They say, “It is easier to build strong children, than it is to repair broken adults.” In fact, decades of longitudinal research into the neuroscience behind early childhood education proves unequivocally that investing financially and philosophically in the early years, from the womb to age five, is the golden weapon in the battle to raise educational standards and solve a host of societal problems.

Consider that 90% of the brain’s capacity is formed by age five, before children even set foot in formal schooling; that pruning of the neurological pathways begins at just 12-months; and that by three, a child’s brain can form three quadrillion connections... and the case for focusing time, energy, and resources on this vital stage of development is a no-brainer. So, how do the Cayman Islands stack up when it comes to providing equal access to quality early childhood care and education (ECCE) for its youngest citizens?

The Evidence

For evidence of the link between early childhood provision, increased productivity, and breaking cycles of poverty that require costly remedial social spending, we need look no further than the work of Nobel Laureate, James J. Heckman, Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago. Recognised for his ‘Heckman Curve,’ an economic impact study that proved that the greatest productivity of investment came from investment in the early years, Heckman identified the economic benefits of investing in human potential through nurture, provision of quality early childhood enrichment programmes, and the promotion of physical health from birth to age five.

Furthermore, papers authored by Heckman, and predoctoral fellow, Ganesh Karapakula, entitled, The Perry Preschooler at Late Midlife, irrefutably demonstrate the long term, life-lifting impacts of the well-respected Perry Preschool Project undertaken in Ypsilanti, Michigan in the 1960s. Research on graduates, now aged 54, proved significant gains in educational outcomes, health and wellness, employment, and marriage when compared to peers in the control group who did not attend preschool. What is more, multigenerational effects were noted in the profiles of the graduates’ siblings and offspring, now in their 20s.

As if this were not sufficiently compelling, a linked study, entitled, The Dynastic Benefits of Early Childhood Care and Education, (Garcia, Bennhoff, Leaf, Heckman, 2021), successfully monetised the impacts of investing in the early years, calculating that for every $1 spent, society receives a $14 life cycle benefit.

Early Childhood Education in Cayman

So, just what is the status of early childhood education in the Cayman Islands? Defined by the Education Law, 2016, as education provided to children under the compulsory age of five to include, “the care, stimulation, and socialisation necessary to support developmental learning,” there are currently 22 privately registered ECCE centres in Grand Cayman, with an additional government funded facility on Cayman Brac. Sixteen Reception classes for four-year-olds at all government primary schools provide 286 children with early years’ provision, based on the Cayman Islands Statutory Framework for Foundation Stage (National Curriculum for England), and plans are currently underway to expand Red Bay Primary to allow more children to attend.

Recognising the need to expand and strengthen early childhood provision, in December 2021, the PACT government announced increased allocation for Education, Early Childhood, and Support Services from $8.6million in 2021 to $9.5million in 2022, with a further increase to $9.87 million in 2023. Of these amounts, approximately $600,000 and $622,000 are earmarked for Early Childhood services in 2022 and 2023, respectively. Furthermore, Minister for Education, Honorable Julianna O’Connor-Connolly also announced her intention to incorporate nursery facilities for three-year-olds into government primary schools however, no specific timeline was given.

A Ministry of Education statement recognises that, “A substantive body of research avouches that the earliest years of a child’s life are critical to developmental learning. Our young children demand and deserve special attention and care. Early childhood education provides unique opportunities for children’s intellectual, emotional, physical, and social development.”

Play-based Learning

Rooted in the pedagogy of purposeful play-based learning, play – as different to traditional ‘chalk and talk’ schooling – is recognised as a natural way for children to learn and develop, solve problems, and understand the world. “Purposeful play ensures that learning experiences are carefully planned to facilitate a healthy balance between child-initiated play and adult-led instruction. In this model, early childhood staff prepare enabling, open-ended learning environments to facilitate exploration and critical thinking. Play is essential to a child’s holistic development, and the natural and best way for them to learn.”

Public vs Private

However, with 84% of children attending ECCE centres enrolled in private settings, this raises the question of equity of access. Private ECCE centres judged ‘Good’ or ‘Excellent’ by school inspectors charge annual full-time fees in excess of CI$10,000, stretching to over CI$15,000 per annum. Following an application and means testing, Caymanian children who turn three by September 1st, may apply for Early Childhood Assistance Programme (ECAP) funding – a maximum allowance of CI$500 monthly, or a subsidy of CI$305. However, with only one centre’s monthly fees under CI$500, and centres catering to the lower socio-economic bracket largely receiving ‘Weak’ to ‘Satisfactory’ inspection grades, there exists a clear inequity in access to quality early childhood care and education.

Professional Development

This inequity is compounded when one considers that, according to current Education Council Guidelines, only one staff member must possess a Licence to Teach, per ten unqualified practitioners. Worryingly, this individual may be a manager/owner, not directly involved in teaching and learning. Their qualification may be in primary or secondary education rather than the unique field of Early Childhood.

The University of the West Indies (UWI) currently offers a Certificate in Early Childhood Development, and the good news is that plans are underway by The Early Childhood Multi-Agency Panel to develop the first ever Associates Degree in Early Childhood Education to be offered through the University of the Cayman Islands (UCCI), enabling access to additional qualifications locally.

What is more, with passionate advocates, like Dr. Pearlyn Henry-Burrell, Director of the Ministry of Education’s Early Childhood Care and Education Unit, driving much needed change, the future looks bright. “Through the work of the unit and associated partners, the Government supports early years practitioners, centre owners, and families to garner the skills needed to enhance children’s holistic development as they help prepare them for the next stage of their learning. The mandate of the government… is for all stakeholders to understand and appreciate that early childhood education is much more than learning basic literacy and numeracy skills…it’s about enhancing children’s social, emotional, cognitive, and physical needs so that they can survive and thrive in their later years of learning.”

Enter Dr. Cheryl Rock, Early Intervention Programme Coordinator, whose team works with children under compulsory school age requiring medical, sensory, cognitive, or physical support. “We offer Speech and Language, Occupational Therapy, Hearing and Vision specialists, Counsellors, and in-school support as well as Educational Psychology evaluations, where appropriate, so that eligible families have access to a formal diagnosis, recommendations, and services as soon as possible. We cannot afford to lose time with young children,” she explains. A passionate advocate for strong preventative measures, in-class training, and professional development, Rock is eager to nurture neurodiverse preschool environments where multi-modal instruction and differentiation are expertly used to cater to all children’s needs and foster a sense of belonging.

This is recognised in the psychological theory of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It states that humans are motivated to fulfil their needs in a hierarchical order, beginning with basic physiological needs and the need for safety, to a need for love and belongingness, with the ultimate goal of self-actualisation. Neuroscientist, Dr. Bruce Perry (2016), states, “The brain-mediated set of complex capacities that allow one human to connect to another form the very basis for survival and has led to the ‘success’ of our species on this planet. Without others or without belonging, no individual could survive or thrive.” Dr. Perry argues that learning can only happen if the brain is in a relaxed state. If a child feels threatened, unsafe, stressed, or lonely, the brainstem - responsible for the survival function – takes over, resulting in a child demonstrating behaviour issues as a consequence of a ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ brain mode. To make real learning occur, therefore, preschools must consider creating conditions for learning that make every child feel safe, nurtured, and with a sense of belonging.

One non-profit putting its resources into meaningful change is Literacy Is For Everyone (LIFE) who, in partnership with the Cayman Islands Early Childhood Association, launched Thrive By Five, a foundational literacy programme at participating preschools in 2021. As Erica Dell’Oglio, Executive Director of LIFE explains, “Our programmes empower educators and families to create purposeful, language-rich interactions with children. When children are at the centre of the adult gaze, the foundational bond is formed, written forever into their brain chemistry; in essence, creating a blueprint for later learning.”

Designed to foster community, Thrive By Five offers family engagement workshops, and the creation of print-rich environments with donations of curated libraries to support Early Years Curriculum Framework themes. Professional Development includes a video education series featuring a host of experts including Psychologist, Shannon Seymour, owner of The Wellness Centre. Seymour's programme, The Growing BrainTM, supports parents and educators in understanding the profound impact of interacting and responding positively to young children, and the impact it has on brain architecture. “Brains are built like houses and a strong foundation in the early years is critical. When the foundation is strong, thanks to warm and responsive adult caregivers, children can withstand difficulties and the challenges they will face in life. Unfortunately, if the foundation is weak, because parents were not supported or nurtured to provide the caregiving their child needs, the foundation will be weaker, and children will need additional supports to weather the storms of life.”

Creating Potential

It was this concept of early brain architecture that caught the interest of career educator, Delores Thompson, former Director of the Cayman Islands Further Education College (CIFEC), and newly appointed Director of the NCVO’s Miss Nadine’s Preschool and Jack and Jill Nursery. Having spent decades working with students nearing the end of their educational journeys, she became concerned by the disillusionment she saw - the lack of self-esteem and motivation. “Some students lacked the perseverance or ‘grit’ needed to keep going when things got rough,” she observes. “They didn’t see their potential.” Later, attending a workshop presented by Clinical Psychologist, Dr. Erica Lam of Aspire entitled Trauma Informed Classrooms, Thompson recalls a pivotal discussion on angry and uncooperative students. “Dr. Lam revealed that experiences during the first five years…can impact entire lives. There is much research on this. One study links a quality early childhood education to children thriving in school, completing high school, attending college, and staying out of the prison system. I wondered how many of my students might not have struggled as teenagers if they had had a more positive start. At that moment, I remembered why I found early childhood so fascinating,” she states. “So, I decided to finish my degree. I truly believe that if we want to improve our education system, we have to begin with early childhood education.”

A strong proponent of play-based learning and child-initiated practice, Thompson is keen to raise standards and excited for the future. Introducing the HiMama App has enabled more effective parental interactions, while the new continuous assessment tool, Tapestry, meaningfully links lessons to the CI Early Years Curriculum Framework. “Professional development of our team is also crucial,” Thompson adds. “Four staff members are taking the UWI Certificate in Early Childhood Development and three have completed The Growing BrainTM training offered by The Wellness Centre. We also participated in the ECCE’s book study on Continuous Provision – I feel blessed to have a dedicated staff who really care about children.”

So, what is the single most important thing that Thompson believes parents can do for their babies? “Spend time with them,” she says. “Serve and return refers to responding to babies when they cry, babble, or seek attention. This helps with brain development and contributes to their feelings of security.”

It Takes a Village

Committed to building an early childhood ‘village,’ is Joanna Boxall, owner of Little Trotters Farm & Nursery School whose ‘reach one, teach one’ initiatives spread resources and expertise far beyond the gates of her own preschool. Having received the highest overall grade of ‘Excellent’ from the school inspectors, Boxall is keen to pay it forward, whether by encouraging staff mentorships, or opening Little Trotters’ doors to fellow preschool teachers to observe good practice, showcase resources, or view innovative classroom layouts. “At Little Trotters, we inspire discovery and learning through exploration and play and are delighted to welcome visitors from other centres, the ECCE Unit, and Ministry of Education,” explains Boxall.

Also responsible for installing purpose-built, all-weather blackboards at Sister Janice’s, Precious Gems, Cayman Academy, and ABC preschools, and creating cosy reading nooks, complete with rugs, throw cushions, and Julia Donaldson book sets to Cayman Academy and Precious Gems, the community of early childhood is coming together for future generations.

Early Years Inspection Framework

Recognising the need to support quality assurance via the collection and presentation of valuable, accurate information gathering in early childhood centres, the Office of Education Standards (OES), responsible for promoting the raising of standards of achievement in ECCE centres in the Cayman Islands, is in the process of creating the first Inspection Framework geared specifically to the early years. OES Director, Nicholas Sherriff says, “The current inspection framework was not designed as a bespoke tool for the early years. As such, the language and exemplar referred to are often not recognisable. Our view is the OES can communicate far better through a bespoke inspection framework, more appropriate to the early years, thus supporting clearer recognition and greater potential for self-improvement.”

The new framework, devised by international early childhood expert, Sharron Fogarty, in collaboration with a development team of government and private early years stakeholders, ensures local context along with method and standardisation for inspectors and guidance for centre leaders. “Picking up one system and dropping it into a new environment does not often work well. Hence the need for a wide stakeholder group that will eventually include parents. This means the socio-cultural aspect of Cayman education is not lost. However, there is a balance to be struck that ensures international best practice is embedded, giving young children the best possible start on their educational journey,” Sherriff adds.

Put simply, developmentally appropriate early childhood education is the business of building brains; of creating a growing community of resilient, capable, self-assured twenty-first century thinkers. And, like savvy nations across the globe, Cayman is waking up to the socio-economic, and educational benefits of investing in comprehensive, high-quality provision and understanding that, getting it right first time, avoids the need to fix the problem later. After all, as Bill Gates observed, “The first five years have so much to do with how the next 80 turn out.”