Less than 50 per cent of kindergarten-aged children in Calgary are developing appropriately for their age. In some parts of the city, that number is as low as 30 per cent—meaning 70 per cent of children are struggling to develop the social, emotional, cognitive, motor, and communication skills they need to succeed in life. For those 70 per cent who do not develop these developmental milestones, the consequences can be alarming.
As they grow older and enter adolescence and young adulthood, kids without foundational development skills often struggle to make connections, finish high school, and find meaningful jobs. This puts them at a higher risk of relying on social assistance, becoming involved in the justice system, and experiencing poor health over the course of their lives. But this downward spiral can be prevented by ensuring children have a strong start to life in their early years. That’s why United Way of Calgary and Area partners with agencies like CUPS, whose Child Development Centre has been helping vulnerable children from low-income families since it first launched in 2002.
The centre provides free early intervention programs, including speech therapy, physiotherapy, and occupational therapy to help children with developmental challenges get the support they need to succeed. Children aged three to six, many of whom do not have a stable home life, are provided a nurturing, caring, and educational environment to learn and grow.
“The majority of our kids have suffered from the effects of trauma and multigenerational poverty; they have delays in communications and have problems regulating their emotions. They have significant challenges because their parents or caregivers aren’t equipped to help them develop the social and emotional skills they need to succeed in life,” says Robert Perry, senior director of program and service assessment at CUPS.
Perry and his colleagues believe the right support at the right time can make a world of difference—and they have the results to prove it. The Child Development Centre boasts a 100 per cent graduation rate, with graduates transitioning to the mainstream education system, on a level playing field with their peers. In 2018, the agency received the Minister’s Award of Excellence in Child Development for paving the way to a brighter future for children living in low-income households.
“Being recognized for your work is always a positive thing, but our main focus is on the children and their caregivers. Parents are very good advocates for their children so they’ll figure out a way to navigate the system. It’s on us to provide the right interventions and supports to help the entire family become more resilient,” says Perry.
The centre has a two-generation approach to addressing gaps in childhood development and school readiness by providing a well-rounded, holistic approach to helping children and families reach their full potential. First, clients are assessed to determine what set of programs and services they will need. This is done through the Resiliency Matrix, an assessment tool that CUPS created to get an accurate picture of what support the client needs, and how to approach those needs across four areas of resilience: economic, social-emotional, health, and developmental. To track progress and the effectiveness of the program, clients are asked to complete a follow-up Resiliency Matrix Assessment every six months.
For young children and their families, the individualized care plan includes a two-prong approach; while children attend preschool and kindergarten classes with specialized programming, caregivers attend a series of parenting and life skills classes, which emphasize the importance of raising children in nurturing and healthy environments.
“If you look at a child’s outcomes, the school may say the child graduated because of the teachers, or the doctor may say the child is better because they healed them. And yes, the school and the doctor did help—but the kids will tell you, what really helped them in life was the love of a caring adult. This is why it’s crucial to provide support to both children and caregivers,” says Perry.
“…seeing these kids overcome adversity, graduate high school and go on to post-secondary—it’s an incredible feeling.”
The centre’s multigenerational approach has yielded tremendous results. In 2017, the first class of Child Development Centre kindergarten students graduated from high school and entered post-secondary—a tremendous accomplishment given the circumstances they were born into.
“Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) like trauma or neglect can affect everybody, regardless of socio-economic background. But it’s the double effect of living in poverty and with ACEs that’s really hard on families. Overcoming both is a feat in itself,” says Perry.
“For us, seeing these kids overcome adversity, graduate high school and go on to post-secondary—it’s an incredible feeling. Many of the kids, when they come to us, are struggling with a variety of developmental milestones. We have three or four year olds who can’t speak. So, to see them succeeding through their school years, and eventually graduating high school and going on to further their education—it’s remarkable.”
To track client success and the effectiveness of its programs, CUPS partnered with the University of Calgary Faculty of Nursing research team, which followed the children as they transitioned to the public school system, then at ages seven and 10, and a final follow-up at age 15. The project has provided CUPS staff, researchers, and policy decision-makers with valuable insights that may help shape the future of early intervention programs.
“Thanks to this research project, we can show that our two-generation approach works,” says Perry. He adds, “What’s really great about this work is that we now have longitudinal analysis for one of the longest cohorts created anywhere, which can be studied and learned from.”
Perry maintains this work would be impossible without strategic partnerships, and the support of organizations like United Way. “No one working alone can get it done. United Way helps us gather and create a bigger impact in the community. They aren’t just a funder, they’re an active partner of ours, and they provide us with the vital support of the greater Calgary community,” he says.