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The Importance of Early Childhood Development

UNICEF encouragement and lobbying has helped make Romania a leader in a vitally important area of child development

“Children whose earliest years are blighted by hunger or disease or whose minds are not stimulated by appropriate interaction with adults and their environment pay for these early deficits throughout their lives - and so does society. Such children are far more likely than their more fortunate peers to do poorly in school, to drop out early, to be functionally illiterate, and to be only marginally employable in today's increasingly high-technology world. Collectively, these children who have been deprived in early life therefore affect labour productivity and national economic prosperity.” Armeane M. Choksi World Bank

If we were to graph the development of the human brain over a lifetime, with time on the horizontal axis, and the rate of growth of cognitive qualities such as impressionability on the vertical axis, the curve would be at its highest point between the ages of zero and three. Between the ages of three and eight it would be slightly less steep, and beyond eight it would begin the long process of flattening.


© Picture: UNICEF Romania/Pirozzi.
The human brain begins developing several weeks after conception; once a child is born, the pace of growth of its cognitive abilities is never greater as in the first three years.

The brain is far more impressionable in earlier life than in maturity, and the younger the human, the more impressionable the brain, the more open it is to learning, the more able it is to absorb influences; however, the more vulnerable it is to negative influences in the form of developmental problems, caused particularly by impoverishment or a lack of nurturing. The first three years of life are when the most significant intellectual, emotional, psychological and social development occur.

It follows then that it is vitally important to ensure that a child’s life begins in the right nurturing environment, one in which loving care and attention is readily provided as is the right kind of stimulation with children and adults, as is a proper nutritional base, such as breastfeeding, which also promotes a sense of attachment and trust.

Adequate learning facilities and care and protection in these years are key to avoiding death, disease, stunted growth, malnutrition, and developmental delays, while ensuring healthy growth, self-esteem and the ability to learn. It can be difficult and expensive to compensate for neglect at this vitally important stage.

A good start is essential. Safe and secure surroundings are essential. Proper nutrition at the very beginning of life builds a strong foundation for later in life and rich, meaningful experiences encourage a child to think for him or herself. A child’s brain physically grows in size when it is exposed to positive learning experiences. A healthy, stimulated well-adjusted pre-school child acquires skills that hold him or her in good stead through primary and secondary schooling and into higher education and the work force, and is thus more likely to contribute to society than drain resources from it. ECD programmes are relatively new in many countries so their effects are difficult to measure, but gains of $7 for every dollar invested is a result indicated by a series of studies on the Head Start Program in the United States.

Tangible progress in ECD in Romania

As human development begins before a child is born, it is common sense that investment in a child should begin from intrauterine stage.Yet on a national level it is only in the last decade or so that ECD programmes have begun to be considered a necessary plank for nationwide implementation. Like other countries, Romania lacked a shared policy document that served to regulate ECD services or was able to guide families on the key competencies to be developed at this fundamental point in the life cycle. Inputs into different sectors lacked cohesion, and performance and impact on child development of the different services was inconsistent and difficult to monitor.

Surprisingly however, to this day many countries are yet to introduce meaningful ECD programmes, and in this respect, Romania is in many ways ahead of the curve in understanding and coming to grips with the importance of ECD, and aiming to ensure its provision in sufficient quantity and quality.

Romania made a major breakthrough in the region when it embarked and embraced Early Learning Development Standards (ELDS). UNICEF supported the training of national experts in ELDS formation; EU member states have not yet formulated ELDS, which places Romania at the forefront of policy development in this field. UNICEF also supported the establishment of a multi-sector task force which provided expertise and feedback to a pool of national experts involved in the formulation of ELDS.


© Picture: UNICEF Romania/Pirozzi.
Evidence suggests that infant’s early childhood education will determine whether he grows up to
become a net giver or taker.

The main goal of Early Learning and Development Standards (ELDS) is to confer a common reference  background for all early childhood development services (health, protection and education) to approach the child with the same integrated perspective. ELDS represents a set of statements that reflects the expectations concerning what children should know and be able to do.

Romania’s Ministry of Education, Research andYouth has adopted ELDS and has been finalized its new curriculum for the education of children between the ages of zero to six. The ELDS standards define five major areas of child competence, which are (1) Physical Development, Health, Personal Care and Hygiene; (2) Socio-Emotional Development; (3) Approaches to Learning; (4) Language, Communication, Pre-Reading and Pre-Writing Skills and (5) Cognitive Development,World Knowledge
and Understanding. As well as helping with setting the curriculum, the standards will impact the educational transition from crèches and kindergartens, the quality of ECD services and help in evaluating early education programmes.

Training and coaching of both parents and teachers is crucially important, and Romania’s adoption of the National Parenting Education Programme in Preschool Education in 2001 has impacted family knowledge, attitudes and practices related to early stimulation, positive disciplining, early care and parent-child interaction and protection. UNICEF supported the Foundation “Our Children” to provide training programme for trainers in all counties; and to supervise the training programme for kindergarten teachers, while monitoring the overall process for the Ministry of Education, Research and Youth. More than 70,000 parents have been trained, in almost 4,000 kindergartens and 370 schools, and the programme has been included in the National Strategy on Early Education (developed by Ministry of Education, Research andYouth also with UNICEF support).One area where progress has been made is preschool  process for children from minority and disadvantaged groups. Special programmes for increasing access of Roma children to pre-schools were introduced by UNICEF in partnership with MoERY and in collaboration with NGOs and later expanded by a Phare-funded project. Training
materials for teachers have also been developed for an integrated approach to ECD in line with the provisions of the Convention on the Rights of the Children and the Millennium Development Goals, and, while a gap still remains between Roma enrolment and overall enrolment in pre-schools, it is not as wide as it once was.

The nutritional and emotional needs of babies and preschool children are equally important – and similar to education requirements, there is no better time than to begin nurturing a child than at birth. While there have been many successful activities, a major initiative of UNICEF Romania has been the implementation of the globally successful Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative (BFHI), launched in 1991 by UNICEF and theWorld Health Organization with a view to making all maternity hospitals centres for  breastfeeding support.

Another project of great importance has been the ECD Multifunctional Centres project, developed in partnership by the Step by Step NGO. Two multifunctional centres catering to 40 children each have been established in Piatra Neamţ andTulcea, which provide professional staff who cover the healthcare and nurturing of children, their learning and education, their protection, as well as assistance to their families. A series of training programmes were designed to ensure that all children, regardless of the income of their parents, ethnicity, social status, disability status or religion have equal access to a wholesome, balanced start to life. A third ECD Multifunctional centre has been set up in partnership with Phillip Home Foundation, in one of the most disadvantaged communities in Bucharest. The BFHI has the support of Romania’s Government
and has already been introduced to more than 15 per cent of maternity facilities.

Furthermore, UNICEF launched an advocacy campaign promoting ECD with local governments in rural areas throughout Romania.The project, developed with Holt Romania under the slogan “The first three years in life – the most important years” saw conferences held for 162 rural communities, each ending with a symbolic signing of the Commitment for the Promotion of Early Education. Last year a parenting education caravan (the first of its kind in Romania) was added; “Parenting Education atYour Home” aimed to provide in situ training programmes and information materials on early education and development to the most needy parents in rural areas.Within the caravan 36 rural communities were out-reached and in each community a library on parenting and early education and development was set up, in partnership with the local government. As well, one of the outcomes of the caravan was the training of 36 parenting education European promoters in each of the out-reached communities.

UNICEF’s input and lobbying for the promotion of ECD and early education policies have continued to yield important results. ECD was adopted as a national priority within the National Pact on Education, signed by all political parties represented in the Parliament, on March 5, 2008, and included by the Ministry for Education, Research and Youth in its draft legislative package on education.

 

 

 

 

 

Early childhood development

Unite for Children
No. 2, 2008


© Picture: UNICEF Romania/Pirozzi.

Early Childhood Development programmes have been shown to yield benefits in academic achievement, educational progression and attainment, delinquency and crime, and income and labour market success, among other domains.

Romania has ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child which has been adopted by more than 190 countries. It lays out one set of legal rights for all children and young people, and recognises that above anyone else it is parents who are the most important factors in a child’s upbringing and development. Secondly, Romania has pledged itself to the Millennium Development Goals, whose specific objectives include eliminating extreme poverty, improving maternal health, reducing the infant mortality rate by 40 per cent, reducing the mortality rate in children between 1-4 by 50 per cent, and eliminating measles, all between 2000 and 2015.

 


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