BY AMANDA CORCORAN
As the correlation between a child’s first few years of life and future well being is becoming increasingly clear, Yale University and the field of global health broadly are responding to the importance of early childhood development. Research from myriad fields supports that a stable and healthy developmental experience has a positive effect on health and social wellbeing for the remainder of one’s life. The effects of childhood experiences are not only limited to the child themself, but also extend to their environment. Societies in which children have negative life experiences at young ages are prone to violence and systemic problems that will continue to worsen if the root the children’s early experiences are not improved. It is imperative, both for child health and for societal advancement, that global health players prioritize improving the lives of children and protecting them in their formative years from harmful influences that will hinder their development and future.
A child’s development, especially during the “1000 day” window (the time between pregnancy and the child’s second birthday) is crucial to their ability to thrive in the world. A child’s status during these first 1000 days not only greatly determines how well the child will do in school, but also how they will interact with others, cope with stress, be able to survive diseases, and engage in many other behaviors. For example, children who are poorly cared for or grow up amid violence are likely to later exhibit similar behaviors. Similarly, if a young child repeatedly has challenges in social interactions, they are likely to have social challenges later in life, which further serves to hinder their development. Children and adults without a supportive social network are more likely to become violent, unhealthy, or depressed. Malnutrition also negatively affects cognitive development, as do other factors such as stress or violence. Research from various fields – neurological, social, economic – supports the aforementioned findingss.1,2,3,4
Unfortunately, children in many countries face major barriers to a healthy and safe life. According to UNICEF, over 7.6 million children under five die every year, and of those that survive, over 25% do not reach their full potential.5 Lack of access to quality nutrition, poor education about how to care for children, exposure to societal violence, and gender discrimination are just some factors that pose significant challenges to children and exacerbate violence and chronic poverty. Countries that are trapped in cycles of poverty and poor education, cannot escape without a commitment to improve the lives of their next generation.5
As more people understand the importance of early childhood development (ECD), organizations such as UNICEF are collaborating more in efforts to address this key health issue. To improve early development, cost-effective interventions such as nutritional aid, community educational programs, and violence reduction initiatives are employed.
Yale adopts a multifaceted approach to promote early child development. For example, the Yale Child Study Center, led by Program Director Dr. James Leckman, collaborates with various organizations to research and develop policy initiatives to address this international issue. One of Yale’s partners is the ACEV Foundation (The Mother Child Education Foundation), an organization based in Turkey aiming to empower poor children and families by implementing a mother and child education program in Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut. Another organization with whom Yale collaborates is Empowerment and Resilience in Children Everywhere (ERICE), an Italian non-governmental organization that facilitates cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian health professionals.
Yale’s commitment to strengthening ECD systems includes aiding other countries to develop more effective ECD policies. For example, in fall 2015 Yale worked with the governments of Rwanda and Timor-Leste to implement national ECD programs. The university is also collaborating with two Colombian organizations to strengthen and evaluate programs that help children who are negatively affected by the unstable political situation and extreme poverty. A final Yale-related project is a research project in Lebanon with the Arab Resource Collective to understand the effectiveness of a school readiness and parenting program.
Although many people recognize the importance of ECD, creating effective strategies to address issues is not always easy. Some opponents do not see programs such as parenting education or preparation for schooling as addressing pressing issues, especially in times of extreme stress or crisis. The multidimensionality of ECD can also impede progress. Dr. Angelica Ponguta, Associate Research Scientist at the Yale Child Study Center, has been involved in drafting and implementing ECD policies, and she notes some of the logistical barriers to the issue:
“Early childhood development is, by definition, multidimensional. This means that sectors must, to an extent, coordinate their services to ensure all the needs of children are met during the entirety of their developmental trajectory. What we often see in countries is that sectors (such as health, education, and child protection) tend to work in silos. What this means for children, particularly in vulnerable contexts, is that they may not effectively receive the support in every dimension and as continuously as it is necessary. Increasing sector coordination is difficult, especially in countries where the sectors themselves face significant operational challenges” (A. Ponguta, personal communication, October 20, 2015).
In chronically poor countries where ECD services are perhaps most needed, ECD services often do not exist at all. The implementation of strategies is a significant challenge for poor nations.
A top-down approach tends to be ineffective, so many conclude that communities need to have a central role in any initiative. Ponguta explains, “articulation and mobilization happens at the grassroots level, and the value-systems of communities with regards to the aspirations for their children are crucial in effectively ensuring holistic development opportunities are granted” (A. Ponguta, personal communication, October 20, 2015). She also notes that there is not a single “best” ECD program; to maximize efficacy, countries must research their own distinct needs and create a unique, nation-specific evidence-based program.
As the conversation worldwide shifts from simply prioritizing child survival to more broad discussions about strategies to maximize quality of life, ECD assumes a central role in solutions. Every child has the right to a healthy, happy life; strong ECD initiatives will not only improve individual children’s lives, but will also strengthen communities and nations.
Amanda Corcoran is a sophomore in Branford College. Amanda is double majoring in Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry and Italian and is from Connecticut. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Brunson, K. L., et al. (2001). Neurobiology of the stress response early in life: evolution of a concept and the role of corticotropin releasing hormone. Molecular Psychiatry, 66(6), 647-656. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11673792.
- Greenberg, M. T. (2006). Promoting resilience in children and youth. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1094, 139-150. Retrieved from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1196/annals.1376.013/abstract.
- Leckman, J. F. & Panter-Brick, C. (2013). Resilience in child development-interconnected pathways to wellbeing. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 54(4), 333-336. Retrieved from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jcpp.12057/abstract.
- Taylor, S. E., et al. (2004). Early environment, emotions, responses to stress, and health. Journal of Personality, 72(6), 1365-1394. Retrieved from http://scholar.harvard.edu/files/jenniferlerner/files/taylor_2004_jp_paper.pdf.
- Why Early Childhood Development? (2013, July 26). Unicef: Early Childhood. Retrieved from http://www.unicef.org/earlychildhood/index_40748.html.