The importance of early childhood development
THE critical importance in early childhood development (ECD) programmes in attenuating cognitive and social delays in children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds is of increasing interest to government and non-governmental agencies, policy makers, and educators in the developing world.
Poverty and a lack of access to ECD place children on an unfavourable developmental trajectory: a life condemned to manual labour in young adulthood, poor family planning, and poor parenting skills. Undoubtedly, these outcomes also apply to Jamaica where sizable numbers of families and children live under difficult social and economic circumstances.
Research has shown that 75 per cent of brain development occurs in the first five years of life. Brain stimulation from birth (ie being read to) helps develop pre-literacy skills, and learning to read is the single most important factor in school success. Early stimulation of the brain also sets the stage for how children will learn and interact with others throughout life.
As the maturing brain becomes more specialised to assume more complex functions, it becomes less capable of reorganising and adapting to new or unexpected challenges. It is for this precise reason that development delays before age five or six are difficult to compensate for later in life. Once the brain's circuit is wired, it stabilises with age, making it increasingly more difficult to alter over time
According to the Statistical Institute of Jamaica (October 2008), approximately 75 per cent of men and approximately 56 per cent of women in the labour force had passed no exams and received no certification upon entering the workforce. These outcomes have obvious consequences for the competitiveness of the Jamaican economy.
Despite high levels of access to primary (99.7 per cent) and secondary (83 per cent) schooling, educational achievements in Jamaica are relatively low, as measured by national assessments in 2009. At Grade one, none of the five sub-tests of the assessment was mastered by more than 24 per cent of the six-year-olds entering primary school and 18 per cent of them did not master a single sub-test (UNICEF, 2009).
At Grade four, 70 per cent showed mastery of the literacy test (girls 81 per cent; boys 59 per cent) and 45 per cent gained mastery on the numeracy test (girls 55 per cent; boys 36 per cent). Of particular concern is the low achievement of boys and children from the poorest and/or most volatile communities (UNICEF, 2009).
Roving Caregivers Programme
The Roving Caregivers Programme (RCP) originated in Jamaica as a home visitation programme aimed at addressing the early childhood development needs of children (ages 0 - 3) in vulnerable (largely rural) families. It proved to be a useful model for providing these services in communities which would not otherwise have had access and was recognised by UNICEF in 2000 with its highest honour, the Maurice Pate Award.
The RCP builds on a solid history of home-based intervention as a way of inoculating young children against intellectual and social failure during the formative years. Couched within eco-cultural theoretical perspectives on parenting and child-rearing, the RCP uses culturally and developmentally appropriate stimulation activities with the chief purpose of improving parenting skills and altering child-rearing beliefs that would then prevent developmental lags identified in poor Jamaican children around their first birthday.
Often in the Caribbean, there are few opportunities for parents to receive information on optimal parenting, much less parent stimulation services. Equally distressing is the fact that a large number of poor parents are young with low educational attainment, and less than optimal parenting skills.
Cognisant of these socio-demographic characteristics and child-rearing challenges facing poor families in Jamaica, the RCP, having its genesis in the Teenage Mothers Project (TMP) (see Jarrett and Alexander Consulting Group Inc, 1995), is at the forefront of efforts to address the developmental delays manifested among poor children (Powell, 2004).
Developmental delays among Jamaican children who live under difficult social and economic conditions have been documented as early as the first birthday. These delays become exacerbated by age five when poor children show lags of as much as 20 IQ points behind their middle-class counterparts (Chambers & Grantham-McGregor, 1986).
The pivotal role of the RCP is to improve the child-rearing beliefs and parenting practices of rural poor Jamaican parents with the hope of reversing the lags in cognitive and social skills that their young children show prior to entry into basic schools.
Strengths of the RCP
A critical impulse driving the need for the RCP to be taken seriously by policymakers is the fact that it responds to some serious gaps and deficiencies in the provision of childcare, development and protection services, particularly for the most vulnerable. Whether state or private, provision of these services invariably tends to be uni-dimensional.
Private day-care services provide little more than child-minding services which include significant child stimulation. They tend to be expensive and out of reach of the poorest. Public services are too often over-subscribed with insufficiently trained staff and are poorly resourced.
There are hardly any other examples of services which address these needs in a holistic manner, combining child stimulation with protective health, maternal support and parenting training.
Specific strengths of the RCP are as follows:
* Grounded in culturally relevant theoretical principles of ECD and early intervention.
* Community-based family intervention/bringing services directly to the home.
* Strong community-based parent education component that zeroes in on parent-management techniques, health and childhood safety issues, and growth-promoting child-rearing practices.
* Parent/child stimulation activities that are culturally and developmentally appropriate.
* Well-planned curriculum and activities.
* Engagement of other community and civic organisations in the process.
Replication of RCP into North West St Ann pre-schools
The experience of the RCP has concretely demonstrated its potential to cost-effectively deliver a vital social service while incorporating multi-partner alliances. The adaptability and flexibility of the RCP model is one of its most important characteristics. It has been identified as an indigenous innovation, subjected to rigorous research, assessment and piloting that shape it into a replicable solution.
In a comprehensive study, Roopnarine (2005) convincingly explored the theoretical and research foundations and efficacy of the RCP and he concluded that:
The RCP carefully integrates childhood constructs rooted in child development theoretical principles that have well-defined norms of childhood behaviours and skills, eco-cultural frameworks on parental psychologies that lay the foundation for structuring everyday settings and experiences for young children, and prevention models that seek to identify risk factors within families and to develop appropriate services that would assist in moderating them.
Impact studies of the RCP were conducted by the Bernard van Leer Foundation in 2004 and 2008. The first study conducted in Jamaica concluded that the programme had a substantial impact on the cognitive development of young children after one year of enrolment.
These independent conclusions therefore attest to the theoretical and methodological soundness of the RCP replication and confirm that the core objective of stimulating the cognitive capacity of the child is attainable.
Why North West St Ann?
Children from chronically poor households are likely to experience the most debilitating kind of deprivation which is too often reflected in their performance at school. St Ann is steeped in poverty and is ranked as the poorest parish based on the consumption trend of its population. According to the Planning Institute of Jamaica's recently launched Jamaica poverty map, about 14 of the island's poorest communities are in the garden parish.
The findings provide very strong evidence in support of ensuring that poverty reduction should be accompanied by very deliberate and sustained emphasis on pre-school and primary school development and education.
Targeting the children of the poor and unemployed is of particular importance because it is this group that is less likely to enrol in pre-school or engage in early brain stimulation activities. This group is also more likely to attain lower achievement levels or grades for their age and to have poor cognitive ability.
The establishment of an RCP curriculum-based approach into existing pre-schools in North West St Ann that meets best practices standards will no doubt provide the gateway for early stimulation and an early head start in literacy for the children of this constituency. North West St Ann can therefore be an ideal location for the joint partnership between the Foundation for the Development of Caribbean Children and the Government of Jamaica.
Dr Dayton Campbell, a medical doctor, is member of parliament for St Ann North West.