high-quality, well-educated and well-paid staff. No country can thrive unless it gives its people the best preparation possible, and that starts in early childhood with high-quality learning and child care.”
Psychologists have an important role to play in a national system for early learning and child care, says Dr. Jackman. “Psychologists must make themselves available to help design the vastly expanded caregiving and teaching programs, be present to help train new caregivers and teachers, assess student difficulties and consult with staff and parents.
“Successful implementation will be of enormous benefit to Canada, both psychologically and economically.”
Advertising feature produced by Randall Anthony Communications. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.