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Vulnerable Children - A Research Project

Measuring How Families Function

“Culture is learned, not inherited. It derives from one’s social environment not from one’s genes”

Geert Hofstede[1]

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? "[2]


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[3] 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[4] 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[5]


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[6]


We are beginning to understand that simply targeting the poorest of our society will not shift our total development deficit[7].


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.[8]



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?


How could we work on Family Culture?


We would have to:

·        find a tool that easily identifies the different types of family culture


·        find a process to insert the tool into a community that would keep the operational costs down and the remedial potential high


·        find out if and how we could help the parent/family make adjustments to their behaviours to reduce the risks and improve outcomes


·        link the work derived from this process into the rest of the “system” so that we can maximize the use of other resources


·        link the information derived from the tool into other databases such as UEY and NLSCY to improve the overall map of where Canada’s children stand


Does such a tool and process exist?


The tool exists and has been used for over 25 years in the business world where it has been used to measure and remediate culture in the workplace. The process exists and is offered to all new families on Prince Edward Island. The opportunity to link the information  also exists on Prince Edward Island where all the key databases are in place.


We will briefly highlight the workings of the tool provide by Values Technology™ Inc. and the process, Best Start and describe how they might be linked to provide a potentially exiting breakthrough in improving learning and behaviour outcomes for our children.

Measuring and Affecting Culture or Group Behaviour

For more than 25 years, Values Technology™ Inc. (VT) has been refining a set of tools that measure and affect personal and organizational culture. At the heart of the VT approach is the understanding that values and  behaviour are linked to form a culture.


VT has found that by providing understanding the context for behaviour and developing new behavioural skills that culture can be modified.


VT uses the research developed by Dr Brian Hall at the University of Santa Clara to help people in business understand their culture. Why? Because differences in culture have to be understood if collaboration and communication in the workplace is to take place successfully.


What are some of the key components of the VT approach?


Using short questionnaires, VT identifies where participants are located on a trajectory of values that resemble a Maslowian gradient of worldview. The gradient has 4 key phases which in turn drive supporting managerial styles. Our contention is that these managerial styles can be unpacked to provide understanding about the styles of parenting that the Willms’ research tell us are so important to learning outcomes. Here is a quick overview of the possible linkages to parenting style:


  • Phase 1 Surviving: -  Defined as a “World is a mystery over which I have no control”. The principal sets of values in this group are for the individual, Safety and  for the group, Security. This worldview tends to produce leaders who are “Dictatorial” Defined as Tyrant dictator with oppressed followers who are totally dependent. In the Surviving world view, the parent will have little or no perceived control over the outside world and hence will compensate by enforcing the maximum control inside the family. It is likely that many families who inhabit this culture will be “Authoritarian” parents.


  • Phase 2 Belonging:- Defined as a ”World is a problem with which I must cope.” The principal value set goals of this mindset are for the individual, Family and for the group, Institution. Most of Western Society is found in this large value set. There are three managerial styles that flow in sequence in this mindset. These are the Benevolent, which is a transition style from the Surviving phase defined as Benevolent paternalist with followers who are obedient and dependent - Benevolent types would likely be mainly Authoritarian parents;  the Manager defined as Efficient Manager with followers who are loyally devoted to the organization and Enabling defined as Clarifier, Supporter and Listener with followers who are also clarifiers, listeners and supporters.


In the Manager and Enabling roles we likely see the roots of the Permissive and Authoritative parenting styles.  When we look more deeply into the values structure for Phase 2, we see that it involves a combination of Family values and Institutional values. The Family values are mainly “feminine” and are largely driven by means such as Care/Nurture or Being Liked which are vital in the family context. The Institutional values are largely “masculine” and are driven by means such as Achievement/Success and Duty/Obligation demanded by the outside world. It is likely that families or parents that dwell mainly in the Family set of values will be Permissive. Families and parents that can combine both Family and Institution are likely to be Authoritative.  


The Enabling style is the bridging style between the Phase 1 and Phase 2 groups that are Extrinsically controlling systems. The Enabling style takes us into the Phase 3 sector where control is manifested Intrinsically. This breakpoint in motivation from the group to the individual is the most complex point of all human development.


  • Phase 3 Self-Initiating: - In this phase, the individual has synthesized their Surviving and Belonging values and has become self-initiating. A rare development in historic times, this now is a rapidly expanding set. The self-initiating world view is defined as a World is a project in which I want to participate. The principal value sets in this phase are for the individual, Vocation and for the group, New Order. As with the previous worldview, there are three overlapping sequenced managerial styles in this worldview. Enabling, the transition style which we have already described; Collaborator defined as Facilitator, producer, creator with intermediate peer participation and lastly there is the transition style of Servant defined as Interdependent administrator with collegial participation which takes us into the final phase, phase 4 Interdependent.


It is likely that we may find the best type of grandparents occupying these later styles as they are usually only found in very mature people.


  • Phase 4 Interdependent – Defined as a World is a mystery for which we care on a global scale. Few people reach this stage. People like Nelson Mandela or Gandhi come to mind. The principal value sets are Wisdom for the individual and World Order for the group. The leadership style transitions from Servant to Visionary defined as a Liberator with a global network of peer visionaries. This is a value set where the person parents a nation and therefore hardly applies to our work other than such people usually make poor parents of their own children as their concept of family is so extended.


The VT tools do not simply provide the participant with a point in their values but with a dynamic trajectory. Each track has three interlocking and interweaving groups of values


  • Focus Values are those value priorities in our day to day lives that describe our present worldview, our criteria for decision making, our attitude toward relationships and the focus of most of our energy


  • Foundation Values represent our basic needs and are the foundation for being able to act on and live out our focus values. Foundation values dominate during times of crisis or stress. People who are habitually stressed can live out their whole lives in this area.


  • Future or Vision values represent the motivational force in our lives. They are our future because they are not yet fully developed, although they are present, motivating us to move forward. They form the vision that pulls us into the future every moment of our lives.


So VT enables us to locate not only where we are in our development but more importantly what we can do to improve our current position.


“Very few of us are aware of what our value priorities are or how they sort themselves out into future, focus and foundation values. When you become aware of what your values are, it is as if you have been given a clear map into your future. In our work we have found that when people are clear about their future or vision values, meditate on their meaning and make an effort to take care of their foundation values, a shift occurs in their conscious behaviour[9]


VT’s tool sets extend beyond mapping to skill development. For every trajectory or track, there is a corresponding body of advice for how we can look at our lives and behaviours and pay attention to how we can consciously deal with issues.


Finally VT has automated most of its key tools enabling most of the data accumulation to be captured simply and also correlated into groups.


How could such a tool be inserted easily into a meaningful community?

The prevalence of vulnerable children differs among neighborhoods…but the vast majority of vulnerable children are distributed fairly evenly within each province…The analysis shows that …the vast majority of vulnerable children are fairly evenly dispersed across the country in middle class neighborhoods”[10]


Bearing this distribution in mind, it would then be useful to look at a small and less complex area such as Prince Edward Island as a test bed. PEI can act as a proxy for Canada.


Prince Edward Island has a strong process advantage as well, Best Start.


Part of the process of Best Start[11] is that it already screens for family functioning. Every birth on Prince Edward Island drives a screen of the parents for family functioning. Parents who show that their family functioning is very low, using the existing screen, are invited to join the Best Start program which offers in-home parenting training for three years. The Best Start service is also tied into a network of Family Resource Centres which offer additional parenting support and to the Public Health System. Plans are underway to link the information from Best Start into the Understanding the Early Years (UEY)[12] program which is also being piloted on PEI,  to the National Longitudinal Survey and to the Kindergarten and School system. PEI therefore offers an unparalleled opportunity to take a holistic research view.


By the end of 2003, Best Start will be offered to the entire province.


Many of our greatest achievements have occurred when we have taken a useful tool and applied it in a novel way. The stationary steam water pump at the coal mine becomes the moving steam engine pulling a train. The horizontal pottery wheel becomes the wheel on a cart. Values Technology was designed at its outset to be used in the workplace. What if it could be used in the social environment?


We wish to test the value of applying Values Technology’s tools and insight that have been used in the business domain to the social domain of family culture. Our objective is to determine if we can make a positive difference to the poor outcomes that are driven by authoritarian and permissive family cultures. We wish to test the tool on Prince Edward Island which has the optimal foundational infrastructure and which can also be used as a national proxy for the problem.


The logic behind this request is summarized as follows:


  • There are indications across the school system that a large percentage of children arrive at school already prejudiced in their ability to socialize and to learn


  • We accept now the brain research that tells us that the most important and long lasting trajectories for how we learn and develop are set by the age of three.


  • Our leading research team that is focused on the development of children has identified that the family culture, or mindset as expressed in behaviour, is the most important factor in how children develop psycho-socially


  • Our research tells us that how family culture is not tightly coupled to SES but is widely distributed in style across all families


  • Research tells us that poor family functioning is spread evenly across the nation making it practical to study the issue of family culture in a small place such as Prince Edward Island


  • Prince Edward Island has the optimal research environment for studying family culture and its effects on development.


  • Values Technology has a proven tool of great subtlety and sophistication that identifies and measures individual and group mindset or culture. The tools extend to also providing information about behaviour and skills that can affect changes to mindset and hence to culture


[1] Cultures and Organizations – Software of the Mind – Intercultural Cooperation and its Importance for Survival. Geert Hofstede. McGraw Hill 1997

[2] A teacher in a private Kindergarten in Toronto – from a private email to the author October, 2002

[3] The Early years Study Three Years Later – McCain and Mustard August 2002

[4] 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

[5] IBID Willms

[6] IBID

[7] “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

[8] Hofstede IBID

[9] Values Shift – A Guide to Personal and Organizational Transformation Dr. Brian P Hall, Twin Lights Publishers Inc 1994

[10] IBID Willms

[11] Best Start is well described in this news release linked at -

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Last update: 24/05/2003; 8:55:11 AM.