Nova Scotia

Nearly 30% of Grade Primary students show signs of developmental challenges

Children in Nova Scotia are showing increased signs of vulnerability, with the highest rates coming in the area covered by the province’s smallest regional centre for education.

Increasing number of Nova Scotia children considered vulnerable in at one of five evaluation areas

Nova Scotia gathers data to measure children's 'ability to meet age appropriate developmental' expectations when they start school. (Robert Short/CBC)

At the Family Centre in Digby, N.S., Kathleen Harris sees daily reminders of the number of children in her area in vulnerable situations.

"We just started a grandparent group, actually, because there is a lot of grandparents that are bringing up small children," said Harris, the site co-ordinator.

Programming needs are often tied to family incomes, lack of jobs and kids in homes with other social challenges such as abuse and drugs, said Harris. It all makes them potentially vulnerable and is a trend playing out across the province.

New data shows as many as a third of Grade Primary students in Nova Scotia are showing increased signs of developmental challenges and missed milestones as they enter school.

The findings come in the latest early development instrument (EDI) results for the province. Nova Scotia has been using the tool, designed by researchers at McMaster University, since the 2012-13 school year.

Results from previous EDIs are part of what led Nova Scotia to develop its pre-primary program. (Robert Short/CBC)

The EDI measures "a child's ability to meet age appropriate developmental" expectations when they start school by evaluating five areas: physical health and wellbeing; social competence; emotional maturity; language and cognitive development; and communication skills and general knowledge.

"Further research linking EDI findings to later educational data demonstrate that, on average, Primary vulnerability predicts ongoing vulnerability in the school system," according to the report.

"Numerous studies have shown that early vulnerability predicts a child's lifelong health, learning and behaviour."

For a child to be deemed vulnerable in a category, they must score below the 10th percentile cutoff of the established baseline for the province.

Nearly 30 per cent of children in Grade Primary were vulnerable in at least one of five evaluation areas. (Robert Short/CBC)

Numbers from the EDI for 2017-18 show a provincial average of 28.8 per cent of children in Grade Primary were vulnerable in at least one of the five domains the instrument measures, up from 25.5 per cent in the 2014-15 result.

Kids in only two regional centres for education — Strait (23.4 per cent) and Halifax (27.7 per cent) — were below the provincial average. The rest of the regions were either at or above the average:

  • Cape Breton-Victoria: 28.8 per cent
  • Annapolis Valley: 30.1 per cent
  • Chignecto-Central: 31.5 per cent
  • South Shore: 32.7 per cent
  • Tri-County: 35.7 per cent

The increase is in line with what's happening across the country, according to Tracey Taweel, deputy minister of Communities, Culture and Heritage. Taweel is the lead for the social deputies group, a group of deputy ministers working to oversee better integration of services.

"Anytime we know children are vulnerable in any way, it's concerning," she said in an email.

"Our focus is on giving children more opportunities for success — which means we need to work together across government to ensure services are integrated and we provide the support the 'whole' child and family needs."

Progress takes 'everybody working together'

JoAnna LaTulippe-Rochon, executive director of Cape Breton Family Place Resource Centre, said EDI results illustrate how important it is for an entire community to be active in children's development.

That can be something as simple as ensuring affordable housing is built with or near green space so kids have a place to play, she said, or that parents have access to quality, affordable programs for their children in their early years.

"It really does take everybody working together," said LaTulippe-Rochon.

"There's never a time in life where the brain develops as rapidly as really the first three years of life and that really does set the foundation for how children are going to do in school and how we are going to grow into healthy, independent, contributing adults."

Taweel said the results from the previous two EDIs were part of the motivation for the government introducing the free pre-primary program for four-year-olds. She noted the children covered in the most recent EDI mark the last cohort not to have access to pre-primary.

This map shows the overall population distribution of children considered vulnerable based on the early development instrument. (Nova Scotia Education Department)

The hope is the effect of pre-primary begins showing up in future EDI results in a positive way.

"This program also helps identify any issues early, so interventions can begin before the child enters school," said Taweel.

While the results illustrate some of the challenges teachers and support staff encounter once kids start attending class, they are very much a snapshot of a child's experiences before arriving at school.

Because those experiences can vary so widely based on community, Denise Stone, acting executive director of early years for the Education Department, said data is shared widely so local organizations and groups can work with government to try to determine what's happening and how to help.

There are a variety of community groups across the province that use the information to create programs or plans, she said.

"We really leave it to the communities to mobilize and we're here to support them as best we can with our programs and services."

Giving kids a better chance

In Digby, part of the region with the highest percentage of vulnerable kids, Harris said they're offering a host of free services driven by local need, including pre- and postnatal programs, daycare, after-school care and other parenting classes. They also bring in doctors and dentists to offer screening programs for three-year-olds.

"We want to make sure those children are taken care of so they have a better chance," said Harris.

They're able to meet the community needs now, said Harris, but it's also clear demand for services is growing.

Taweel said her department is evaluating community development programs to ensure they're having the biggest effect possible.

"We know there are many organizations and individuals doing great work to support children and families in our province. We want to make sure we are providing them with funding or other measures to continue to expand their efforts."

About the Author

Michael Gorman is a reporter in Nova Scotia whose coverage areas include Province House, rural communities, and health care. Contact him with story ideas at michael.gorman@cbc.ca