Arabs miss the import of early childhood development
By Ghassan Rubeiz
Friday, February 22, 2008
The fame of Sigmund Freud hangs on a simple idea: The first five years of life are developmentally crucial. Through the care of a loving mother a newborn learns to trust adults emotionally. In the way a toddler is trained to eat, sleep, stand, walk and talk, the quality of the first lessons of independence is set. Between the ages of three and five, children expand their verbal abilities rapidly, begin friendships with peers and sharpen their sense of inquiry about life. If children do not learn to trust, to be independent, to form relationships and be curious, they are bound to face immense challenges in school and in their adjustment to society later.
Along with emotional and intellectual care-giving, health services in early childhood are also vital. Poor nutrition can stunt a child's physical growth. Many infants die due to infectious diseases that parents can easily learn to prevent. In severely deprived communities, about one in three children is anemic. In many Arab localities hunger, disease and emotional neglect gravely affect young children by arresting their normal development.
Most traditional societies are not aware of the critical importance of early childhood. Once the Arab world discovers the value of early childhood development programs, it will have found a new means to empower women and to spread wellbeing evenly and more abundantly than by relying on the region's vast resources of oil.
An Arabic proverb tells us, "Open a school, close a prison." This adage reveals the high esteem Arabs have for education. But opening more schools is not enough to guarantee quality education. Educational reform is needed. A recent World Bank report on education in the Arab world informs us that schools do not prepare children to think independently. The report notes that the curricula are not "inquiry-based."
Having grown up in the Middle East, I have witnessed how Arab children are not encouraged to question norms. They are often punished when they dare to challenge higher authority, whether in school, the family, places of worship, or, later in life, in the workplace and in government.
Tens of millions of Arab children live in low-income neighborhoods, in highly urbanized cities, in refugee camps, and in communities for the displaced. Overburdened parents, especially those living in crowded cities without the support of their extended families, do not know how to protect and support their child's growth and development.
Early childhood development programs, based on intellectual stimulation, protection from neglect, and prevention of illness, set the child on the right track for a bright future in elementary school. A child of five is known for a keen sense of curiosity. Because learning and other forms of developmental stimulation are crucial in the early years, childhood programs are needed to help children get into the habit of thinking on their own starting from that time.
Arabs leaders must face the reality that their school systems are mostly failing the child and the family. The World Bank report on Arab education shows that dropout rates in elementary and secondary schools are high. It reveals that university degrees do not lead to jobs. The report offers familiar recommendations for changing the educational system, but it does not mention adoption of early childhood education as a basic measure of system change. Adding early childhood development programs to national curricula would not only expand coverage of children, it would enhance the quality of the entire system of education.
An important component of early childhood education is the involvement of parents. In the Middle East parents tend to be emotionally and physically close to their children. If mobilized, parents, especially mothers, can contribute valuable time and resources to the pre-school system. Through voluntary service, mothers can help reduce the cost of universal public education. In child-centered programs groups of mothers receive basic training on how to stimulate children's development.
The mother is also the focus of attention in early childhood development. Among the endless possible varieties of contributions for mothers are increasing literacy levels, helping in vocational training and job orientation, and participating in health services. These comprehensive activities can contribute to family and population planning. Why? Because an educated mother is more able to plan the size of her family than a mother who is burdened by poverty, ignorance, and isolation.
Poor policy squanders human resources. There is growing evidence that children who receive early childhood education are more likely to succeed in elementary and secondary school, more likely to enter college, and less likely to commit crime. Educational economists reveal that financial returns on investment in early childhood development programs are extremely positive: It has been estimated that for every $1 invested in early childhood, the return is $6-8. That's worth mulling over.
Ghassan Rubeiz is an Arab-American commentator. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.