High-quality early childhood education and care provides children with warm, nurturing interactions and plenty of opportunities to children to play, promote their intellectual and emotional growth and develop important social skills.
The constraints faced by disadvantaged families can reduce parents’ ability to provide similar opportunities for growth at home, so it’s no surprise that early childhood education and care has been shown to have the most positive impact for families at risk.
Research has shown that unstable child care (for example, children who move from one caregiver to another in a short period of time or live in multiple arrangements simultaneously) is associated with negative outcomes, such as poor mental health and higher rates of aggression in children.
Our own research found that a history of stable early childhood education and care may have buffered the negative effects of the pandemic on the mental health of some children.
A change must be made in our society to prioritize all children, and especially children from low-income families, access to stable, high-quality early learning and care where they can thrive. and grow. Yet Ontario’s current child care subsidy policy does not prioritize stability of care for low-income families.
The effects of the pandemic on mental health
We have managed a longitudinal study (people over time) of 183 low-income mothers and their young children in Toronto. We looked at changes in children’s mental health around two years before the pandemic and at the start of the pandemic, during its first eight months or so, starting in the spring of 2020.
We wanted to try to understand why some children were doing better than others at the start of the pandemic. At this point, the children who were in the study ranged from kindergarten through 1st grade.
In both phases of the study, parents reported on their children’s mental health using a mental health measure for children. Using this data, we were able to create profiles of changes in mental health in response to COVID-19.
We found that 38% of children experienced an improvement in their mental health after the start of the pandemic. We found, after reviewing the data to rule out other potential influencing factors, that this group of children was more likely to have stable histories of early learning and child care prior to the pandemic.
Some implications of our study
Our study adds evidence to existing research that demonstrates the important positive effects of stable learning and care for young children, and how it can serve as a protective factor against major life stressors.
Current Policies for early learning and child care grants in Ontario increase the likelihood of instability in education and care and can have adverse consequences for children.
Ontario’s subsidy system pays the difference between the full cost of child care and the parent’s contribution, as determined by a established formula.
In Ontario, unlike some provinces, it is not a fixed percentage or amount. The lack of a cap on the maximum subsidy allows parents to choose high-quality early learning and care, regardless of the actual cost of care. However, access to a subsidized space is not a guaranteed right for Ontario families due to funding limitations and lack of space.
Subsidies penalize family changes
In Ontario, grant funding is transferred from the province to municipalities that oversee the delivery of local services.
Grant eligibility criteria vary somewhat from municipality to municipality. In Torontofor example, to receive early learning and child care grants, parents must be working full time, attending school full time, or have a child who is considered to have “special needs”, as listed in the Child Care and Early Years Act.
Parents can lose their allowance for a number of reasons unrelated to their need, for example, if they lose their job, go on parental leave because they have had another child, or quit their job to care for a child. other family members.
For low-income families, the loss of a subsidy means the loss of the child care space which, in Ontario, costs on average $14,000 for a preschooler and up to $19,100 for a child under 18 months.
For families, the loss of a grant creates instability in the care of children, which means the loss of friends, routines and educators with whom they have bonded, and causes drastic disruptions in the lives of young children.
These losses are particularly difficult for children from poor families whose parents may be dealing with stressors such as job loss or the birth of another child.
The new agreement did not solve the problem
The new Canada-Ontario Agreement on Early Years, Early Learning and Child Care, for the price of $12 per day, does not solve the problem described above.
Low-income families who cannot afford the reduced fees will be subject to punitive restrictions imposed by existing subsidy rules. This is not only grossly unfair, but also counterproductive given the benefits of stable, high-quality care for children from disadvantaged families.
Subsidy policies must embrace this perspective and not penalize families for circumstances that are often beyond their control.
Samantha BurnsPh.D. Student, Developmental and Educational Psychology, University of Toronto; Calpana JegatheeswaranPhD student, Psychology of development and education, University of Toronto; Michael PerlmanProfessor of Applied Psychology and Human Development, University of Toronto; Petr VarmuzaAssociate Researcher, Perlman Lab, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Torontoand Sumayya SaleemPhD Student, Developmental Psychology and Education, University of Toronto