Page 13: Evaluation of the Aboriginal Head Start in Urban and Northern Communities Program at the Public Health Agency of Canada

Appendix F. International programs

Literature review: Lessons learned from international experienceFootnote 3737

This literature review considered the international experience in early childhood development programming, more specifically in the United States of America, Australia and New Zealand, to determine any lessons learned that may relate to programs for Aboriginal children in Canada.

The vast literature on the United States Head Start programs since the late 1960s provides a wealth of valuable information about the effectiveness of those programs for disadvantaged or at-risk children in urban and rural settings. However, these programs are largely targeted to minority populations (especially Black and Hispanic groups) and are not specific to Aboriginal Americans. In Australia and New Zealand there is a larger specific focus on Aboriginal populations. In his historical review of early childhood education programs for Indigenous children in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, Prochner (2004) notes some similarities in the evolution of education programs from the colonial period to today.Footnote 3838 His analysis suggests a similar trajectory in these three countries from early approaches based on European models to current approaches influenced by Indigenous beliefs and values and more local, community-based control. Much has been learned in all of these programs and some of the findings may be worth considering in development of programs for Aboriginal children in Canada.

United States Head Start programs

As well as state-level programs, the federal government sponsors two major national programs: Head Start and Early Head Start. Both of these programs provide support to young children and their parents. The United States’ programs are not specific to Aboriginal populations, focusing especially on disadvantaged groups with lower-incomes and especially minority (Black and Hispanic) groups. Therefore, the cultural and historical contexts are distinct and different from Canada’s relations with its Aboriginal peoples even though the social inequalities are strikingly similar.

There are literally hundreds of research and evaluation studies on the United States Head Start programs as well as published papers in the academic literature. Interested readers are referred to the website of the United States of America’s Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation for major studies covering two decades and most recent publications.Footnote 3939 Below is a brief synopsis.

  • The United States Head Start program provides grants to local public and private non-profit agencies to provide comprehensive child development services to economically disadvantaged children and families, with a special focus on helping preschoolers develop the early reading and math skills they need to be successful in school. Throughout the history of this program many different approaches have been used for studying the success of the program including using Intelligence Quotient tests and other standardized tests. Some studies have found that children in the program had significantly higher scores in reading, writing and vocabulary.Footnote 4040
  • Early Head Start program: Created in 1995, Early Head Start was targeted to infants, toddlers (under the age of three) and low-income pregnant women (with many programs specializing on services for teen mothers). Although smaller in scale than Head Start, by 2005, there were more than 740 programs serving more than 80,000 children (which was about 2.5 per cent of the target population). The program included three models: centre-based, home-based (weekly visiting) and mixed-delivery programs. The program’s goal is to promote healthy prenatal outcomes, enhance child social, emotional, cognitive development and support healthy family functioning. Evaluations found positive impacts on child development and for teen parent families.Footnote 4141 Studies have shown significantly higher scores in cognitive and language development and students have exhibited less aggressive behaviour with parents during play. Parents with more stimulating home environments were more emotionally supportive, provided more language and learning stimulation, they read to their children more, spanked less and had greater knowledge of child development overall. Parents have overwhelmingly reported less stress and greater involvement in education and training.

In a review of a large number of studies on United States Head Start programs, Reynolds and Temple (2008) note some overall findings, described below:

  • There is sufficient evidence from evaluations of United States Head Start programs that, everything else being equal (that is, the quality of the programs and the types of children Footnote 4242 served) half-day programs are effective and that full-day programs have not been found to improve effectiveness, notably for at-risk population groups. To the extent that this experience is transferable, the overall program design of AHSUNC with half-day programming seems appropriate. However, there is other research in Canada suggesting that full-day kindergarten programs are more effective than half-day programs.Footnote 4343
  • United States studies have suggested that comprehensive programs (that include a range of supports to parents and children in centre-based learning and at home) are more effective in producing longer-term benefits than programs with only one type of programming. This suggests that combining different pathways to early learning is a more promising model to produce lasting improvements in lifelong learning.

Despite documented successes with Head Start, there are ongoing concerns about the effectiveness of programs giving rise to issues about government financing.Footnote 4444United States Head Start focuses particularly on its minority groups that face wide-ranging inequalities. To this extent, the inequalities faced by Canada’s Aboriginal peoples are quite similar. Whether or not findings from programs for these groups are relevant for the AHSUNC and its Aboriginal target group is an empirical question and requires further research.


The Early Years Learning Framework describes the principles, practices and outcomes to support and enhance young children’s learning from birth to five years of age, as well as their transition to school.Footnote 4545 The framework has a strong emphasis on play-based learning as the best vehicle for young children’s learning, providing the most appropriate for brain development and communication, language and social and economic development. Australia offers extensive training for teachers, support staff, parents and the community. The program is based on the principles of ‘Belonging, Being and Becoming’.

  • Studies have found that there are short and long-term benefits for children and families.Footnote 4646
  • There is a body of research on early childhood education that addresses aspects of diversity such as gender, race and language within Australian society and provides strategies for working with families and staff to challenge existing attitudes and practices.
  • There is limited research on the potential failures of the program.

The research that supports the Early Years Learning Framework in relation to Indigenous people discusses prevention of Indigenous people falling behind in the early years of life.Footnote 4747 Currently, the national government provides a nation-wide program, Multifunctional Aboriginal Children’s Services with the goal of preparing children for school. About half of four-year old Aboriginal children attend a preschool program.Footnote 4848 The national framework was developed to identify the skills needed by Indigenous children to enable success on entering the first formal year of schooling. This includes:

  • culturally appropriate early childhood resource materials to support teachers during the implementation of changes
  • language development services and early enrolment in kindergarten at the age of four.Footnote 4949

The Australian Closing the Gap Clearinghouse has compiled collections of research and information on ‘what works to close the gap for Indigenous people’ including children. The 2009-10 review report notes the importance of language and culture as well as the need to engage Indigenous families, school and communities to address early learning and the transition to school.Footnote 5050

New Zealand

New Zealand uses the term ‘early childhood education’ to refer to education and care provided to children before they go to primary school. Early childhood education services range from settings where parents are directly responsible for the education and care of children, to settings where paid staff are the ones responsible either at a centre or at a family’s home. This program is not mandatory but the majority of students are involved in the program in one way or another. Similar to the early learning framework in other countries, New Zealand strongly believes in creative play and a clear emphasis on play-based learning.

The New Zealand Education Review OfficeFootnote 5151 has dozens of reports on all types of early childhood education programs as well as schools, including some reports relevant to its Indigenous population (which includes Maori and Pacific Indigenous groups). In New Zealand, Maoris make up about 14 per cent of the population (more than three times the ratio of Aboriginal people in Canada (four per cent)). Maori children are more likely to live in lower-income and one-parent families than the non-Aboriginal population. Government reports note that the impact of ethnicity increases the effects of inequalities for its Indigenous people and go as far as describing the situation of Maori children as bleak.

In 1981, the New Zealand government established Kohanga Reo, a National Trust, to ensure the continuing survival of the Maori language and customs. The ultimate objective was the “rebirth of the Maori nation as an equal but separate element” of New Zealand society.Footnote 5252 By 1994 there were some 800 centres across the country for total emersion of children in the Maori language from birth to age six across the country with very little financial assistance from the New Zealand government. More than 10,000 Maori children were enrolled in 2002. Responsibilities for this approach were transferred from the Ministry of Maori Affairs to the newly formed Ministry of Education and centres became subject to more regulatory controls and licensing. According to information on the Kohanga Reo website, this change had big implications at the grass roots level and it shifted the emphasis to compliance with the early childhood sector. However, every year thousands of young children enter the education system already fluent in the Maori language and customs of their ancestry, and there are a reported 60,000 graduates of the Kohanga Reo movement.

Footnote 5353

Today, it is reported that 76 per cent of Maori children participating in early childhood education do so in mainstream early childhood education services,Footnote 5454 and the government objective is to ensure these provide appropriate services for the Maori population. The Ministry of Education’s 2008-11 Maori education strategy outlines a framework of priorities, goals and actions aimed at improving the quality of early childhood education for Maori children. This strategy includes promoting a bi-cultural curriculum which is intended to be established in early childhood education centres in consultation with Maori parents and extended family members. Language and culture are at the heart of the Maori model of early childhood education. The strategy, based on the Maori Potential Approach, has three principles:Footnote 5555

  • Maori potential: all Maori learners have unlimited potential
  • cultural advantage: all Maori have cultural advantage by virtue of who they are — being Maori is an asset
  • inherent capability: all Maori are inherently capable of achieving.

New Zealand’s efforts to implement a bi-cultural model in its early childhood and education systems have been described as a means of addressing inequalities and creating social change by restructuring relationships between mainstream and Indigenous cultures.Footnote 5656 Duhn argues that biculturalism has emerged in the political context of moves toward self-determination for Indigenous people in New Zealand as elsewhere. She goes further to suggest that these efforts seek to create the ‘bi-cultural child’ relate to the broader globalization and educationalization of early childhood.Footnote 5757 With respect to young Indigenous children, acculturation strategies for cultural identity have replaced previous assimilation strategies of earlier colonial and post-colonial periods in many societies (including CanadaFootnote 5858 ) that, in the extreme, led to marginalization, loss of cultural identity and alienation from both societies.Footnote 5959

In this context, Duhn (2008) describes New Zealand’s bi-cultural model as an effort to produce the ‘bi-cultural child’ and, in essence, to redefine the ‘normal child’.Footnote 6060 However, as government evaluation reports have shown, implementing these changes are challenging. For example, while many early childhood education centres report that they offer a bi-cultural curriculum and that processes are in place for consulting and communicating with parents of Maori children, less than half (41 per cent) of the centres were using these processes to identify and respond to the parents’ expectations. The Education Review Office has made recommendation to improve services for Maori children in two-thirds of the centres.Footnote 6161 Reports conclude that many centres have a way to go to ensure that Maori children experience success as learners in the early childhood education system. Therefore, despite considerable efforts, the success of the national early childhood education system for these children (and the government’s Maori education strategy) remains in doubt.

Summary of key themes and trends in international programs

The AHSUNC program shares the fundamental challenge of cultural identity with similar early childhood development programs in other countries. International experience shows benefits to integrating language and culture with early childhood development programming.

Figure 29: Comparison between the AHSUNC program and similar early childhood development programs in other countries

  Canada AHSUNC off reserve U.S.A. Head Start U.S.A. Early Head Start - component of Head Start Australia Multifunctional Aboriginal Children’s Services and crèches New Zealand Kohanga Reo
Year initiated 1995 1965 1995 1987 1982
Number of sites in 2010 128 1,591 grantees
49,200 classrooms
>650 programs (2009) 33 Multifunctional Aboriginal Children’s Services and 36 crèches 485 (2008)
Number of children reached in 2010 4,580 904,153 >66,000 (2009) under 3 years old 1,278 in 27 MACS (2006) 9,585 (2008)
Global budget 2010 C$41.3 million C$7,372.8 million C$722.6 million (2009) C$21.8 million (2009-10) Not available
Program structure Contribution agreements to local Aboriginal sponsor organizations Grants to local agencies to provide early childhood development to economically disadvantaged children and families For infants, toddlers, pregnant women and their families below poverty level; programming based in centres and/or home visits Multifunctional Aboriginal Children’s Services: daycare with at minimum one other activity, such as parenting programs;Crèches: flexible child care programs responsive to community needs 100% Maori language and culture immersion from birth to 6 years parental and community responsibility for management and parents can participate in program
Observations   Studies show benefits are greater with comprehensive programming; for example, early childhood education plus parental supports. Observed benefits include higher development scores and greater parental involvement. Quality of programming is as important as number of hours of programming per day. Factors of success: culturally appropriate programming; community engagement; early involvement of children and parents Challenged by: limited early childhood education teachers with sufficient Maori language; originally community-run, now under Ministry of Education with early childhood education teacher-based funding standard

Most western countries have forms of early childhood development or early childhood education regulated and/or funded by government. Countries have borrowed from each other’s experiences. For example, Australia’s approach built on the United States Head Start experience in the 1960s, and the New Zealand Kohanga Reo approach was used in British Columbia. Many of the approaches have been linked to objectives of cultural renewal after periods of government policy based on assimilation goals.Footnote 6262

There is extensive literature on these types of programs. Emerging themes include:

  • Concerns about the longer-term success of Head Start programs continue in the United States. Despite a wealth of evaluation material there appear to be ongoing concerns about the effectiveness of these types of programs.
  • Australia and New Zealand have made efforts to address the inequalities faced by Indigenous people and the importance of early years education that is culturally appropriate for young Indigenous children. Australia has focused on engaging schools, families and the community to bridge the gap, improve training and build links between preschool and school educators to prepare students for formal education.
  • New Zealand’s experience illustrates a bi-cultural model based on Indigenous language and culture but also the challenges of changing early education strategies for young Indigenous children as well as the mainstream, education system model. At its core, the bi-cultural model recognizes the value of the second culture as a normal, valid and legitimate part of the whole. It is a fundamentally holistic concept that seeks to bring together the parents and the family with the professional educators for the betterment of learning environments. Broadening the concept of learning environments and relationships with institutional systems has, as Duhn (2008), Rata (2003) and others have found,Footnote 6363has proved challenging.Footnote 6464

This high level review of early childhood development programs and trends in some other countries suggests that there is still a long way to go in developing effective early childhood programs for young Aboriginal children. Furthermore, the applicability of international approaches to the Canadian context is unclear. Cultural and social contexts vary considerably. The development of linkages between early childhood development and early childhood education (preschool) programs and schools is made more difficult in Canada because of divisions of jurisdictional responsibilities. In Canada, the federal government does not have a centralized (national) education strategy or the regulatory mechanisms to ensure that the needs of Aboriginal children are met in mainstream early education or in the school system. While there are federal government responsibilities in Canada with respect to First Nations people and evolving relationships with First Nations governments, relationships between on-reserve and off-reserve programs are complex in Canada’s federal system because provincial/territorial and local governments are responsible for education and other social programming, including child care and preschool initiatives.

Report a problem or mistake on this page
Please select all that apply:

Thank you for your help!

You will not receive a reply. For enquiries, contact us.

Date modified: