Headstart

Column-Sen Edgardo Angara photo

Former Sen. Edgardo J. Angara

TWO recent articles on early childhood development are noteworthy. The first is by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof who wrote that while discussions on taxes, minimum wages, and lower tuition fees for universities bring up legitimate concerns, the biggest obstacles and greatest inequality often have roots early in life.

Kristof said for instance that if we want to get more kids in universities, we should invest in preschools—that is, to train more focus to the early, not the later, years of a child’s life.

He touched on how poor nutrition leads to a child’s impaired learning ability and cognitive capacity, which translates later to their diminished productivity, earnings, and general welfare as adults.

Research has shown that children living in poverty are subjected to high levels of cortisol—a stress hormone that in large quantities affects the architecture of a child’s brain, particularly vital areas like the amygdala and the hippocampus.

Such “toxic stress” impairs a child’s capacity for impulse control, working memory, emotional regulation, error processing, and healthy metabolic functioning.

Kristoff then cited several essays published by the Harvard Education Press that demonstrated that early childhood programs— such as those implemented in day care centers and kindergartens—can help protect the young brains of children from such poverty induced neurological damage.

“It is in the first 1,000 days of life that the stage is set for fulfilling individual potential,” Kristof quotes Roger Thurow in the latter’s new book on leveraging early childhood, The First 1,000 Days. “If we want to shape the future, to truly improve the world, we have 1,000 days to do it, mother by mother, child by child.”

The second article is by Bjørn Lomborg of the Copenhagen Business School, on how certain classroom improvements—such as keeping classroom sizes small or equipping students with laptops—actually help very little. Citing a 2014 seminal study on Jamaican children, Lomborg suggests that early childhood interventions are the ones that make a world of difference.

The study Lomborg discusses refers to a program implemented in the mid-1980s, which involved Jamaican social workers conducting home visits to toddlers suffering from chronic malnutrition. Through one-hour weekly sessions conducted over a two-year period, the social workers taught and demonstrated to parents how to interact with their toddlers in ways that would develop cognitive and socio-emotional skills.

Twenty years later, these undernourished and stunted children were found to earn up to 25 percent more than those in their cohort who were not visited by the social workers. The children were also found to be earning just as much as their non-stunted and properly nourished peers.

The bottom line is that the earlier the intervention, the better. These lessons are critical, especially for the Philippines where up to 4 million children today are malnourished and few are provided the right stimulation and socialization at an early age.

Email: angara.ed@gmail.com

Vital Signs Issue 88 Vol. 4, June 1-30 2016