The Science


Literacy and Human Development

The privilege of my life was working for the late Dr Fraser Mustard, founding president of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research and the main proponent of developing the research on how the first three years of life set up each of us on a lifetime trajectory of development.

The first of three reports, written by him and Margaret McCain, that examined the science of how humans develop in the first three years of life is here in PDF form.

Most of the report shows us the science of how and why the first three years of life are so vital in our development and how important it is for infants to be situated in a warm and loving environment.

Here is a link to a piece that I wrote back in 2003 that synthesizes much of this work and the later work of Professor Doug Willms. Critical to development is the acquisition of vocabulary by 2 years old. Critical to this are the number of words a child hears and the tone in which they are heard.


The differences between a two year old who can understand 150 and 300 words at 2 seem very small. But as you can see from this slide, the long term  differences are substantial. Reading to an infant and a young child are a very important aspect of this vocabulary acquisition.

As defined by Mustard and Willms, the 3 main components for the best start for a child are:

1. Having lots of the optimal conversation with our infants which includes lots of reading.

2. High touch  especially in the first 6 months of life – which includes breast feeding and lots of reading.

3. The context of a deep attachment with the child where the parent develops an authoritative family culture for the family or where at least one adult plays this role.


This photo of a friend illustrates the meaning of “touch” in this context.

“Family Culture” is the important vector here.  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 or 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[6]”

It is why much of the current work in this area focuses on mothers and also on daycares and kindergarten where many children spend most of their time today.


This slide shows that in spite of massive investment in schools, that in the US, reading scores remained flat. School is in most cases too late a place to intervene.


This slide shows the issue of time in development. It also shows the process which is complex or chaotic, as all natural processes are. Our development, just as the development of a hurricane depends on the interaction of forces in a certain environment. In the ideal environment for a child, their development will take them on to being the best person that they can be. With the right mix of temperature and winds, a hurricane will develop. It is the same for all things both living or not.

This brings us naturally to how complex or chaotic processes work. For not only do they apply to our development but they also apply to how we might find the best ways to help set up the ideal environment for learning.


The Cynefin Framework developed by Dave Snowden

(Link to Dave Snowden on Complexity here)

How best to “help” families and infants is a complex problem. We know what the ideal environment is for human development but there is no simple way to influence families to create such an environment.

What we do know

Early explorers in this field have found that working in daycares and in kindergarten works well. Here children spend most of their awake time today. Here a structured and safe environment can be created. This short video by Margaret McCain shows us how this can work.

This is why we plan to start here in our local daycares.

More challenging is to work directly with parents and in families. The challenge is that changing personal habits and family culture is very hard work.

Even here, early explorers have been at work such as on Prince Edward Island and the Best Start Program that offers in-home support for an hour a week for three years has had significant success. So much so, that it is now available for all newborns on PEI.

This is what it feels like for the mothers.

Our own experience as we work and learning from the early explorers will give us a good chance to discovering the best way to help people here.