It is a well-known fact that a person’s physiological and psychological adaptations to the environment start from conception and affect development throughout life.
The Science of Early Child Development (SECD) is a knowledge translation and mobilization initiative designed to make current research accessible to anyone interested in learning more about the impact of early experience on lifelong health and well-being. Beginning as a tool to help share the emerging science about early brain development, SECD now offers a suite of online and offline media-rich educational resources with examples of research and programs from around the world.
The science of early brain development can inform investments in early childhood. These basic concepts, established over decades of neuroscience and behavioral research, help illustrate why child development—particularly from birth to five years—is a foundation for a prosperous and sustainable society. Brains are built over time, from the bottom up.
The human brain is a highly interrelated organ and its multiple functions operate in a richly coordinated fashion. Emotional well-being and social competence provide a strong foundation for emerging cognitive abilities, and together they are the bricks and mortar that comprise the foundation of human development. The emotional and physical health, social skills, and cognitive-linguistic capacities that emerge in the early years are all important prerequisites for success in school and later in the workplace and community.
Research says that chronic, unrelenting stress in early childhood, caused by extreme poverty, repeated abuse, or severe maternal depression, for example, can be toxic to the developing brain. While positive stress (moderate, short-lived physiological responses to uncomfortable experiences) is an important and necessary aspect of healthy development, toxic stress is the strong, unrelieved activation of the body’s stress management system. In the absence of the buffering protection of adult support, toxic stress becomes built into the body by processes that shape the architecture of the developing brain.
Science shows that life is a story for which the beginning sets the tone. That makes the early years of childhood a time of great opportunity, but also great risk. Children’s brains are built, moment by moment, as they interact with their environments. In the first few years of life, more than one million neural connections are formed each second – a pace never repeated again. The quality of a child’s early experiences makes a critical difference as their brains develop, providing either strong or weak foundations for learning, health and behavior throughout life. Early childhood offers a critical window of opportunity to shape the trajectory of a child’s holistic development and build a foundation for their future. For children to achieve their full potential, as is their human right, they need health care and nutrition, protection from harm and a sense of security, opportunities for early learning, and responsive caregiving – like talking, singing and playing – with parents and caregivers who love them. All of this is needed to nourish developing brains and fuel growing bodies.
Providing early childhood development (ECD) interventions to all young children and families is one of the most powerful and cost-effective equalizers we have at our disposal, to ensure that the most vulnerable children can reach their full potential.
What is ECE?
At its most basic level, early childhood education (ECE) encompasses all forms of education, both formal and informal. It is fundamental to the development of a child and can significantly shape the later years of an individual’s life. There are several different sides that all combine to contribute to a child’s early education. In terms of informal education, the primary source of input when it comes to a child’s development is, of course, its relationship with its parents or primary caregivers. In essence, parents can be considered to be a child’s first teacher. This relationship is especially critical between 0-2 years of age as the child begins to develop its sense of self and establishes an attachment with its parents. The quality of the attachment formed at this stage of life can have a significant impact on a child’s future education.
The other part of the equation when it comes to early childhood education is the formal education that it receives at a young age. This stage of education typically spans years 2 to 8 of a child’s life. There can be a variety of formats in which a child receives formal education at a young age, which can vary from state to state and program to program. Educational programs may be designed specifically for children at each individual age and can be provided in settings including childcare, daycare, nursery school, preschool, and kindergarten. Some of these programs are privately run, while others are operated by a local school system or under a federally funded program.
The developing child construction regards childhood as a period in the human life span when children naturally pass through universal and sequential stages of development. One of the chief proponents of this construction was the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget whose work contributed to the growth of the academic field of activity known as Developmental Psychology. It was considered that children’s natural maturation processes interact with their experiences of the world which then make them ‘ready’ for the next more mature stage. One can find this construction of childhood very much in evidence in public documents and institutions in countries such as the UK and the US and is often embedded in the documentation of national guidelines for teachers in the early childhood education and care sector (ECEC). One consequence of this construction was the emergence of ‘child-centred’ and progressive education.
A major challenge for ECEC is the ideology in which both the policy and practice are rooted. The term ‘ideology’ emerged from the political and revolutionary turmoil in France at the end of the eighteenth century though as a concept it was first used by Francis Bacon in the sixteenth century. It was originally associated with a profound shift in a ‘world view’ from an essentially disposition based on superstition and religious dogma to a disposition based on scientific and logical thought rooted in the Scottish Enlightenment associated with two Scottish philosophers Adam Smith and David Hulme. It is a disposition that initiated the period of intellectual thought now known as ‘Modernity’ in Western and other English-speaking countries and resulted in significant financial prosperity for some and devastating poverty for others. However, during the subsequent 100 or so years its meaning evolved into its present conception based on fundamentally different sets of axiomatic principles concerning a society’s social and economic arrangements in particular the relationship between the State, its institutions, the family and the individual.
In present-day democratic and capitalist countries policy and practice in Education, particularly in ECEC, has been influenced by three dominant political ideologies which are competing for our future. They are: Conservatism, Liberalism and Social Democracy. Each of these ideologies has a set of powerful social and economic principles, often adopted by people with fervent belief though there are significant contested variants and overlaps both within and between them.
The overwhelming challenge for ECEC in the modern world that is now required is to address the deep divisions, both social and economic, that have emerged in many countries throughout the word during the Age of Modernity and at the same time both to respect and celebrate diversity in a way that children come to understand how they can make a positive contribution to this process. The challenge is both exciting and daunting as it requires enlightened professionals, politicians and parents to engage in a new dialog informed by a fundamental awareness of the deep-seated problems facing humanity. But where to start? There is a very powerful case for ECEC being in the vanguard of educational reform.
Challenge for Teachers & Professionals
In the modern world, the thinking associated with post-modernism is gathering momentum. It is crucially relevant for ECEC. Central to this responsibility is the requirement to focus children’s learning to encompass the two concepts of social justice and social responsibility. Social justice encompasses three main themes: fairness, opportunity and respect and are axiomatic to how the adult world intersects with childhood. The challenge for ECEC settings is to make a public declaration that the principles of social justice are pursued in the setting in which children are encouraged to become aware about fairness, to take up new and challenging opportunities. Throughout 2020 and well into 2021 the lack of social responsibility particularly in many western countries has become a matter of deep concern and deeply shameful. The rapid spread of the deadly virus COVID-19 has taken place as a consequence of enormous number of people rejecting the scientific advice aimed at limiting the spread of the virus. ECEC settings and professionals need to recognize that fundamental rethinking is required. The curriculum needs to be restructured to embrace social justice at the core. In addition, teachers need to become more aware about how the ‘hidden curriculum’ impacts on children’s subjectivity. The discourse that teachers use, often subconsciously, with children both individually and collectively, plays a significant role in shaping children’s social attitudes
A critical issue in this transformation is the professional education of teachers. Initially, the selection of students for access to courses of initial teacher education (ITE) should be revisited such that those admitted be required to display a commitment to social justice. Specific courses in social justice should be included in the curriculum. Furthermore, the organization of ITE courses needs to be re-thought. Without too much upheaval, it should be possible to introduce new arrangements such that all ITE students attend the same classes and courses for at least the first year in order to acquire a common understanding of what it means to be a ‘teacher’ such as currently happens in Sweden
Another challenge to ECEC professionals is the need for each ECEC centre to develop policies and practices that are inclusive of all children’s contemporary diverse characteristics. These policies are more effective when they are developed in consultation with staff, families, communities and relevant stakeholders so that different perspectives are included. The celebration of diversity should indeed resonate throughout each ECEC centre where staff offer all children guidance and support in developing positive attitudes towards all people.
Challenge for Parents
It has become evident in many countries throughout the world that parents now understand the value of ECEC and want access to ECEC services for their young children before they start elementary school. This is a major change in social attitude from that 50 years ago when the education of young children was regarded as the sole responsibility of the family, principally mothers. Yet, under the influence of ne0liberalism, many parents are ignoring the long- term benefits of ECEC for their child’s psychological and social well-being for the possible short- term advantages which they think will lead to greater economic benefits for their child in the future.
However, even though their child may attend an ECEC setting, this does not mean that parents should take ‘a back seat’. Parents still have a responsibility to engage with their children in helping them to understand, be knowledgeable, be socially competent and gradually become aware of the wider world. The challenge to parents in supporting their children to be successful is to ‘raise your game’ through more meaningful engagement both with the child and the ECEC setting. Children learn a great deal about their identity and subjectivity from their parents in the first few years of life. The foundations of their social attitudes are subconsciously transmitted from parent to child through discourse that often contains deeply held values about the world at large. This means that parents need to become more aware of how they interact with their children even at a casual level. All too often many parents with busy lives are content to have their children self-engaged with, for example, an electronic device to play games or watch a video over lengthy periods of time. Such action on the part of parents is a form of abuse of the parent–child relationship and can lead to an addiction which is socially disengaged.
Reading stories with children is another activity that is popular with many parents. However, the choice of stories is critical. Parents should not shy away from choosing stories that contain sensitive issues regarding race, gender, socio-economic status and even same-sex relationships as well as stories that feed children’s imagination. Such situations are ideal for helping children to learn how to regulate their socio-emotional learning and for parents to encourage children to reflect on the behavior of others as actors in the stories keeping in mind the principles of social justice and social responsibility. Social responsibility can also be practiced in the family even when children are young. Children should be encouraged to participate in domestic routines. Helping to plan and prepare meals and tidy up afterwards as collaborative activities are valuable situations for the effective socialization of children. Parents can also help their child to establish social networks with other children and show an active interest in their child’s social relationships. A key aspect of children’s learning about relationships is their awareness of ‘others’. Parents have considerable influence in helping children to raise their consciousness concerning how their actions impact on others such that they are able to regulate their actions with friends, family members and strangers especially at the level of micro-social engagement.
Providing education to children, particularly young children faces intimidating challenges. The increasing social and economic divergence in the modern world is staggering and potentially a major threat to our stability and security. Unfortunately, stakeholders does not recognize the challenge and embrace a commitment to adapt policies and practices to address a fundamental re-alignment in the mind-set of children in terms of their social attitudes and social justice. It requires to create an awareness that education is deeply implicated in efforts to bring about greater fairness, more opportunities for young people and respect for others. Teachers have a very considerable responsibility in their day-to-day engagements with children so they need to be persuaded not only that reform in a post-modernist context can be achieved but also that many current social attitudes and injustices must be challenged. Parents are required to become more aware about the influence they have over their students and to use this in a more democratic way to promote social justice.
This is supposed to be the biggest challenge for the education of children, lately.
[box type=”note” align=”” class=”” width=””]The author, Nazir Ahmed Shaikh, is a freelance columnist. He is an academician by profession and writes articles on diversified topics. Mr. Shaikh could be reached at email@example.com.[/box]