RIP Clyde Hertzman: 1953 – 2013

B.C. Education Report, Janet Steffenhagen

Many are mourning the death in recent days of Clyde Hertzman, a leading expert in early childhood development. UBC announced his sudden passing Saturday, noting that his research has had influence around the world.

Here is a story the Sun’s Pamela Fayerman wrote about him after he received an award in November 2010 from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

Clyde Hertzman, Canada’s health researcher of the year, grew up as the son of a cardiologist father and a biochemist mother in Oakridge, a solidly middle class Vancouver neighbourhood.

Hertzman was free to buy as many books as he wanted and charge them to his parents’ account at the old Duthie’s bookstore.

His family owned a 30-foot sailboat and his early perception was that differences in family incomes were demonstrated by the size of their boats.

“It was complete nonsense,” he said. “It was only in my 20s that I began to understand that everything I experienced had an element of privilege.”

He was interviewed Tuesday before accepting the Canadian Institutes of Health Research’s half-million-dollar award, which recognizes his work on early childhood development.

Hertzman, director of the University of B.C. Human Early Learning Partnership (HELP), and professor at UBC’s School of Population and Public Health, said his research shines a light on early childhood disadvantages that can have profound effect on lifelong health.

“In my politically formative years, I became an egalitarian,” he said. “I learned that societies that can deliver more equality to all citizens are healthier societies. That, to me, became a very attractive fact and one that has kept me interested in the field (of population health).

“Having high-quality child care and access to early childhood education reduces socioeconomic gradients in children’s development,” Hertzman said, referring to a strong correlation between the socioeconomic status of neighbourhoods and the preparedness of children when starting school. However, policies that promote parental bonding, such as parental leaves of absence, can help level the playing field for children in their developing years.

Hertzman and his colleagues came up with what the Early Development Instrument (EDI) to measure a child’s preparedness for school. It is a 110-question report prepared by kindergarten teachers on children’s physical health and well-being, social competency, emotional maturity, language and cognitive development, communication skills and general knowledge. It also looks at fine and gross motor development, respect for others, cooperation, self-control, self-confidence, impulsiveness, interest in books, washroom independence and knowledge of the world.

Once the data are collected, neighbourhoods can be compared so that communities can learn what policies, programs and services can help children thrive, and which ones are lacking.

At the awards ceremony in Ottawa, Hertzman was cited for work that has influenced national and international policies.

The money will go toward his global research initiatives, using HELP and the EDI tool in Latin America, China and Europe. Hertzman also plans to create a global monitoring tool to measure how well children’s rights are respected vis-a-vis the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Links to his research can be found here.

Hertzman, 59, received the Order of Canada last month. He died suddenly in the U.K. and the cause of his death was not immediately known.