WHAT IS IT?
Early childhood (period between age 0 and 6) is the age period with the most impact on human development, and consequently in a society’s advancement, given that during this stage the pillars for learning and the ability to adapt in the future are formed. This period in life is characterized by high brain plasticity, which means that from the moment we are born we have a huge potential to successfully develop cognitive, physical, social and emotional skills. These skills will be needed, to begin with, in everyday life and in family life but later on, these skills are essential in having a social life, as a student and as a working professional.
If one looks at brain development, we find that the first four years of life are a critical period: the brain has the greatest opportunity for optimal deployment of life skills. This explains the importance of providing stimulation and care to this population, especially those in vulnerable conditions.
In this respect, early childhood development (here in after ECD) refers to the continuous process of acquiring a variety of skills grouped interdependently in the following dimensions:
Experts on the subject say that certain deficits or gaps in ECD can generate irreversible consequences if not very difficult to remedy later in life. One example is the case of micronutrient deficiencies, associated with both cognitive and motor disturbances that affect academic performance in children and adolescents, and is manifested in adulthood as cardiovascular disease. On these lines, ECD programs aim to ensure that children receive the necessary care, nutrition, stimulation and education during their first years of life, in order to improve their chances of survival, growth and welfare (EARTH INSTITUTE - ALAS, 2009)
WHY INVEST IN ECD?
Early childhood development is a powerful social investment strategy which generates immediate results than can be projected in the future, as proven by different experts that claim it is one of the most successful tools to diminish poverty. Academic research has proven that helping a child in the first years of life, has a multiplying effect on a society. If we don’t take advantage of the opportunity of investing in early childhood, it becomes increasingly difficult, both in time and resources, for a child to reach their full potential in life. Societies cannot grow if their children suffer. That is why, in breaking the intergenerational cycle of poverty, ECD programs become a powerful tool to obtain the main objective in development, giving people the chance to live their lives in a productive and satisfying way.
Several longitudinal studies have found that investing in comprehensive programs that integrate health, education, nutrition and family support in early childhood, enable higher economic, social and political return. According to UNICEF, "Investing in the early years of life provides opportunities to face some of the major challenges in Latin America countries: persistent poverty, inequity, social and school failure, chronic unemployment and violence" (UNICEF, 2010).
Inequities in early development and learning that accompany poverty maintain or magnify economic and social inequalities. Families struggling against poverty rarely have the opportunity to meet the needs of their children in their first years of life. This is where a government’s responsibility lays: creating better living conditions by develop ECD programs that will allow children from the poorest and most vulnerable families a fair start.
As for the opportunity cost in funding social programs, Professor James Heckman, Nobel Laureate in Economics, shows that investment in early childhood development is the investment that generates the highest rates of return on equity (return on investment) for a Nation. He argues that, in fiscal terms, "every dollar invested in early childhood education produces a return on investment of 10% per annum" (James Heckman, 2006).
Taking into account the mentioned assumptions, a holistic approach in the design and implementation of early childhood development programs is essential, especially given the evidence of its valuable benefits. Resulting from the growing interest in proper child development during their first years of life and as a result of a major global social mobilization around this issue, different countries around the world have progressively incorporated public ECD policies and programs (providing early learning, nutrition, maternal and child health care, in a coordinated and articulated way) prioritizing the most vulnerable children.
The following benefits have been associated with integrated interventions in early childhood:
• Health and nutritional improvements.
• Improvements in cognitive development and in better academic performance.
• Increased rate of school enrollment.
• Less grade repetition and school desertion.
• Reduction in risk behaviors in adolescence (juvenile delinquency, substance abuse, among others).
• Reducing social inequality.
• Generates returns to the community by creating jobs, especially for women.
• Positive and higher rates of return on human capital in comparison with corrective interventions in later periods in life, as ECD interventions are preventative.
• Children who receive appropriate care are healthier and therefore, there is a decrease in parent’s need to miss work to care for their families.
ALAS Foundation advocates for high quality and integrated care that covers the four basic pillars in child development:
1. Early Education
4. Family Support