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Commentary: How early should early childhood education start?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 08, 2010 - When I graduated from college, I worked as a kindergarten teacher in Jakarta for a few years. I learned more than I had expected from that experience and became an advocate of the “golden years” concept of how deeply human development is shaped by the first five years of life. As acceptance of the notion of early childhood education grows, I have noticed that policies and programs have focused more heavily on the pre-kindergarten experience. Is it true that policies and programs are most effective if they focus on the preschool period rather than even earlier in life?

Some answers can be found in research in the U.S. on Head Start, a federally funded preschool program for low-income families. A few years ago, studies indicated modest results from this program. Several factors lay behind the results, including the quality of the teachers, level of funding and even the form of evaluation itself. What is of interest for me, however, is that the program has focused on the development of children who are already 4 or 5 years old.

The program’s impact stems from providing a learning environment (both in school as well as in the family) that helps children in the years immediately before starting school. But children’s development does not start when they are 4 years old; instead, it begins early in pregnancy and continues in the first years of life before children enter preschool.

In fact a great deal of research supports the idea that infant development can affect an individual’s life, and much of this indicates the crucial impact of factors on fetal development. Based on these findings, the Obama administration is concentrating on funding for programs that start during pregnancy and continue through the first years of children’s lives. There is a new emphasis on making sure that mothers-to-be are healthy and knowledgeable and that, even in infancy, children are developing well and are hence more prepared to enter pre-kindergarten. This seems to be an important step in the evolution of policy, and I hope it foretells a more balanced picture of funding and interest for providing building blocks for children’s development.

Where is my homeland of Indonesia headed when it comes to these trends? Has the government accepted the importance of early childhood care and education leading up to pre-kindergarten?

In the 1990s, programs such as the Integrated Service Post were developed. In this program, community-based health centers provide vitamins and healthy food for pregnant and lactating mothers and their infants and toddlers. The program had a limited education component. Even before we have been able to conduct exhaustive scientific research, the program has been taken to be relatively successful. For example, the program lent a hand to the high national immunization rate and sharp decline in child mortality.

Unfortunately, over the past few years, Indonesian government has not displayed much interest in continuing these types of programs. In previous presidential campaigns, all the candidates seemed to be chanting the “free basic education for all” mantra without paying any attention to early childhood education. The current government has just proposed its largest budget for education, and it mostly focuses on funding for the school system. In particular, over the past few years, government funding in Indonesia has been redirected toward achieving universal access to primary education. This is a part of the Millennium Development Goals championed by the United Nations. Declared nine years ago, eight goals (such as ending extreme poverty, achieving universal primary education and gender equality) were set by U.N. members to be achieved by developing countries by 2015.

I take it as a given that policy makers everywhere have the best interest of children at heart, but I have seen programs work quite differently, depending on the directions they pursue to achieve that goal. Government leaders in Indonesia need to take a step back and consider the powerful influence of early childhood care on education and lifelong development. If they did so, they would give more attention to development in prenatal, infancy, early childhood periods.

Knowing that prenatal care and support during the very earliest years of life can have significant impact on shaping children’s future, funding and program organization should also start early, beginning with pregnancy, to make sure infants and toddlers are born and raised in a healthy way. Although legislations have been put in place to regulate kindergarten level education as a part of the formal education system, none has been enacted to integrate services between ministries to link early childhood education and care with the formal education system to develop a comprehensive policy. A more holistic approach in education is also needed.

It is crucial that children from the very earliest stages of development are being prepared so that they are physically and emotionally ready to go to school. This must be done before focusing resources solely on the number of children in schools and jeopardizing the quality of human capital that will affect the future of the nation.

Ni Luh Putu Maitra Agastya was an Etta Steinberg Fellow in the McDonnell International Scholars Academy and received her master of social work in 2008 from George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University. She received her Bachelor of Social Science degree in 2004 from the University of Indonesia – Jakarta, Indonesia. She is a family support & Iinformation coordinator at St. Louis Arc Inc. 

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