This fall, some of Toronto’s youngest residents started school for the first time. But were they ready?
Evidence shows that not all children are, and that some children – particularly those from low-income families – are significantly less likely to enter school ready to learn when compared to their classmates. Fortunately, there is a way to ensure that more children from low-income families enter school ready to learn – by investing in more affordable, high-quality child care.
In Toronto, nearly 30 per cent of children who enter kindergarten do not meet developmental expectations in crucial areas such as physical health and well-being, emotional maturity, social competence, and cognitive skills. This is of concern because we know that children who experience developmental delays or challenges in these areas are more likely to experience difficulties as they grow and develop. Without intervention, these children are more likely to have difficulties forming relationships, doing well in school and getting a good job.
Family income plays a large role in influencing who meets developmental expectations. While all children develop at different rates and in different ways, more than 15 per cent of children from low-income families do not meet developmental expectations upon entering kindergarten. Further, there is nearly a 10 per cent gap in developmental expectations between low and high-income children, with low income children significantly less likely to meet them. This is because parents and caregivers who experience poverty do not have access to the same resources or opportunities to give their children the best possible start in life. All parents want the best for their children, but having a low income makes its harder for caregivers to provide safe, nurturing and stimulating environments that children need for healthy development.
However, the responsibility for ensuring children are ready for school, does not fall on caregivers alone. The government has a critical role to play by providing adequate income supports to families to help with the cost of raising a child, and by making significant and sustained investments in services that promote healthy child development – namely affordable, high quality child care.
Access to affordable, high-quality child care can provide children from low-income families with the enriching environment they need for healthy growth and development. It gives children a safe place to engage in active play and eat healthy meals. It helps them to develop positive social and behavioural skills, such as how to work and play with others, communicate needs and wants, and understand their feelings. In addition, it promotes the development of cognitive skills that are important for school readiness, including how to count and read. It is a powerful intervention that helps to buffer against the effects of low-income and ensure that all children have the chance to enter school ready to learn.
Access to affordable, high-quality child care also benefits low income families. It can help to reduce chronic stress often experienced by caregivers living in poverty. This in turn can help provide a more stable and nurturing environment for children at home. It also provides caregivers with the chance to seek employment or training opportunities, which is critical for family resiliency and for lifting families out of poverty.
In the current political climate, low-income families may experience increased barriers to affordable, high- quality child care. Child care in Toronto is already the most expensive in the country, and reductions in funding, changes in cost-sharing agreements and inadequate income supports all affect the affordability and accessibility of high-quality care. Those who are affluent are more likely to afford and access high-quality child care, whereas those experiencing poverty will struggle. As a result, children from low-income families will continue to enter school at a disadvantage – a disadvantage that affects them not only in school, but throughout their entire life course.
We should be investing in more high-quality child care, not less. We know that child care is a powerful intervention for equipping children with the knowledge and skills they need for school. By investing in high-quality child care we can help ensure that children have the chance reach their full potential. Further, we can help to ensure that all children and families have the opportunity to thrive.