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'Angry Kids & Stressed Out Parents'

CBC doc on how poverty affects young brains may turn you into an early education evangelist, too.

Shannon Rupp 22 Mar

Shannon Rupp was a Tyee contributing editor. For permission to reprint this article please contact the author: shannon(at) 

If you want to work up a rage over social injustice, you'd be well advised to catch a CBC Doc Zone film called Angry Kids & Stressed Out Parents. The show airs March 27 and 29 and catalogues the latest findings on how poverty for children under six triggers behavioural and learning difficulties that cause lifelong problems for them. And us.

The screener left me as angry as those kids, and filmmaker Maureen Palmer admits that the project has turned her into something of an early education evangelist.

"It's a moral question," Palmer said. "Given all that we know about the impact [of early childhood education] how can we not do anything? What will we tell those children?"

Palmer first became interested in why so many kids were so angry after doing a documentary about hypersexualized pre-pubescents in 2012, called Sext Up Kids. She found children as young as nine were being exposed to risqué texting, porn and pressure to be sexy. As she interviewed children about the impact it had on them she began to notice a lot of angry voices.

"I wondered why so many of them were so angry and that led me to the research on the increase in behavioural problems," Palmer said.

One thing led to another, and by the time she turned up findings on childrens' brain scans that show the prefrontal cortex of kids from wealthy homes as more active than those from poor backgrounds, she knew she had a documentary.

The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that governs impulse control, attention span and decision-making, and learning self-control affects a child's ability to learn everything else. The study found that the brain impact of poverty is comparable to that of deliberate abuse. The slower development appears to be caused by the lack of undivided attention children get from caregivers in time-starved homes.

"I don't mean to blame parents. I really think parents are being hung out to dry for something that is a cultural problem," Palmer said, pointing to the increase in mental health problems across economic classes. "There's just not enough support for parents."

Child poverty a societal 'continuum'

Children need attention to develop language skills and develop the ability to concentrate, accept delayed gratification and maintain the calm mood necessary to learn. But mastering self-control happens only if someone -- usually a parent -- spends extended time guiding a child.

That's tough for all parents in the era of excessive busyness and mobile screens. For the middle-class professionals working long hours, it's tempting to turn an iPhone into a babysitter, and every toddler seems to know instinctively how to use one. But for single parents and the working poor, who may hold multiple jobs and be further stressed by lack of benefits and safe housing, the demands on their time can be overwhelming.

The cost to children who are raised by distracted parents is bad enough -- they don't learn in school and they're at higher risk for mental illness, suicide, substance abuse and criminal behaviour -- but society also bears a heavy price. Schools require more money for special needs programs, and it burdens social services, healthcare, policing, the courts and ultimately, prisons.

"It's a continuum," Palmer said. "At one end, kids grow up to be angry and frustrated because no one seems to have time for them, and at the other end, the extreme end, is Marc Lépine."

Lepine murdered 14 women at Montreal's École Polytechnique on Dec. 6, 1989. One of the most chilling moments in Palmer's documentary is an interview with his mother Monique. She talks about her regrets and the circumstances that caused her to fail her son.

"I would like to start all over again and be different, be a loving mother," she confesses to the camera.

Monique recalls how Marc's violent, abusive father made the first six years of her son's life miserable. Later he was sexually abused by a man in a community group. Monique carries the guilt of being a bad parent, but she was barely coping herself. Her husband beat her too, and she left him when Marc was six and his younger sister Nadia was four. A single working mother, she boarded her children with other families through the week and visited them on weekends. Her daughter also committed suicide.

Build healthy kids, save bucks

The documentary is disturbing -- which Palmer assures me is a compliment -- not least because it made me recall a conversation more than a decade ago with Patti Bacchus, who chairs the Vancouver School Board. At the time she was full-time mom with a kid who had a learning disability and she decided to take on the fight for every working parent who was already stretched too thin.

"Who do you think is in the prisons, Shannon?" Bacchus snapped at me.

Truth be told, I'd never thought about it. Not a smart thing to admit to Bacchus, who rattled off the statistics on the correlation between inadequate education and future mental health problems, poverty and crime.

After seeing Palmer's doc, I asked Bacchus what the schools are doing, if anything, and she confirmed that school board trustees are well aware of much of the research in the piece. She agrees that the growing body of research is even more compelling now than it was when she began pushing for better education, but the political resistance continues.

"The problem is that [early education programs] are an ongoing additional cost and we're not going to see the benefits in one election cycle -- more like 30 to 40 years," Bacchus said, explaining why she believes most provincial governments are ignoring these findings.

She points out that in 2010, Gordon Campbell's government forced the Vancouver School Board to balance its budget by cutting "junior kindergarten," among other things. The comptroller general at the time criticized Vancouver for spending outside its mandate on the early education program.

Bacchus, who recently declared she would run again for school board, is happy to see a documentary making the point that early education is everyone's problem.

"In stark financial terms, we know [early childhood education] gives us the biggest bang for our buck. It's like that old saying: it's easier to build a strong person than fix a broken one."

Which is why the VSB is one of dozens of organizations, including cities and early education advocates, and other school boards endorsing the "$10 a Day" child care plan.

In Canada, Manitoba is the only province taking the long view and investing seriously in a wide range of early education programs.

That's because First Nations' children in the province are in crisis -- 87 per cent of kids in care are aboriginal -- so the Manitoba government created the Healthy Child Committee of Cabinet. Ministers from across departments share costs in a variety of programs aimed at early intervention for vulnerable kids, with a goal of keeping future costs down.

Educating kids who can compete

Palmer is also brimming with economic facts she couldn't squeeze into the one-hour doc.

Jim Heckman, a Nobel Prize winning economist at the University of Chicago who is featured in the film, also advises governments on the economics of education policy. When she met him he had just returned from China where he was advising the Chinese Central Committee on the economic value of programs for at-risk children, similar to the ones in which Manitoba has invested.

China's accelerated economy has created a lot of social problems as rural peasants move into the city to work in factories. Their children often end up being raised by illiterate grandparents and are showing behavioural and learning problems. The Chinese government isn't known for altruism, but it's keen to correct the problem quickly because of the well-documented economic advantages it gives a nation.

"There's a business case for this that interests the Chinese," Palmer said. "If you want to be competitive you have to educate kids who can compete."

The economic argument is so persuasive that in Salt Lake City investment companies Goldman Sachs and J.B. Pritzker put money into pilot programs via social impact bonds. They fund the programs and if the vulnerable kids have better outcomes than statistics suggest they should, which saves the state money, the investors earn a percentage of the dough the government saves.

The documentary makes it clear why the kids are angry due to lousy education policies, but it doesn't address the obvious question: why the voters and taxpayers aren't?

I dare you to watch it and not feel a little rush of rage.

© Shannon Rupp. For permission to reprint this article please contact the author: shannon(at)  [Tyee]

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