3. Developing community capacity to support children

Canada’s largest study on the influence of programs on children is Better Beginnings, Better Futures (BBBF), led by Ray Peters at Queen’s University. BBBF is a bit of an outlier in terms of studies looking at outcomes for children that can be attributed to preschool attendance, and perhaps should not be included in this list. Instead, it is more of a study of community social cohesion, an examination of what happens when local service providers come together with families in the interest of children. It also reveals something about the “dose effect”— how much is enough to change developmental trajectories for children.

BBBF looked at eight communities, five focused on children from birth to 4 years of age (the younger child sites), and the other three on kindergartenaged children to 8 years of age (the older child sites). Sites received a grant averaging $580,000 each year over five years (1993–97) to enrich programming for children, parents and/or neighbourhoods. Each site selected its own interventions, which varied over the course of the study. Program examples included: enriched in-school activities, homework support, after-school recreation, parenting classes, home visits, field trips, toy libraries, family vacation camps, child care referral and/or community kitchens and gardens.

A sample of children from each site was selected to study the impact of the interventions at a community level. Therefore, the sample group may or may not have taken part in all of the intervention programming. However, many of the older children did attend the before, after- and in-school programs.

Long-term positive effects were found for the children who lived in communities with enriched programming for 4- to 8-year-olds, but not for those in the younger child site communities. The positive outcomes actually strengthened over time in the older child sites, as seen in measures collected when children were in grades 3, 6, 9 and 12. Children in the BBBF communities used health, special education, social services, child welfare and criminal justice services less than those in the control neighbourhoods. The reduction in the use of special education services alone saved more than $5,000 per child by grade 12. Overall, government funders realized a cost-benefit of more than $2 for each $1 invested in the project.5 The benefits are dramatic because they are recouped during childhood and represent benefits that accrue at a community level, and therefore have direct application for policies that are scaled up.

Why did younger children receive no lasting benefits from the interventions, while older children did? One explanation is that the modest project investment per child did not provide enough intensity for younger children.6 Program spending in the older children’s sites was on top of investments already made in every child via the school system. Schools offered a universal platform so that enriched supports reached all children, while no equivalent service is available for children during their preschool years.

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