EDUCATION

LEARN BABY LEARN!

Brain science is the new battleground in the parents vs. daycare war

PETER SHAWN TAYLOR August 6 2007
EDUCATION

LEARN BABY LEARN!

Brain science is the new battleground in the parents vs. daycare war

PETER SHAWN TAYLOR August 6 2007

LEARN BABY LEARN!

EDUCATION

Brain science is the new battleground in the parents vs. daycare war

PETER SHAWN TAYLOR

The mysteries of a child’s brain have become a bit clearer in recent years, thanks to great leaps in neuroscience. But what governments should do with all that research is still a puzzle.

In 2004, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development shocked Canadians with a scathing report on the state of early childhood services in this country, calling it a “patchwork of uneconomic, fragmented services.” It would be far preferable, the OECD argued, for Canada to develop a comprehensive, universal daycare system. As supporting proof, it cited “evidence related to early development and brain research, concluding that government should give as much priority to the early childhood period as to obligatory school.” This claim that brain science supports institutionalized child care was part of the thinking behind Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin’s $5-billion national daycare plan. Though the Harper government scrapped the proposal, child care remains a hot-button issue. So how much do we really know about our kids’ grey matter?

This July another arm of the OECD suggested that much of the hype surrounding infant brain development has been overdone. “There are a number of neuro-myths that need to be exploded,” says Tom Schuller, Paris-based director of the Centre for Educational Research and Innovation at the OECD, which just published “Understanding the Brain,” a summary of current knowledge about brain science. The

report explains how, over the last decade, neuroscience has recognized the phenomenon ofbrain plasticity. The plastic brain moulds itself as a person grows and learns, and can reroute certain functions in the event of an injury. It is also understood that the infant brain enters temporary “sensitive” periods during which time languages and other skills are easily mastered, although the new OECD report notes that learning can and does occur throughout life.

Now the child’s brain has become an ideological battleground. Child care advocates like Hillary Clinton, claim a child’s brain “has essentially been constructed” by the time he or she enters preschool. This interpretation of brain science-bolstered by decades-old research on poor black children that showed a lifelong benefit to enhanced child care—has led to calls for government supervision of early childhood education so all children enter school on an equal footing.

In Canada, the brain science-recommendschild care argument is most identified with medical researcher Fraser Mustard. His latest report, released this past March with co-author Stuart Shanker, director of the Toronto-based Council on Early Child Development, musters neuroscience to promote a $10-billion national child care program. The government ‘has failed to act convincingly on the huge

body of scientific evidence,” the report laments. In an interview, Shanker praises Quebec’s $7a-day universal daycare as the ideal model: “As a nation we have a duty to recognize the benefits of giving every child the full opportunities for a successful future.”

But while the OECD’s Schuller agrees there are many political and demographic reasons why child care may be appealing, he says there is no scientific support for the conclusion. The first few years of a child’s life are clearly very important but “you cannot make a direct leap from neuroscience to universal child care provision. There is no evidence.” Misuse of science in this way is his report’s first neuro-myth. According to Schuller, the best choice in child rearing is whatever situation results in the least stress for the child.

For Canadian opponents of universal daycare, the OECD’s latest take on brain research is “like a breath of fresh air.” Kate Tennier, a former Toronto-area primary school teacher, has been outspoken in favour of parental choice in child care, but found fighting the combined weight of the OECD and brain research experts such as Fraser Mustard to be a daunting task. “Now it’s clear we shouldn’t be basing universal daycare arguments on brain science,” she says.

Norman Doidge, University of Toronto psychiatrist and author of the current (if unlikely) bestseller on brain plasticity research The Brain that Changes Itself, argues that what brain science does show is that children thrive when they receive large amounts of personal attention from their parents. “Compared to other species, the human brain remains incomplete long after birth. The long-term bond between parent and child is probably so intense precisely because the child’s brain requires so much one-on-one attention to complete its basic structure.” The mother-child connection, says Doidge, creates “a warm emotional bath” ofbrain chemicals that fosters learning and healthy brain development. Even instinctive parental actions such as frequent physical closeness and games like peek-a-boo serve vital roles in brain building, he adds.

If this new research on brain science is sound, then replicating parental roles in institutional settings would seem difficult and largely pointless. None of this is likely to end the battle over national child care, of course, but it may change the weapons used. M