Addressing children’s needs from early years

Blog by Agata D’Addato, Eurochild Head of Programmes, on the importance of early childhood development in breaking the poverty cycle.

Child poverty prevents children from achieving their full potential and autonomy, and affects their health, their personal development, their education and their general wellbeing. Child poverty is often passed from one generation to the next, at huge cost to society due to lost social and human capital.

Increased support and public investment in nurturing care and quality early years services are essential for tackling child poverty, inequality and social exclusion, and breaking the intergenerational transmission of disadvantage. This is why, since December 2020 Eurochild is engaged in the First Years, First Priority campaign, which aims to ensure greater attention to, and public investment in early childhood development (ECD) across Europe, as the foundation for children's healthy development and wellbeing.

Several Eurochild members highlighted issues related to ECD in Eurochild 2023 report Children’s Rights: Political will or won’t? on children in need across Europe. The report gathers information from 38 Eurochild members in 26 European countries. It identifies solutions and recommendations for governments to better support children and families.

When referring to ECD, Eurochild members particularly highlighted access to quality early childhood education and care (ECEC) in their country. The report findings on ECD – including ECEC – included both challenges and some positive developments.

Some of the main challenges:

  • Few countries analysed focus on a comprehensive and integrated ECD plan or support system. 
  • Social inequalities in access to ECEC for some groups of children, including those living in poverty and Roma/Traveller children. 
  • Lower ECEC participation rates for children under three. 
  • There is often a focus on ECEC as a means to enable parents/mothers to work, rather than a child-centred approach to early learning and care. 
  • The importance of social security and financial support for parents and families. 
  • The need to invest in quality ECEC, with competent and trained staff working with young children. 

Some examples of positive developments:

In Bulgaria, Eurochild members welcome the abolishing of fees for kindergartens and nurseries. In addition, the amount of financial benefit for raising children in the second year of maternity leave was increased, and so were the tax benefits for working parents. Eurochild members welcome the inclusion of the amendment of the Pre-school and School Education Act, to make pre-school education mandatory from the age of four. They urge quality, age-oriented, and accessible ECEC practices to encompass the needs of children in bigger cities, where there is lack of some services, and better geographical distribution to address the needs of children in smaller, more remote settlements. There is still a challenge with providing integrated support for the poorest and most marginalised families and children. 

In Portugal, an intervention that is helping children and their families is the PRIMEIROS PASSOS, infância saudável, vida Feliz project. This supports children from families in poverty and social exclusion (in particular single parents and migrants) from a municipality with 303,854 inhabitants, of which an estimated 4,630 are children up to 2 years old. The project’s mission is to reduce and prevent vulnerability in the first 1,000 days. Since 2018 the project has impacted the healthy development of 167 children, including through the provision of nutrition, medication, hygiene items and clothing. 

Civil society partners in Greece pointed to the ‘Kypseli’ programme which aims to develop and enhance the capabilities and skills of infants and toddlers, mainly through play, and to regularly monitor and evaluate their development and progress. The National Council for Preschool Education and Training is a new advisory and consultative body. The Neighbourhood Nannies initiative delivers home care services for infants and toddlers. To ensure an inclusive educational environment, the integration of children with difficulties from a very early age must be a priority.

To deliver change for the most vulnerable families, the social intervention must be demand driven. Support measures should start from the prenatal and early years of children. The first 1,000 days of a child’s life are a time of unique and rapid development, and are highly influenced by the child’s environment, early experiences and interactions.

Investing in early childhood is crucial to reduce social inequalities, which begin even before birth. More and better funding in this area - as an essential and integral part of countries’ strategies for attaining lifelong learning societies and sustainable development - will make a difference for future generations.

Country-level examples will be available in our upcoming sub-report on ECD.

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