This article originally appeared in the Seattle Times. Co-authored by Steve Davis, President & CEO of PATH
The World Health Organization just unveiled an initiative that could improve millions of children’s lives and boost the global economy by trillions of dollars.
The initiative, known as the Nurturing Care Framework for Early Childhood Development, seeks to change how we raise infants and toddlers. Children’s experiences during their first three years of life heavily influence their well-being as adults, according to a growing body of research.
Today, millions of children lack the nutritional, educational and emotional support they need to develop into healthy, productive members of society. The Framework could help governments, nonprofits and families change this unfortunate status quo.
Children’s brains may not develop fully when they don’t receive “nurturing care,” which includes good health, adequate nutrition, safety and security, responsive caregiving, and opportunities for stimulation and learning. The period from birth to age three is a critical window of opportunity, since 80 percent of the brain forms during these years.
About 250 million young children in low- and middle-income countries lack nurturing care. Tens of millions of children in the United States and Europe face similar challenges. These children face difficulties in school. Poor educational outcomes reduce their future earnings and impact the health and well-being of entire families and societies.
Early childhood intervention programs could transform these children’s lives and help them achieve their full potential.
Consider one study of stunted children in disadvantaged areas of Jamaica. Every week for two years, trained health workers visited the children and their mothers. The workers provided parenting tips and tried to develop the children’s cognitive and social skills.
Twenty years later, researchers interviewed the children. Those who had received the intervention had higher cognitive scores and earned 25 percent more annually than people who didn’t receive the intervention. In fact, they earned as much as non-stunted children from the same area.
Or consider an experiment in rural Uganda. Mothers and their children attended peer-led group meetings focused on child-raising best practices and ways to improve maternal health. Children who participated had far higher cognitive and language scores than those who did not attend.
These interventions are cost-effective, relatively easy to provide, and can even be added to existing programs. And they deliver an incredible financial return to communities. One study of disadvantaged children in Michigan revealed that every dollar invested in a high-quality childhood education program returned more than $17 to society, in part by reducing future crime.
Nobel laureate economist James Heckman, who has conducted extensive research on the topic, has found that investments in children aged 0-3 produce the highest financial returns. The returns diminish when governments and nonprofits wait until children are older.
Early childhood development initiatives require buy-in from all sectors — particularly the health sector. In many low-resource communities, health care providers are the only people who interact consistently with the youngest children and their caregivers.
Fortunately, governments around the world are recognizing this and integrating early childhood development programs into their health systems.
Consider Kenya’s Siaya County. In 2011, only 22 percent of young children in Siaya were on track developmentally.
The county government took action. It started monitoring whether children were hitting certain developmental milestones, such as walking or talking. And officials offered parents of children who were falling behind extra caregiving support in the clinic and at home.
Our organizations, PATH and the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, partnered with the county government to train local health professionals and community health volunteers to provide nurturing care. Now, 25 percent of community health volunteers and 40 percent of health care workers are trained.
Under the leadership of Siaya County Governor Cornel Rasanga, plans are in place to upgrade the entire health workforce by 2020, introduce a major nurturing care awareness campaign, and deploy a multi-ministerial committee to oversee this broad effort. This is a powerful example of the nurturing care framework in action and the impact of strong government leadership.
It’s time for governments, donors, and nonprofits to support early childhood development services. If we dramatically scale up these proven interventions, we could offer a brighter future to children, communities, and entire nations.
By Steve Davis of PATH and Peter Laugharn of the Hilton Foundation