FOCUS ON: Early Childhood Development Research & Knowledge Mobilization

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Guest Contribution by: Aimee Caster, Communications Director for the Alberta Centre for Child, Family & Community Research (The Centre).

accfcr_logoEarly strong foundations result in the best possible outcomes for children.

The research is clear that the most important thing children need to thrive is to live in a supportive environment. That environment must include safe and caring relationships that begin at birth with a primary caregiver and extends to other adults in a child’s life.

Children who are at the greatest risk for the poorest outcomes – learning, health and behaviour, are children who accumulate a burden of risk factors – family violence, drug abuse, neglect, abuse, mental illness, poverty. The burden is more than any child could be expected to overcome.

In 2013, The Centre led the inclusion and analysis of eight questions focusing on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) in the annual Alberta Adult Survey. In total, 1,207 completed interviews were conducted (a 20.9% response rate) with 612 females and 595 males. Three questions covered abuse, and the remaining five focused on aspects of household risk that can increase dysfunction.

  • Before the age of 18, 27.2% experienced abuse and 49.1% experienced family dysfunction.
  • ACEs rarely occur in isolation. Having one ACE increases the probability of experiencing another one by 84%.
  • Children who experienced more ACEs were more likely to be diagnosed with mental health conditions or substance dependence in adulthood.
  • Children who experienced more ACEs were more likely to perceive their physical health, emotional health and social support as poor.
  • The association between ACEs and poor health remained strong even when other risk factors for poor adult health outcomes, such as poverty, were taken into consideration.
  • Children who experienced both abuse and family dysfunction had the highest risk for negative health outcomes in adulthood.

Early childhood development is a primary focus area for our research and knowledge mobilization strategies at The Centre. We learned through the Early Years Continuum Project Evaluation that communities are effective in helping to build capacity to support healthy child development (prenatal to school entry). In Alberta, programs that seek to help adults with their own and childrens’ development were designed. For example, there are 46 Parent Link Centres (PLC’s) that provide parent and family supports to more than 160 communities across the province.

In September 2007, The Centre undertook the Alberta Benchmark Survey to determine what adults knew about child development. Over 1,400 Albertans from across the province participated by way of phone survey. They answered questions about their experiences with children and understanding of child development.

  • Adults were more aware of physical and cognitive developmental milestones of children than social and emotional milestones, although gaps in knowledge were identified.
  • Although knowledge of specific milestones was limited, adults were aware of how to support development.

These findings were presented to child health and parenting leaders to inform the development of programs, policies and future research. The study contributed to the goal of improving the health and well-being of children, families and communities in Alberta.

The 2007 Benchmark Survey provided baseline information. The results from a second survey in 2014 determined if public knowledge about early childhood development had increased over the past five years. Findings showed that there was a general appreciation of the importance of the “early years” for lifelong learning development and some understanding of how to support child development, but there were important gaps in knowledge of when children achieve specific developmental milestones. Parents were mostly confident about their parenting skills. There is an unmet need for child care among parents, and general satisfaction about child care among those using it.

These results suggest the need for the creation of an overarching framework that provides strategic direction and integration of supports. There is an opportunity to further normalize and make accessible already existing high-quality early years’ programs and services that support families and children’s healthy start.

There is a great deal of evidence on the benefits of investing in and supporting positive early childhood development. Yet we continue to see examples where children are facing challenges as a consequence of physical or environmental vulnerability.

We are pleased to support the provincial government’s Early Childhood Development Priority Initiative by co-chairing the Early Childhood Development Research and Innovation Strategy. The goals of the Strategy are to:

  • Build awareness of existing research and create ways to utilize current evidence;
  • Influence the creation of new knowledge to address gaps and anticipate the ongoing need for research; and
  • Create a collaborative environment that enhances relationships between researchers, policy makers, practitioners and the public.
  • We welcome input from readers that will help inform how we can work together to achieve these goals and build a stronger foundation of supports for early childhood development in Alberta.

The Centre collaborates with hundreds of research experts from across the province. Those who were a part of The Centre’s projects and initiatives mentioned in this article include Suzanne Tough, Dawne Clark, Michelle Gagnon, Sandy Davidge, Pamela Valentine, Cathie Scott, Angela Vinturache, Hamideh Bayrampour, Donna Slater, Ben Gibbard, Kathryn MacLellan, Rhonda Breitkreuz and Laurel Sakaluk-Moody.

To learn more about The Centre, our research, initiatives and projects related to early childhood development, please visit our website at or call (780) 944-8636.

This article appeared in our March 2015 News Bulletin. Click here to read the rest of the bulletin!

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