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Critical Issues in Early Childhood Development and Early Learning

Critical Issues in Early Childhood Development and Early Learning

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by Dr. Sheldon Shaeffer


The world seems to understand ever more clearly the importance of early childhood development in influencing the later success of children in school and more general well-bring later in life.  First, the science of how young children develop, starting from conception to the age of three – which before was largely limited to issues of health and nutrition – has now begun to show the essential role in this development of cognitive and linguistic stimulation, stable and continuous care, and freedom from stress and conflict.  With 80% of a child’s brain developing in the first three years of life, what parents and other caregivers do to promote the holistic development of their children during this period is critical to their future.  Equally important, however, is a gradual and developmentally-appropriate process of mastering literacy and numeracy so that children, after the early years of school, are ready for later educational success rather than failure.

Second, research has also shown the cost-efficiency of investments in early childhood development, especially for children from the most marginalised social groups; relatively small investments at an early age yield large savings later in terms of not only future educational achievement and health status but also social welfare and criminal justice system costs.

Yet despite such evidence, many governments, especially ministries of education, continue to pay scant attention to young child development.  The common position is that before children enter school, they are the concern of somebody else: ministries of health for very young children; ministries of social welfare or women’s affairs for children of daycare age; even, in many countries, the private sector or the community for the pre-school/kindergarten year(s) immediately before entry to primary school.  This perception is changing, however, with more ministries taking responsibility for one-two years of pre-school education, but even then the human and financial resources provided to such education is usually much less than those provided to what is really considered the beginning of “formal” education – Grade 1.

But then the story becomes more complicated.  Early childhood is now generally defined as covering the age range of 0-8 (and even starting at -9 months), therefore including the period of transition from the home to daycare centre and/or some other kind of pre-school and then to the early years of primary school when children are not only meant to gain the fundamentals of literacy and numeracy but also continue their socio-emotional development so important later in their work and in their life.  But in most education systems of the world, relatively little attention is paid to the smoothness of this transition and ultimately to the quality of the early grades; thus:

  • Primary school principals (and perhaps the community as a whole) pay more attention to the last grade in their school that to Grade 1, especially where to former ends in a high-stakes school-leaving examination.
  • Pupil:teacher ratios are much higher in Grade 1 than in the upper grades when, in fact, the opposite should be true.
  • Teachers in the early grades are often the least experienced, the least qualified, and the most contractually unstable – or sometimes the most senior teacher because older, more “matronly” teachers are considered more patient with a large class of young, active children.  In both situations, however, these early grade teachers have seldom received any specialised training in the systematic teaching of literacy and numeracy – even more seldom training in the use of the children’s mother tongue which should be the language of first literacy.

And a final complication: most programmes in place that somehow “cover” children aged (say) 3-8 (e.g., daycare, kindergarten, primary school) have a set of desired child outcomes, recommended approaches to early care and later teaching, and more or less structured curriculum, syllabi, and lessons plans – the problem being that these seldom intersect.

To be continued….


Sheldon Shaeffer, the former Chief of Education in UNICEF and former Director of UNESCO’s Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau for Education, has a range of research interests including early childhood development, language use in education, inclusive education (broadly defined), and teacher development. 

The HEAD Foundation Commentary is a platform to provide timely and, where appropriate, policy-relevant commentary of topical issues and contemporary developments. The views expressed by the authors are solely their own and do not reflect opinions of The HEAD Foundation.

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