“Culture is learned, not inherited. It derives from one’s social environment not from one’s genes”
School, Literacy, Employability and Children’s Behaviour "I have been given 28 Senior Kindergarten students who I dub "the class from hell". Every day consists of stealing, lying, hitting, throwing tantrums, throwing rocks, throwing up. I wake up at night having nightmares and get up in the mornings unrested and with butterflies in my stomach, worrying about going to work and facing these children. I am fearful for the adults they will become and the teenagers they will be in ten years. What is wrong with the world? "
Conversations with many Kindergarten and Grade 1 teachers reveal that they are often the first witness of a growing wave of poor behaviour. Poor behaviour that inhibits children’s ability to learn at school. Teachers, and the school system as a whole, are finding it exceptionally difficult to shift behaviour and hence outcomes once the child is school age.
Research backs up this anecdotal evidence.
“..approximately 212,000 children out of 900,000 in the 0-6 age group are at risk of not reaching their full potential when they enter the school system and are on a life course that could lead to learning, behaviour and health problems in later life. The majority of these children live in two parent, middle income families”
We are beginning to recognize that the battle for literacy, social cohesion and employability is best fought before a child enters school. The time of maximum opportunity is in the first 3 years. The optimal place is in the home.
What do we know now about home environments that will help us move upstream to where the root causes of learning problems occur?
Family Culture is the Driver for Behaviour and Hence Learning Outcomes
Until now, we have focused our limited resources available for supporting the Early Years on the poorest segment of families. We looked at the Socio Economic gradient as the best way of finding out where to focus our limited resources. We have made the assumption that poor learning outcomes are closely linked with poverty.
New research suggests that how a family functions, or its “culture”, is more powerful than Socio Economic Status (SES) in affecting learning outcomes of children.
“These findings present a serious challenge to the “culture of poverty” thesis and the widespread belief that the children of poor families do not fare well because of the way that they are raised.
These findings show that positive parenting practices have important effects on childhood outcomes, but that both positive and negative parenting practices are found in rich and poor families alike. Thus good parenting is a concern for all parents………….Because positive practices are only weakly associated with Socio Economic Status (SES), it is not feasible to identify parents with relatively poor skills on the basis of socioeconomic factors”
Nor is family structure itself tightly coupled to learning outcomes:
“Parenting practices are not strongly related to SES or to family structure…both positive and negative practices are apparent in all types of families”
Willms’ team identify the three key family cultural groups as being:
“Authoritative” – Parents who establish a warm and nurturing relationship with their children but set firm limits for their behaviour
“Authoritarian” – Parents who are highly controlling, requiring their children to meet an absolute set of standards
“Permissive” – Parents who are overly nurturing and who provide few standards for behaviour and are extremely tolerant of misbehaviour.
The Willms research informs us that the poorest learning and development outcomes are found in families that have Authoritarian and Permissive cultures. The research team’s conclusion is:
“..Given that about a third of parents might be characterized as Authoritative, most parents could benefit from training programs that improved their skills. …The aim would be to provide parents with practical ways to monitor their children’s behaviour, engage with them positively and encourage their independence”We are beginning to understand that simply targeting the poorest of our society will not shift our total development deficit. Wilms is making the point that the collective of family functioning, or culture, is a very productive place to look and work.
Geert Hofstede, the leading scientist looking at culture in the workplace reinforces this view:
“Every person carries within him or herself patterns of thinking; feeling; and potential acting which were learned throughout their lifetime. Much of it has been acquired in early childhood, because at that time a person is most susceptible to learning and assimilating. As soon as certain patterns of thinking; feeling and acting have established themselves within a person’s mind; (s)he must unlearn these before being able to learn something different; and unlearning is more difficult than learning for the first time. “
If the close linkage is to be found in culture, how can we identify family culture and how can we affect family culture so that we can improve outcomes?
 Cultures and Organizations – Software of the Mind – Intercultural Cooperation and its Importance for Survival. Geert Hofstede. McGraw Hill 1997
 A teacher in a private Kindergarten in Toronto – from a private email to the author October, 2002
 The Early years Study Three Years Later – McCain and Mustard August 2002
 Vulnerable Children– Findings from Canada’s National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth. – J Douglas Willms , Editor University of Alberta Press, Applied Research Branch HRDC 2002
 IBID Willms
 “The greatest number of vulnerable children live in two parent, middle income families; targeting developmental resources to children living in poverty, although valuable, will have a relatively small impact on the overall population. Estimates suggest that if we could eliminate the negative impact of poverty, we would reduce the numbers of children who are vulnerable by 10%” Commenting on children in Ontario The Early Years Study – Three Years Later. McCain and Mustard August 2002
 Hofstede IBID