Positive childhood development a sound investment in SA’s future

We all dream of a brighter future and a more prosperous South Africa. There are few more practical ways to achieve this vision than through investing time and resources in improving early childhood development.

Dr Jacqui Joubert, behavioural scientist and director: Agility Employee Wellbeing, says that research supports the importance of early childhood development strategies in equipping individuals to reach their full potential. “The early childhood period is pivotal to a person’s development, as the brain and cognitive-behavioural functions develop rapidly in the first few years of a child’s life.”

Early child development refers to physical, socio-emotional and language-cognitive aspects, and stimulation and growth in these areas is fundamental to the ultimate success and happiness of a child in later years.

“During these critical early years, the foundation is laid for the individual’s physical and mental health, affecting aspects of an individual’s life including longevity, lifelong capacity to learn, ability to adapt to change and also their capacity for resilience in adverse circumstances,” Dr Joubert notes.

If early childhood stimulation is neglected, it has a significant impact on a person’s wellbeing and can lead to poorer performance later in life. “There are often far-reaching consequences for people who did not benefit from consistent cognitive-behavioural stimulation, which may include mental health problems, higher risk of heart disease, and impaired literacy and numeracy skills.

The World Health Organisation’s Commission on the Social Determinants of Health has recognised the importance of early childhood development in terms of equity, adult health, wellbeing and productivity.

“Where people do not reach their full potential in terms of literacy and numeracy, this can profoundly influence their economic status in adult life. It follows that if each and every child receives adequate developmental support, the country would be in a stronger and more sustainable position once this generation reaches the age of being economically active.”

In addition to the cognitive-behavioural effects of early child development, the World Bank’s poverty reduction strategies also begin with early childhood development initiatives, reflecting strong advocacy of stimulating childcare in early childhood for improved school performance.

“Early childhood programmes should be coordinated to address the needs of young children. The gap between what we now know of early childhood development and implementing this knowledge through policies that support young children and their families, remains lamentably wide,” Dr Joubert says.

Landmark early childhood development reports released in 2000 and 2015 by the National Research Council (NRC) and the Institute of Medicine (IOM) respectively, found that social and economic disadvantages create “striking disparities” in development that are apparent early and predictive of later academic success.

Particularly relevant for South Africa is that poverty hampers early childhood development. Food insecurity, housing instability, parental depression and anxiety, poor child care and schools, environmental toxins and other dangers affect children profoundly. Early learning depends on physical development and wellbeing, which includes the safety of where the children live, their diet, health and fitness levels, as well as access to adequate healthcare.

Young children in such circumstances often experience chronic stress. “Some might become hyper reactive to perceived threats, while others might react in a muted or unresponsive manner. Chronic stress also has a negative effect on the functioning of the immune system, which increases the child’s vulnerability to infections and chronic diseases,” Dr Joubert explains.

“Children experiencing chronic stress may have difficulty focusing on learning activities, as they are not able to pay attention and have trouble learning languages and with self-regulation. To make matters worse, many pre-school teachers and caregivers are under stress with high rates of depression, emotional exhaustion, burnout, and physical illness.

“High quality early childhood care and educational programmes can, however, improve the lives of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable children and their families, with profound consequences for societies,” she adds.

Former President Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela recognised the importance of nurturing children to help them reach their full potential. “Our children are the rock on which our future will be built, our greatest asset as a nation. They will be the leaders of our country, the creators of our national wealth who care for and protect our people,” Mandela said in 1995.

In his own childhood, Madiba was prepared for the demands he would face in later life, having been the first member of his family to go to school. As president, he recognised the importance of education and campaigned for all South African children to have access to schooling. During his time as Head of State, he started the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund and donated a third of his salary each month to the organisation

This Mandela Day, Agility Health staff are volunteering their time to Dlala Nje, an organisation that supports early childhood development particularly among inner city children who would otherwise have no safe place to play. The volunteers will participate in a litter pick up to help beautify the children’s urban environment.
Dr Joubert says that it is now a widely accepted development paradigm that local and international governments and communities should continuously strive to improve the conditions for families to better enable them to nurture their children. Some key factors that can contribute to this goal are addressing economic security, flexible work, information and support, health and quality childcare.

“Early child development requires partnerships, not just from local and international policymakers – but with the world’s families. Each of us can find some way to contribute to a brighter future through supporting early childhood development or initiatives that facilitate improved conditions for nurturing children,” Dr Joubert concludes.