24,000 Miles, Six Weeks, and Three Aha! Moments About Early Childhood Issues

May 03, 2017

It started like it always does—just a few spring conference commitments on the calendar . . . 

Kim Boller presenting in DubaiMarch

April

  • April 5–8 in Austin, Texas: Conference sessions at the meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development on (1) Quality Rating and Improvement Systems, (2) the cost of early childhood programs, and (3) the Parenting Matters report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s Committee on Supporting the Parents of Young Children.

But somehow, the six weeks from February 28 through April 9 filled up with more opportunities to share and learn with my colleagues around the world . . . 

February

  • February 28–March 1 in Washington, DC: Inter-American Dialogue and Inter-American Development Bank convening on the quality of early childhood development services in Latin America.

March

April

  • April 4 in Leiden, Netherlands: Virtual presentation for the International Technical Advisory Group on Home Visiting, focused on Central and Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States. 

And across six weeks, 11 time zones, and 24,000 miles, it became clearer than ever that although the lives of children differ depending on where they live—from rural Tanzania and conflict-torn eastern Ukraine to cities like Kinshasa, Lima, and Trenton—the challenges and risks faced by our world’s most vulnerable children are fundamentally the same. And researchers, drawing on an increasingly global evidence base, are pointing to similar solutions.

Three cross-cutting themes from across the world have stayed with me:

  1. We are still not reaching all of the most vulnerable children and families with the services and supports that research has revealed to be effective in promoting children’s healthy development and learning. Although The Lancet authors documented a reduction (from 279 to 249 million) in the number of children under age 5 in low- and middle-income countries who experience stunting or extreme poverty, we see wide variation by region with the least progress in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Parenting Matters notes that, in the United States, only a fraction of the children who are eligible for child care subsidies and programs like Early Head Start actually participate in them. And around the globe, services are lacking for infants and toddlers and children with special needs.
     
  2. The programmatic, system, and policy solutions recommended throughout the world are similar. Although history, context, culture, funding level, and a host of other features differ, the solutions that are recommended to address the needs of children and families at scale are strikingly similar. The Lancet’s paper on pathways to scale highlights the health sector as an existing platform with the potential to support early childhood education and foster nurturing care by adults. Parenting Matters also recommends taking advantage of the health sector in the United States, including routine pediatric visits. The Lancet paper’s list of exemplary interventions known to improve children’s early development, as well as its examples of supportive policy environments around the globe, are also similar to those the Committee recommended in the Parenting Matters report.

    This may not be surprising given the common evidence base, but I was impressed that both publications highlighted paid parental leave after the birth or adoption of a child, sick leave to care for children, breastfeeding supports, and strategies aiming to alleviate family poverty (such as child and earned income tax credits).

  3. Evidence- and data-driven innovation and improvement have come to the realm of early childhood programs. From the Ko Awatea Now We are Talking campaign in Auckland, New Zealand, and the Un Buen Comienzo project in and around Santiago, Chile, to the Early Learning Lab in Oakland, California, using data to inform learning agendas and drive daily practice is a growing strategy around the world. These techniques are exciting because they involve co-creating with the users of evidence-based practices and working on the seemingly intractable problems families and practitioners face. Research, practice, and policy recommendations focus on increasing supports for these types of collaborations and learning more about their effectiveness and cost.

We certainly face differences around the world in filling the needs of families. As Joe McCannon of the Billions Institute put it during a plenary session at the Carnegie Summit, it is time for us to think bigger! Let’s bring our best evidence to bear on “going after the big problems” in early childhood, and apply the lessons we’ve all learned at an expanded table.

Here are some questions to get us started. What is your take?

What do you think are the most important priorities for early childhood—in your community, and globally?

How does evidence play into setting priorities? What evidence is needed to inform policy? Practice?

What have you been doing to “think bigger” about solutions to thorny problems in the arena of early childhood policies? What can we all do together that will make a difference for children and families?      

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The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not represent those of Mathematica Policy Research.

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