A lifecycle approach to early childhood development
Eurochild was invited to speak during a session on “Development of Practical Knowledge and Skills From an Early Age” at the conference on the Future of Work: A Lifecycle Approach on 21-22 March 2018 in Sofia, Bulgaria. The conference was hosted by the Bulgarian EU Presidency to gather Ministers responsible for Social Affairs and Employment, social partners, UNICEF and World Bank. Eurochild Secretary General Jana Hainsworth spoke to the need for expanding understanding on childcare for an integrated approach to early childhood development. Here is a short summary of the session.
The session on “Development of practical knowledge and skills from an early age”, demonstrated the importance of early childhood development for the development of a skilled, competent and healthy workforce of the future. It highlighted that:
- Skill development starts early and continues throughout the whole life. Evidence from neurosciences shows that early years are critical for healthy human brain development. During the first years of life, including the period of conception, the brain grows at the fastest speed and has a maximum plasticity. Brain architecture and skills are built in a hierarchical ‘bottom-up’ sequence – the neural circuits that support the lower order skills are established first and provide a foundation for the development of the higher order skills. If the lower level circuits are not wired properly (early in life) the development of the higher order skills becomes much more difficult.
- Early adversities undermine healthy brain development and diminish human potential and future productivity. The brain architecture is sculptured under the influence of the environment. Any adversity in the child’s environment has the potential to have a negative impact on early brain development, and therefore acts as a risk factor for the health and development of the child. Many children exposed to adversities in early years including extreme poverty, maternal depression, chronic neglect, physical and emotional abuse do not acquire a strong foundation for health, learning and development throughout life. Gaps in skills emerge as early as 2-3 years of age and if not addressed they tend to widen.
- Investments that support families and communities to provide nurturing care for young children including health, adequate nutrition, safety and security, responsive caregiving and opportunities for early learning, can set children on high trajectories of development and address any skills deficits caused by early disadvantage.
- Today, Europe is facing a large cognitive deficit, exacerbated by the existing social-economic inequalities. The future of Europe, its prosperity and peace, depend on the ability to invest in and nurture its human capital right from the beginning.
- We learned about the impressive experience of Bulgaria, which has a comprehensive set of policies and services supporting young children and families. The country has achieved remarkable progress in the process of deinstitutionalization and at present is strengthening focus on prevention.
- Quality early childhood education and care has the potential to improve child development. The adoption of the Quality framework on early childhood education and care by the Ministries of Education this year will put the needs of children at the heart of formal childcare and pre-school settings.
- However, a more holistic and comprehensive approach going beyond child care and early education is needed across Europe to insure the well-being of young children and lay the foundations for development of competent, skilled and productive workforce.
- This approach should integrate policies that provide enabling environment for caregivers, families and communities to provide nurturing care. This includes parental health – physical and mental; parental education, nutrition and health during pregnancy, antenatal care, parental leave; delivery, birth spacing, quality early learning opportunities, safe and clean neighborhoods, income, housing, nutritious food. Families experiencing difficulties need to receive adequate support.
- The EU has already articulated its commitment to the wellbeing of young children in the EU Pillar of Social Rights. Further efforts are needed to support its implementation by the Member States.
- The European Commission proposal for a Directive on Work Life Balance needs to set a minimum standard of maternity leave of 24 weeks, coherent with WHO standards on breastfeeding. Member States are encouraged to develop national early childhood development strategies which take a multi-sectoral approach to ensuring all children have equitable access to health, nutrition, early learning, responsive care-giving and a safe & secure environment. Integration is a challenging task but EU funding may be utilized to catalyze national reforms that lead to integrated, holistic support for early childhood development. It means not only reserving funds for building & staffing crèches, but really looking at developing all the services in the community that serve families in the best possible way to support children in their first months and years.
- An EU dedicated agency for children may strengthen support to EU Member States to strengthen their national policies on early childhood development.