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Big news for little people came this week with UNICEF’s global report, Early Moments Matter for every child. Jamaica is once again being recognised as a model for early childhood development, thanks to the results of a pioneering early childhood programme and near to 100 per cent enrollment in early childhood institutions (ECIs) at age 3.
So, does this mean that all the work has been done? Of course not. Full-scale early childhood provision remains a work in progress and the Early Childhood Commission (ECC) is on a drive to certify ECIs according to 12 standards. So far they have certified 79 towards their initial goal of 100 certified ECIs. Jamaica has approximately 2,700 ECIs.
As Dr. Rebecca Tortello, UNICEF Jamaica Education Specialist, reminds us, “While Jamaica performs strongly on some indicators, for example, we have the highest percentage of children aged 36-59 months attending an ECI – much improvement is needed elsewhere. A major concern remains that Jamaican children of this age are sadly twice as likely to receive violent discipline at home and in school, than in Cuba.”
In Jamaica, early childhood interventions have been shown to have a significant impact in reducing inequality. Famous in early childhood development circles, and cited in the new report, the Nutritional supplementation, psychosocial stimulation, and mental development of stunted children: the Jamaican Study saw community health workers conduct weekly visits to the homes of children suffering from stunted growth. M others and caregivers were encouraged to engage, talk and play with their children together with a nutritional component.
Evaluation of this programme showed that it has had a significant impact on children’s cognitive development. Starting in 1986-1987, and tracked over a 20-year period, and with participating children compared to those who did not participate, participating children when becoming adults went on to earn 25 per cent more on average!
“It is a fact that early childhood experiences are so important for lifelong outcomes, how the early environment literally becomes embedded in the brain and eventually the changes that takes place in society’s architecture,” said Susan Simms, Principal of Glendevon Primary & Infant School in St. James. Principal Simms was speaking during an ECC event held last year when Glendevon was one of the first schools to be certified.
Despite the demonstrated benefits of early childhood development programmes, worldwide there remains a gap between its return on investment and investment in early childhood programmes. Governments globally spend less than an estimated 2 per cent of their education budgets on the sector.
The Jamaica Study shows that intervening in the vital first 1,000 days of life, the period when children’s brains develop the fastest, is the opportunity to achieving a lifelong impact on the development of our greatest national asset: our children.
Locally, the early childhood sector is also seeking greater support from corporate Jamaica, the Diaspora and the media to work with the government to share positive and consistent early childhood messaging; and to promote practices such as breastfeeding and early stimulation.
The stakes are high. For as Principal Simms puts it: “To my early childhood teachers, you are the beginning of life in the educational system. You are the foundation on which everything else stands. Once the foundation is solid then the future of our country is bright.”