Growing Up: Early Childhood Education in Nova Scotia

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More than a quarter of Nova Scotian children are starting school with a developmental vulnerability. Due to a growing understanding that the early years of a child’s life set the foundation for lifelong learning, health and wellbeing, Nova Scotia has seen an increase in supports for early childhood education and research.

Mission: Improved Quality of Life for Nova Scotians

Rhys Waters 0:00

Welcome to Beyond Research. A podcast brought to you by Research Nova Scotia.

Stephanie Reid 0:11

Today I’m joined by Dr. Jessie-Lee McIsaac from Mount St. Vincent University, Dr. McIsaac leads the early childhood Collaborative Research Center at the mount and is a tier two Canada Research Chair in early childhood diversity and transitions. Thank you for joining us today. Jesse Lee, thanks so much for having me. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and the early childhood Collaborative Research Center at the Mount?

Dr. Jessie-Lee McIsaac 0:34

Sure. So the goal of our research at the early childhood Collaborative Research Center is to look at ways that we can enhance well being during early childhood by ensuring that the environments in which children live learn and play are supportive to their well being. So that means looking at the environments and ways that we can better adjust the characteristics of the environment so that children have access to the things that they need to be well, it also means working to better understand what families need to support their young child as well. So the work that we do, really tries to understand what’s already happening and look at ways that we can adjust those environments so that children and families can have access to the things that they need to develop in the best way that that children can during that time.

Stephanie Reid 1:22

Great and the center is relatively new. Can you tell us a little bit about how that came to be or how it came to be established at the Mount?

Dr. Jessie-Lee McIsaac 1:30

Yeah, that’s a great question. So there’s really been increasing attention on early childhood and related policies at greater recognition, really, of the importance of the early years as the foundation for lifelong learning, health and well being. And across the country, internationally, there’s been this attention growing. And as a result, there’s also been different policies and programs that have been developed to better support early childhood development and ensure that families have what they need. So the Research Chair really came about because of this, increasing attention. And when I started the position, I knew what a big focus of my work would be was looking at these existing policies and programs and better understanding whether or not these actions are helping families. And if they are, then that’s great, but also really what’s needed to adjust these existing supports for families to ensure that they have what they need for optimal environments for health, development and learning.

Stephanie Reid 2:36

That’s great. And it’s it’s so evident how passionate you are about early childhood research. And I’m curious what initially attracted you to this area of research.

Dr. Jessie-Lee McIsaac 2:47

So my earlier graduate training had been focused on school environments, school aged children and youth and looking at the environments that schools play and supporting a child’s well being. I think, with the sort of change and and increasing focus on early childhood, I just became more and more interested in how we can really set the stage early in a child’s life, there has been kind of a difference in how early childhood programs, services policies have also been delivered across the country, and particularly here in Nova Scotia, where early childhood services and supports programs has has come under our provincial Ministry of Education. So now it’s called the Department of Education, early childhood development. So as a result, there is sort of a broader attention to the importance of early childhood into that how that supports the transition into school age, the school age experience of children. So really, from my prior experience in school aged children, youth, it’s sort of been a natural progression, I suppose to better understand how those early years shaped a child’s overall well being and health.

Stephanie Reid 3:58

And you touched on it a little there. But you did see that opportunity with the government to restructure things so that your team could have that direct impact on Nova Scotians and their families. Can you tell us just a little bit more about how that came to be and why it’s so critical?

Dr. Jessie-Lee McIsaac 4:17

Yeah. So I had the opportunity during my postdoctoral fellowship at Dalhousie, which was really focused on knowledge mobilization, and particularly ways that we can better partner as academics with government using an engaged scholarship approach. So engaged scholarship looks at the ways that we can develop authentic partnerships to ensure that the research that we produce is not only building knowledge, but it’s also supporting practice, it’s actually having an impact on on the world. So I actually had the opportunity to study and what that looks like. So the actual practice of doing research through collaboration, and found that some important tenants of how to do this are things like building relations. ships in trust. So ensuring that there’s the time spent to develop relationships so that there’s an understanding of the intention of research, and also a trust that, that the results will be used in a formative way to help to support adjustments that better meet the collective goals that we have around supporting childhood development and learning and well being. Oftentimes research is sort of developed by the researcher, the research ideas comes from the researcher, so really developing a shared ownership and the objectives of the work to ensure that there is kind of the the buy in but also that it leads back to trust that there’s a trust that there’s a mandate, in which we’re both embarking on at that lead to that collective goal. Partnering with with government also means that that’s two worlds being brought together, that often work in different timelines, there’s different priorities. And the timeline that’s required for government decision making is also a really important part of building that relationship with the government to ensure that the research is not only done well, but also the results will more likely be used by decision makers in the end.

Stephanie Reid 6:14

That is so fantastic. It would be very cool to see more of this collaboration across disciplines and governments. And I think, you know, there have been so many examples that have come out of your collaborations with government and pre primary is obviously the one that immediately comes to mind and an example of a shift in the early childhood education system and how it operates as a publicly funded program. So from your perspective, why was the introduction of pre primary, such an achievement for you and your team?

Dr. Jessie-Lee McIsaac 6:45

So a part of the success of this early introduction of they were called the earlier centers, and looking at using the school as the hub for for families with young children, and was this early learning program, that was for four year olds with the year before school entry here in in Nova Scotia. And the success of that was really, you know, it was a it was a no fee program for schools, that was a universal program, any family with a child with their age eligibility within the catchment could attend. And, you know, families really told us in our in our early work that, that they really appreciated this program that provided a real support for them. It not only reduces challenges of access, like, like the cost of childcare, which can be very difficult for families, it also supported a transition into the school environment, which was really important. So those, you know, early days of the first year of school can be really challenging. And families told us that they felt that the program was really ensuring that their child transitioned well into integrate primary, and they were able to succeed are really well, they told us about the benefits to their social and emotional development, those types of things that were really essential to ensuring that they felt comfortable as well. So not only supporting the child’s transition into school, but also the family’s relationship with the school. So the pre primary program operates using a play based curriculum. So it, it really looks at the ways in which children can learn through play. And that’s a really essential part of the work that is that happens in early childhood, is not thinking about that traditional kind of instruction that’s sitting down, and, you know, working on worksheets, but it’s really building on children’s interests, and experiences. And using the educators, early childhood educators that are so critical in this program, to guide their learning through, again, the interests of children. And it’s a really beautiful thing to see the programs that have been established. And, you know, we’re I think next year next year should be the last year of its full implementation across the province. And the the amount of families that have had access to this program that didn’t already attend a formal childcare is evident that this is filling a gap in services for for families and for young children in the province.

Stephanie Reid 9:22

That’s, that’s great. You know, I’ve heard you talk about some of the unique challenges facing Nova scotian families, you know, those in marginalized communities, you speak a lot about the vulnerabilities and the staggering number of children who are entering the school system. With vulnerabilities, obviously, pre primary is I expect that to have some sort of an impact on how many children are entering primary with those vulnerabilities. What are some of the ways that we can invest in our children earlier so fewer children are starting school with vulnerabilities and I know pre primary probably plays a role in that but we’d love to hear your thoughts.

Dr. Jessie-Lee McIsaac 10:00

For sure. So we know in Nova Scotia, we use a tool called the early development instrument, which was developed by the offered center for child studies at McMaster University. And this tool is a is a renowned international population level tool that looks at Children’s developmental progress at school entry. So it’s a tool that great primary teachers complete on their class. And it’s been done and several rounds here in Nova Scotia. So it really gives us a good understanding of children’s development at school entry over time. So we are actually quite lucky here in Nova Scotia to have these data to help us better understand how the changes in in children’s development over time. So these data tell us that more than one in four children are starting school with a developmental vulnerability. And the trends have shown that there is there has actually been an increase in vulnerability over time. So this to me as a researcher signals, first, the importance of understanding why why are we seeing an increase in vulnerability over time, and also as a researcher who likes to understand environments, and the not only just kind of the quantitative reasons behind the why, but the qualitative reasons of, of the experiences of families and what’s happening in communities, it kind of it signals to me the importance of of studying that and really understanding why environments are not always setting children up to develop at the expected kind of milestones that we expect to see at school entry. And how can we better optimize these environments to support children’s development, so that more children are coming to school with a developmental health at the expected level, to be successful later on in life. So some ways that we’re studying that one are things like looking at the impact of something like a universal early childhood education program, like the pre primary program, another project that I’m involved with, that’s looking at the social and emotional health of children, and supporting educators in both regulated childcare and in pre primary programs, to ensure that the practices that are being implemented, are supportive of the development of these really important social and emotional skills. And we know that these, that these skills are really important in helping a child succeed in many aspects of life, things like self regulation, and really being able to understand how to interact social relationships with peers, those early social and emotional skills are so critical. So another way that we’re that we will be trying to understand how these skills are developed over time is looking at what’s actually being done with respect to practices. So how are the educators supporting this? And how can we support the educators as they have the resources, the skills, the tools that they need to be able to create these environments in which children were will develop these skills. So we’ll be able to look at the programs that are implementing this, this program called the pyramid bottle, that’s looking at best practices in social and emotional learning, to address challenging behaviors that that are sometimes coming up. And and trying to understand whether or not that’s having an impact on children’s developmental health at school, high school entry, for example, through other early development instrument.

Stephanie Reid 13:34

It’s so so interesting and incredible work. And something I found incredibly interesting was the focus on research related to nutrition in early childhood development and education. Can you speak to nutrition a little bit and how that plays into that overall picture?

Dr. Jessie-Lee McIsaacr 13:50

Yeah, absolutely. It’s, it’s a passion of mine. And when that I had the opportunity to really dive deep during my PhD and postdoc, looking at nutrition in schools, but the work in early childhood, as transitioned a bit more to look at responsive feeding. So responsive feeding is not just about what we eat. So it’s not just about the quality of food, but it’s about how we provide environments to children in which we’re responsive to their cues. So young kids are really quite good at regulating their own food intake. And I think sometimes we as adults, like to control that a little bit. Sometimes we as adults need to need to check ourselves sometimes to, to really listen to the cues that children that are, are giving to us, especially young children again, and you know, their bodies are growing in different ways, then then our needs are as adults, and really being able to sort of provide those environments in which they’re able to enjoy a variety of variety of foods and certainly the types of foods We provide are important, but also things like just sitting down with them, having the same kinds of food that our children are having, and encouraging. You know them to follow their own hunger and fullness cues. Because I think, again, as adults, you know, we eat for different reasons. And and I think encouraging children to just enjoy their food and take the time to do so is is so important. So some of the research that we’ve done, which was funded by research, Nova Scotia was looking to better understand what some of the challenges were that that adults and caregivers were facing with their with young children. So it’s food is a really tough thing. It’s tough for parents, you know, in a very busy life to be able to, you know, it’s all sit down together for supper and all eat the same thing. But at the end of a long day, it can be tough. So we’re trying to think about the ways in which we can support caregivers to to create these environments for their for their children.

Stephanie Reid 16:02

If you could help me figure out how to get all my children to eat the same meal every night, I very happy. And jokes aside, I do think being educated on children’s nutrition and, and just having you know, that peace of mind that you’re doing the right thing and knowing that children are going to eat a little bit differently and may not be the emotional eaters that we’ve all become in our old age would be really useful. And I’m wondering, does your center provide resources for parents for nutrition in those early years?

Dr. Jessie-Lee McIsaac 16:36

Yes, well, we haven’t developed resources, our selves, that will certainly be something to come, what we do do is share a lot. So we are fairly active on social media, both on Facebook and Twitter. And we do a weekly, you know, effort. So it really is a joint effort by my team to put out evidence based resources that we find. For families, there’s a lot out there that does exist. We have also hosted webinars and set and workshops, both on Mount Saint Vincent university campus, and we’ve also just received some funding to do some webinars, so some online sessions, and one area that that we received a lot of interest was around responsive feeding. And this was looking at mostly supporting early childhood educators and practices related to that. And it is a bit different from the home environment. Because usually, and childcare settings, food is provided through a family style approach. And so all children are eating the same thing, there is no other option for children unless there’s a dietary restriction. And so, you know, childcare, you know, do have that aspect figured out in that, that, you know, ensuring that kind of family style sitting together around a table eating the same thing, and having, you know, good conversation with the kids around the food, but also just, you know, having conversation generally as, as the children are eating, you know, and I think that’s certainly something in the most recent Food Guide, Canada’s Food Guide recommendations that was out was around enjoying food with others. And, you know, as much as I think there’s been a lot of discussion about the kinds of food we should and shouldn’t eat, there hasn’t been as much discussion about how we should be eating food, regardless of what it is, and that enjoyment with each other, I think are part of who we are. As people, you know, food is really it’s, it’s how we how we interact with one another is, you know, when you bring food into the picture, it changes the dynamic. So how can we really, you know, think about, of course, the quality of that food that we’re eating, but also those interactions that we’re having with one another. And also with young children, there’s so many developmental, there’s so many opportunities for learning. So things like even just, you know, encouraging children to serve themselves, you know, not only are they, you know, learning about independence, they’re also there’s some physical skills and just kind of using different utensils to kind of work with that. So not only are there are there all the health benefits with, with the food aspect, there’s also a lot of other social and physical benefits and focusing on on meals together.

Stephanie Reid 19:21

No, I noticed that recently with my daughter and pouring the Brita, and two of them have been able to pour their own water for quite some time. And for the last year, you know, I’ve been really encouraging my youngest pouring her own glass of water and you know, there’s been some spills along the way, but recently, it’s been perfected and I think so often, as parents, especially nowadays, you just your immediate instinct is to do it for them. And I think it was really, really interesting that you said that because I was thinking the same thing. Eventually they’re going to have to learn to pour their own water so a little spilled water isn’t going to hurt anyone along the way. So that was a triumph. Recently in my house. And just picking back up on eating and emotional eating, I’d be remiss to not comment on the last couple months and the crazy times that we currently find ourselves in with the pandemic. And I know that you and your team have also reacted and shifted focus to COVID-19 related research. I saw recently that you received over 2000 responses to your online survey. Can you tell our listeners just a little bit about that, that work and what you attend intend to accomplish?

Dr. Jessie-Lee McIsaac 20:32

Absolutely. So I mean, following I think, so remember that weekend where things just really start to shift really rapidly? I think our immediate reaction was, was a research team was thinking about, you know, the short term implications on research. But as we all settled into what was then our arena and continues to be in Howard our new normal, we start to think about the impacts on on families with young children, a lot of us, my myself included, having young children at the home and thinking about the challenges that it that it really has, has made for us, but also the different opportunities that it’s provided for families, and to be more connected to not be as busy running off to all the different activities. It started to, to get us to think about what what we might be able to learn from this experience and also what not only learn for the sake of learning, but also learn to it to inform the supports that are necessary. So there’s a lot of conversation now about, you know, a second wave potentially coming now that this, this wave has has sort of started to diminish. And you know, that that just signals even more so the importance of a better understanding what families need. So we decided to launch a survey for families with young children in the Maritimes. So it was across the Maritimes. And as you mentioned, we had great response, we were so impressed by the response from from parents, and honestly, you know, I was really moved by, and really inspired by the amount of, of heart that people poured into their responses. So not only did families tell us about, you know, changes to routines, the loss of services, those kinds of things, and, and sort of the traditional survey format, but they also shared through some of our open ended questions, just their, their, their day to day experiences, and what this has meant for them and their family life. And we’re right now kind of going through those data to better understand, and you know, what some of the common experiences have been, what some of the, what some of the different predictors of changes have been as well. So better understanding and how things like working from home. So if that is something that you’re experiencing, and you’re also balancing parenting, how does that influence some of the some of the things that you’re seeing in your children or some of the things that you’re able to do as a family during this time. So we’re really kind of at the point now, where we’re analyzing data, and and a subsequent phase that we’ve just received some internal funding for at Mount Saint Vincent University, we’ll be following up with doing some individual interviews with families. So we’re looking forward to speaking more to better understand those kind of unique experiences, but also to understand how there are some commonalities across the experiences that can inform supports that need to be developed to ensure that families aren’t stuck or struggling, because that’s certainly one of the things we’re hearing is that this is tough. It’s tough for families with kids, and particularly with young kids, it seems like there, there does seem to be some differences in their experiences.

Stephanie Reid 23:49

For sure. And, you know, I’ve have three kids at home. And I’m working from home as we speak right now. And I think when I took your survey, I think as parents we really take for granted how much we are juggling right now. I think obviously, we we knew we were under a great deal of pressure and stress, but until actually sat down and answered your questions, and was really thinking about what those days look like and, and all the different components within is I realized how many hats I was putting on in the run of the day, be it you know, gymnastics coach, or dance instructor or school teacher, full time employee, and it was really interesting. So I’m really interested to see the results.

Dr. Jessie-Lee McIsaac 24:29

Thanks for looking forward to sharing it. I mean, it really has been a really meaningful project for me, I think, as I’m also balancing some of those realities, you know, and just trying to do my best as a parent and also as a as a full time employee. I think it’s it’s been a really yeah, important project. And we’re looking forward to getting those results out there quite fast.

Stephanie Reid 24:53

You know, I think just in general, your research the center or your the team, and it’s also important because I think everyone can relate to early childhood education, early childhood development, and especially those with children or young children in the home. And I just wanted to get aspirational for a moment here and just ask you what you think you’ve been able to achieve in the past, but where you see the future and the potential impact, you and your team at the center as a whole could have on Nova Scotians? That’s a big question. Question. It all I barely got it out, it was so big. Yeah.

Dr. Jessie-Lee McIsaac 25:29

I mean, I think in the early days of establishing the Research Center, it really is about kind of building the foundation of, of the work that we do. So I think taking the time to develop relationship with, with government, and I was fortunate to come in with some of those relationships already. Also community. So one partner that we’ve been developing relationships with, and we have a project ongoing, is isense, immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia, in which we’re better, we’re trying to better understand the experiences of newcomers with with young children, as well. So really trying to build relationship with different communities, to better understand, overall, the supports that might be needed for families and to take the time to build those relationships has been really critical to the foundation of the work. So a lot of those kind of planting seasons or early career researcher, I think in especially in the work that I do, it’s really hard to just jump into kind of those, you know, those five year projects without kind of setting the stage and building that foundation. So over the next eight years, I suppose of our the researcher seven years now, I’m hoping that that will just continue and that our research will be continued to be informed by the needs of government by the needs of community. So that it really is kind of that authentic partnership that I spoke to, that I that I’ve learned about and that I’m trying to build, so that it’s not only kind of research, informing change, or practice change or policy change, but it’s also what’s happening in community that’s informing our research goals and our research objectives. The more that I see that, that people are seeing research as something that can support their work, not something that you know, they have to participate in, and it’s kind of published in an academic sphere, but the more that it has real world impact. That’s really where I’ll feel like our research center has been successful. That’s, that’s fantastic. I

Stephanie Reid 27:36

think that was an excellent way to sum it up. And I can say on behalf of research Nova Scotia that we are very proud to have been able to support the center and the work that you do each and every day. And once again, I would like to thank you for joining us today to share a little bit more about the work that you do at the early childhood Collaborative Research Center at the Mt. So thank you very much.

Dr. Jessie-Lee McIsaac 27:58

Thanks for the opportunity.

Rhys Waters 28:00

To find out more about this podcast and the research featured in this episode, visit My name is Rhys Waters and we will see you next time

Dr. Jessie-Lee McIsaac is the Tier II Canada Research Chair in Early Childhood: Diversity and Transitions and director of the Early Childhood Collaborative Research Centre at Mount Saint Vincent University. Her team of researchers are actively engaging policy makers, early childhood educators, and families across the province to enhance child wellbeing.