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Why governments should pay attention to early childhood education

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Roja Heydarpour :
While governments and international organizations focus on peace building and alleviating poverty around the globe, a small but influential group of experts is focusing its attention on what some call "very early intervention."
Cultures around the globe approach early childhood development in varied ways, but there are common approaches that translate from country to country. Children from diverse cultures have much in common developmentally. While early childhood development experts have long known this to be true, the fields of neuroscience and economics are finally catching up, giving them more leverage to work on programs focused on the education of pre-primary school students.
Devex spoke to Katherine A. Merseth, early childhood development team leader at RTI International, who said the return on investment data show that focusing resources on supporting young children is a "no-brainer." In addition to the economic argument, she explained, a burgeoning field is growing around the effect of early childhood education on social cohesion and peace building.
Here are a few highlights from our conversation with Merseth:
What has RTI been working on in the area of early childhood development?
RTI's vision is to maximize opportunities for young children around the globe to achieve their developmental potential. We are accomplishing this through low-cost, high-quality early childhood education, improvements in health services for young children, engagement of families and communities, and advocacy for enabling policy environments. It's estimated that about 200 million children around the world do not achieve their developmental potential due to preventable causes associated with poverty, such as inadequate nutrition and inadequate cognitive stimulation. Approximately 1 in 4 children are stunted, which means that due to inadequate nutrition they have not reached their physical and cognitive potential. RTI is committed to helping tackle that problem.
RTI has been working in education in the early grades for many years, and our experience has shown that children are not starting school with the skills they need to succeed. We know from neuroscience research that 90 percent of the architecture of the brain is developed by the time a child is five years old. That means that getting things right in the first years of life is incredibly important for success in the early grades and beyond.
What are some of the tools you are using in your work?
One unique, collaborative effort in our field is the Measuring Early Learning Quality and Outcomes initiative. It is led by a core group of institutions, including UNESCO, UNICEF, the World Bank and the Brookings Institution. This core leadership group is supported by other organizations like RTI and Save the Children, as well as many academic institutions. The purpose of MELQO is to develop a suite of assessment tools that will help us to measure young children's learning outcomes and the quality of services they are receiving.
One of those tools is a direct assessment of children's skills. Because we are working with young children, all of the questions are presented in a playful way, so that it does not feel stressful to the child. For example, to determine how well the child understands one-to-one correspondence, we might ask her to count out a certain number of bottle caps. Counting is an example of an emergent math skill that young children develop fairly consistently across cultures and contexts.
Why do you think there has been this increased global awareness of the importance of early childhood development?
Recently, the value of preschool has been gaining attention in the U.S. President Obama has advocated universal preschool, and various state and city governments have been working on their own initiatives to enroll 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds in public programs. The increase in attention in the U.S. may be driving some of the interest in international ECD. Also, the evidence base on brain development and on the return on investment to early childhood interventions is growing. High-quality early childhood interventions are estimated to return $3-17 for every dollar invested in the long term.
And can you give us the lowdown on your program in Kenya?
In Kenya we are implementing a preschool intervention with funding from the Children's Investment Fund Foundation. Our team is working with the Kenyan government to improve preschool quality and ensure that kids enter grade one with the skills they need to succeed. In the poorest countries in the world, there are children entering a grade one classroom never having held a book. And yet the curriculum in grade one might expect that those same children will be reading full sentences just a fewmonths into the year. The question is, how can we better prepare children for school by giving them the exposure, background knowledge and learning opportunities that they need? In many places where we work, a Grade 1 classroom has 70 children sitting on the ground with no learning materials and an unprepared teacher.
A child who doesn't know the alphabet and enters a classroom like that will have a really hard time learning how to read. "We have a lot to learn about how children develop identity in the early years, and whether this lays the foundation for pro-social behavior and peaceful societies in the long term."
How do you push the importance of early childhood in places that are facing poverty, instability and war, and other crises?
It is a challenge to keep ECD high on the agenda in times of crisis. We hope to use assessment results as a driver of advocacy. When policymakers are presented with data showing the poor quality of pre-primary education in their country, sometimes they are spurred to action. There's an increasing amount of interest from researchers and practitioners on peace building in early childhood and how young children develop healthy social and emotional skills. This is a burgeoning topic, and we have a lot to learn about how children develop identity in the early years, and whether this lays the foundation for pro-social behavior and peaceful societies in the long term.
What other types of challenges do you face?
Another important element is the challenge of bridging the domestic and international research arenas. A lot of the research in the U.S. is focused on self-regulation, executive function, and social-emotional skills in young learners. That is largely driven by the fact that teachers in the U.S. face challenges with classroom management and behavioral issues with young children. In some other contexts, for example where obedience is a highly valued cultural norm, disruptive classroom behavior is not a problem.
At RTI, we are working to bridge the divide, to interpret and apply our learning from domestic research to international contexts. Scientists at RTI contribute our own original research, and we also interpret, apply and build upon research from other agencies.
What does quality preschool look like across cultures and countries?
The idea of what quality preschool should look like varies widely by context For example, the parents of our preschoolers in Kenya are very focused on academic skills. They feel that their children are entering a competitive academic environment and thus they put a lot of emphasis on academic skills like reading and math. By contrast, in Finland, children are not directly instructed in reading until age 7; their preschool years are instead focused on play and exploration. This approach is based on research which tells us that young children learn best through guided play. The Kenyan parents don't want their children to play all day at preschool; they want their children to master concrete academic skills through teacher-directed instruction. Part of our role as a research institute is being responsive to local priorities while also incorporating evidence-based best practices from the global research.
(Roja Heydarpour is a freelance writer and editor. She has worked for The Daily Beast, The New York Times, Al-Monitor, The NY Observer and The Times-Tribune).

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