Sunday, February 24, 2008

Power of early childhood

Power of early childhood

Palm Beach Gardens, Florida

The fame of Sigmund Freud hangs on a simple idea: the first five years of life are developmentally crucial. Through the care of a loving mother a new born learns to trust adults emotionally. The way a toddler is trained to eat, sleep, stand, walk and talk- in all these developmental skills- the quality of the first lessons of independence is set. Between the ages of three and five, children expand their verbal abilities rapidly, begin friendships with peers and sharpen their sense of enquiry about life. If young children do not learn to trust, to be independent, to form relationships and be curious, they are bound to face immense challenges in school and in their adjustment in society in later years.

Along with emotional and intellectual care giving, health services in early childhood are vital. Children’s poor nutritional status in early years can stunt their physical growth. Many infants die due to infectious diseases that parents can easily learn to prevent. In severely deprived communities about one in three children is anemic. In many Arab localities hunger, disease and emotional neglect gravely affect young children by arresting their normal development.

Most traditional societies are not aware of the critical importance of early childhood. When Arabs discover the value of early childhood development programs they will have found a new kind of “energy” that empowers women and spreads wellbeing evenly and more abundantly than their vast resources of oil.

For wisdom we turn to an Arabic proverb: “Open a school, close a prison.” This adage reveals the high esteem Arabs have for education. But opening more schools is not enough to guarantee quality education. Educational (process) reform is needed. A February 4, 2008 World Bank report on education in the Arab world, reveals that schools do not prepare children to think independently. The report notes that the curricula are not “inquiry-based.”

Having grown up in the region, the author has witnessed first-hand that Arab children are not encouraged to question norms. Children are often punished when they dare to challenge higher authority, whether it is in school, family, work place, place of worship or government.

Tens of millions of Arab children live in low income neighborhoods, in highly urbanized cities, in refugee camps or in communities for the displaced. Overburdened parents, especially those who live in crowded cities without the support of their extended families,

do not know how to protect and support their child’s growth and development.

Early childhood development programs, based on intellectual stimulation, protection from neglect and prevention from illness, set the child on the right track for a bright future in elementary school. A five year old is known for a keen sense of curiosity.

Early childhood programs are needed to help children to establish the habit of thinking on their own from the early years. Because of the way the brain is wired, learning and other forms of developmental stimulation are crucial in the early years.

Arabs leaders must face the reality that the school system is failing the child and the family. The World Bank report on Arab education shows that dropout rates in elementary and secondary schools are high. The study reveals that university degrees do not lead to jobs. The report offers familiar recommendations for changing the educational system, but it does not mention adoption of early childhood education as a basic measure of system change. Adding early childhood development (ECD) programs to the national curriculum will not only expand coverage of children but it will enhance the quality of the entire system of education.

An important component of early childhood education is the involvement of parents. In the Middle East most parents are emotionally and physically close to their children. If mobilized, parents, especially mothers, can contribute valuable time and resources to the pre-school system. Through their voluntary services mothers can help reduce the cost of universal public education. In child-centered programs groups of mothers receive basic training on how to stimulate the children’s development.

The mother is also the focus of attention in ECD. Among the endless possible varieties of empowerment for mothers are literacy, vocational training, job orientation and health services. These comprehensive activities contribute to family and population planning. An educated mother is more able to plan the size of her family than a mother who is burdened by poverty, ignorance and isolation.

Poor policy squanders human resources. There is growing evidence that children who receive early childhood education are more likely to succeed in elementary and secondary school, more likely to enter college and less likely to commit crime. Educational economists reveal that financial returns on investment in ECD programs are extremely positive: a dollar invested in ECD returns six to eight dollars. ECD is a smart investment.


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