Why the early years matter
A child’s earliest years are crucial for physical, emotional and intellectual development. Everything comes together in this short space of time – emotions are shaped, an understanding of the world is formed, the foundations of language are laid and the most brain development takes place. This is a key moment in the life of a child, and if this moment is lost, it is gone forever. In short, children who start behind, stay behind.
Young children develop to the best of their potential when they have strong, caring relationships with adults from the very start, and when they grow up in conditions that are safe, healthy and offer them rich opportunities to learn.
If solid foundations are laid in the early years, later learning is more effective and more likely to continue throughout life, particularly among poor children. Research has confirmed that investing in pre-primary education actually brings a higher rate of return than investments in any other level of education. This is the case for all children, but even more so for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
The situation in Serbia
The good news is that Serbia has banned the institutionalization of any child under the age of three – a recognition of the lasting damage caused by early institutional care.
However, Serbia lacks integrated, comprehensive early childhood development (ECD) services to provide the full ‘package’ that young children need for their health, learning and general well-being. The importance of parenting itself has not been fully addressed by health and education systems. As a result, many parents lack guidance on the importance of these early years, and on how to support the development of their young children.
Breastfeeding rates, for example, have fallen in recent years from an already low start point, with only 14 per cent of babies being exclusively breast-fed to the age of six months. There is also a worrying disconnect between health services and the wider range of services needed to support the families of babies born with disabilities. And violence against children – even the youngest – remains a major issue, with too few measures in place to identify and help victims, despite recent legislation and protocols.
Early education of children aged three to five is one of the weakest parts of the education system, despite its importance for later education and development. The existing preschool system leaves many children behind, particularly those from marginalized groups. In 2010, only 44 per cent of children attended pre-schools overall, dropping to 29 per cent for children from rural areas, 22 percent for poor and 8 per cent for Roma children. This means that too few young children are fully prepared for primary school.
Roma infants and young children face particular challenges:
• Infant mortality rates among Roma children are more than twice as high as the national average.
• Roma children are twice as likely to be born underweight, and children from the poorest rural Roma families are five times more likely to be underweight, than the national average.
What is needed?
Serbia’s children need comprehensive Early Childhood Development interventions across the board. Quality pre- and post-natal care, birth registration, support for breastfeeding, parenting support and pre-school education, all help to give all children the best start in life. But they are even more important for children on the margins of society, such as those with disabilities or those from Roma communities. The goal must be full inclusion, and UNICEF is working with partners throughout Serbia to achieve just that, to give every child the best start in life.