Back in the 1980s, a group of social workers in Jamaica visited low-income homes one hour a week for two years, bearing age-appropriate toys for the kids and advice on child rearing for the parents. Researchers tracked the outcomes, and a generation later, the results are in.
The children whose homes were visited by social workers became adults who earn wages that are 25 percent higher than those earned by peers who had not been visited. Their I.Q.s are an average seven points higher, and they are less likely to resort to crime or suffer from depression.
Other studies, including several recent ones in the United States, have shown similar results, contributing to a consensus on the importance of early childhood development that has led governments around the world to increase spending on the first five years of life. In Latin America and the Caribbean, a region of longstanding social and economic inequality, several countries have been especially ambitious. Brazil and Chile doubled the coverage of day care services over the past decade, while in Ecuador they grew sixfold.
These investments build on historic gains in child nutrition and health. But while Latin American children are now healthier and more likely to attend preschool, they still lag far behind in learning, particularly in the areas of language and cognition, when compared with their counterparts in wealthy countries.
What are we doing wrong?
New research indicates that the problem starts with the types of interactions that children have with adults at home, in day care or in preschool. For example, vocabulary at early ages is a key predictor of school success. But one study found that 5-year-old children of mothers with low education levels already struggle with a “word gap”: They recognize fewer than half of the words recognized by children of better-educated mothers. Likewise, children who are stuck with a poorly trained day care staff would be better off staying at home with other adults who have been coached in how to properly stimulate children, as was the case in Jamaica.
Since these early deficits carry over into later years, it comes as no surprise that Latin American teenagers rank near the bottom of international standardized tests. And within these countries, disparities in learning rooted in social and economic disadvantages only perpetuate inequality. Governments must adjust course if they want to ensure that investments in early childhood will have the desired impact.
At present, the youngest get too small a slice of the pie. Our research shows that for every education dollar spent on a child age 5 and under, more than three dollars are spent on a child between 6 and 11 years old. And as a percentage of gross domestic product, Latin American and Caribbean countries spend about half of the average spent on pre-primary and day care programs in all countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Money helps, but better quality is critical. Research shows that at home, in day care or in preschool, children who develop a strong bond with at least one caregiver reap cognitive benefits that last into adulthood. This is why the Jamaica home interventions were so effective. In fact, home visits produced average growth in cognitive skills about 10 times larger than day care programs. In Peru, a home-visitation program initiated in 2013 has benefited 52,000 children, most of them from the rural poor, at a cost of $500 per child. And yet, most governments favor building day care centers rather than backing good parenting initiatives.
When children do attend day care or preschool, they should be served by carefully selected and trained caregivers and teachers. We tested 16,000 children in Ecuador over three years of early schooling, from kindergarten to second grade. On average, those who had been in the care of three bad teachers in succession moved from the middle third to the bottom third of those who took a math test at the end of second grade. Children who’d had three outstanding teachers in a row moved from the middle to the top third.
Parents, of course, know that teachers matter. But while officials like the ribbon-cutting that comes with opening impressive new facilities, making sure that they are adequately staffed is often an afterthought.
The lesson is clear: When children must be cared for outside the home, all governments should focus on recruiting and training quality caregivers. And instead of rushing to build more day care centers and expand coverage of existing day care programs, developing countries in particular would be smarter to prioritize cost-effective home visit programs that improve parenting practices and the stimulation of young children. A recent review of such programs in 21 countries, including Brazil, Jamaica, Bangladesh, China, Uganda and India, found that they delivered measurable cognitive benefits across a vast range of cultural and economic settings.
As Latin America’s many fine coffee producers know, many things can go wrong if you don’t fertilize your trees and treat the berries properly. But if you take great care at the start, you end up with world-class brews. We should do the same for our most valuable asset: the minds of our youngest citizens.
Luis Alberto Moreno is president of the Inter-American Development Bank.