How quality ECE may help vulnerable children prepare for school

Published on Wednesday, 09 June 2021
Last updated on Monday, 07 June 2021

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Although the acronym ‘ACE’ has a positive ring to it, in research circles, ACE actually stands for ‘Adverse Childhood Experiences,’ and ACEs have been found to have a detrimental effect on a child’s readiness for school.

Children have ACEs when they live with substance abusers or those with mental illness, witness violence, suffer maltreatment or experience parental divorce, but in better news, researchers have identified some protective factors that might mitigate the impact that ACEs have on a child’s school readiness.

According to a new study by Auckland University of Technology, access to quality early childhood education (ECE) is one factor that could potentially – and significantly – improve a child’s readiness for school.

Here, we explore the study in more detail.

What’s the background to this new research?

Auckland University of Technology’s Centre for Social Data Analytics (CSDA) is the brains behind this research, and their new study is an extension of previous work around ACEs and school readiness.

A couple of years ago, CSDA researchers used the following seven assessments to measure different children’s school readiness:

  1. A number writing test
  2. A name writing test
  3. Counting up from one to 10
  4. Counting down from 10 to one
  5. A hand clap test, which measures a child’s ‘inhibitory control’ and ability to stay focused
  6. A letter naming fluency test, and
  7. An Affective Knowledge Test, which asks a child how different faces on cards ‘feel’ (e.g. happy, sad, surprised, disgusted etc).

With these results in hand, the researchers then investigated the impact that ACEs had on children’s school readiness and found that:

  • Exposure to ACEs was associated with poor school readiness, and
  • School readiness decreased as more childhood adversities were experienced.

These findings led to further research on teen mothers and school readiness (which you can read about here), and the CSDA team also embarked on a ‘scoping study on potential protective factors’, which we’re looking at today.

What did the scoping study involve?

The CSDA collaborated with Oranga Tamariki (the Ministry of Children) for this study, and used Growing Up in New Zealand (GUINZ) data to search for government services (including ECE services), that could potentially offset the negative effect of ACEs on school readiness.

Specifically, the researchers looked at the GUINZ data of 5,562 children (followed for nearly five years) and at four different parental surveys.

They sifted through this data, looking for every possible protective factor they could find, and ended up identifying 372 protective measures, which were then sorted into three categories:

  1. Early childhood education
  2. Health, and
  3. Social services.

These categories were then further sorted into the areas of:

  1. Utilisation
  2. Access
  3. Quality, and
  4. Preference.

The researchers then observed the, ‘Statistical associations between school readiness, ACEs and [the] myriad of potential protective factors’ and concluded that protective factors are actually ‘relatively rare.’

In other words, most of the 372 protective measures weren’t found to have a ‘significant protective association.’

However, it does appear that factors, like access to a general practitioner, utilisation of social services and access to quality ECE can potentially combat the effects of adverse experiences on school readiness:

  • For children who’d experienced multiple ACEs, the researchers found that the four factors that had the largest potential protective impact all came from seeing a general practitioner (i.e. healthcare access), but GUINZ reports that, ‘Factors relating to the access to, and quality of, ECE also showed potentially significant effects.’
  • For children who’d experienced the specific ACE of childhood physical abuse, access to ECE and utilisation of social services, ‘Were the two factors that had the largest potential effects on school readiness.’

When we look at ECE particularly, the researchers found that, ‘The effects related to the access and quality of ECE had some of the more significant effects in our analysis,’ and there’s a suggestion that, ‘ECE quality may have a particularly large role to play in closing the gaps in school readiness for children exposed to a higher number of ACEs.’

What can we take from all this?

The researchers explain that this scoping study is the first step in understanding what kinds of government services should be investigated to reduce the impact of disadvantage on school readiness, and they suggest that ECE quality and healthcare access ‘might warrant further investigation.’

They recognise that other studies have already shown a positive link between ECE quality and school readiness, and although it can be tricky for policy-makers to measure ECE quality, it’s heartening to see that access to quality ECE can potentially help children to arrive at school readier to learn and thrive – whether they’ve experienced positive or negative experiences in early childhood.

Additional reference

Growing Up in New Zealand

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