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Research from Harvard University shows that “In the first few years of life, more than 1 million new neural connections are formed every second”¹ (InBrief: The Science of Early Childhood Development, 2007). The graph below also aptly sheds light on the rapid escalation in the development of various functions in the brain of a human, not just in the first few years but in the first few months after birth.

Therefore, the foundational construction of a human brain takes place in the first 6–8 years of their life and the presence of Early Childhood Care and Development (ECCD) in this phase plays a significant role in deciding if this foundation is robust or frail.

The young brain requires the right nutrition, education and stimulations in the developing stages to ensure that the train for domains like language, cognitive ability, motor skills, emotions, adaptive ability etcetera is set on the right track. Research shows that ECCD is closely tied to the future level of education obtained, job prospects and income status of an individual. In the study “Positioning ECCD in the 21st Century” analysis of a group of children who participated in an ECCD program and a group of children that did not participate in an ECCD program (control group) over 27 years showed that the ECCD program children at the age of 27 “had earnings markedly higher”, “were more likely to be homeowners” and “had formed more stable relationships and marriages” compared to the control group (Arnold, n.d.)³. Hence, when considered cumulatively for the entire younger population it is safe to assert that ECCD holds the power to shape the quality of the life of the future generations and can consequently make drastic changes to the economy of a country.

Data shows that “Children belonging to economically vulnerable communities and other traditionally marginalized communities and groups including children living in emergency and migratory situations have less or no access to ECCE/ECD and ECI services” (UNESCO, 2022)⁴. A 5.8 : 1 benefit-to-cost ratio from ECCD was observed in Egypt for the most disadvantaged children (Arnold, n.d.-a)⁵. Young children of families living in poverty are often left unattended when the adults work at an extreme time schedule to support the family. These children are not exposed to befitting learning or activities, such as doing puzzles or basic communication with their families, that induce brain development. Furthermore, the lack of nutritious and timely meals puts their physical and mental health at risk. They are also subject to unsanitary and unsafe surroundings as they live in temporary settlements, often close to where their parents work. This implies that by introducing ECCD programs and making them available to the poorest sections of the society we are taking steps towards eradicating poverty and improving the life expectancy and quality of people living in unfavorable conditions. Establishing a strong intellectual basis, stable mentality, and sturdy health will help harness the capabilities of these children and administer a beneficial future.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a major hindrance to the advancements made in the field of ECCD worldwide. Research pointed out that “the COVID-19 pandemic response has relatively neglected young children, resulting in them becoming the greatest victims of the pandemic due to its lifelong impact on their education, health, nutrition, and well-being” (UNESCO, 2022-a)⁶. Statistics from the 2022 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) report showed that “149.2 million children under the age of 5 suffer from stunting in 2020”, “22.7 million children missed basic vaccines in 2020”, and “147 million children missed over half of in-person instruction in 2020–21” (United Nations, 2022)⁷ which emphasizes the extensive setback the main scopes of ECCD have faced.

In regard to the current status of ECCE work, in the World Conference on Early Childhood Care and Education (WCECCE) in November of 2022, the idea of Accountability was brought into light. While discussing the legal frameworks related to ECCE, the UN Committee stressed on how for the ECCE programs to be effective and understood by the public, their importance needs to be accentuated in the state policies. Furthermore, just implementing policies will be futile if active efforts are not made to assess their potency, and the potential shortcomings after implementation. Data collection and assessment has been highlighted as the tool to regularly understand the requirements on this issue and to aid in the decision making process. Through statistics like “73% of children between three to six years of age do not attend the pre-school services provided by AWCs in urban areas and 57% in rural areas across India’’ (“The Status of Early Childhood Development in India: Will We Reach the Countdown to 2030 Targets?,” 2021)⁸ the dearth of awareness regarding the availability of resources for ECCD is evident. It was also reported that while the facilities had been set up, the infrastructure was not up to the mark, sufficient experts were not present to guide parents and children, and there was insufficient “teaching learning material”(“The Status of Early Childhood Development in India: Will We Reach the Countdown to 2030 Targets?,” 2021-a)⁹. Therefore, execution of advertising the facilities and providing optimum quality to the people who attend has not been done.

Moreover, a survey by the United Nations Children’s Fund noted that in 2022 in India “33 per cent of girls drop out of school due to domestic work”(Pti, 2023)¹⁰. The study Socio-Economic Origins of School Dropouts in Rural India also acts in foregrounding the point that reasons like “Required for household work”, “required for work on farm/family business”, and “further education was not considered as necessary” (“Socio-Economic Origins of School Dropouts in Rural India,” n.d.)¹¹ showcase the parents’ or families’ lack of knowledge on the power of education for children and the financial predicament they have to battle. Keeping these factors in mind, it is necessary for the caregivers of the child to be educated and informed about the gravity of ECCD. The caregiver is the initiator of the process of indulging the child in ECCD programs and hence supporting them through “basic awareness of early stimulation and parenting skills” (“The Status of Early Childhood Development in India: Will We Reach the Countdown to 2030 Targets?,” 2021-b)¹² to ensure that the available policies and resources are put to effective use is important. To ensure that the caregivers approach the ECCD resources and utilize them, workers from these programs need to regularly engage and appeal to them first. The first major milestone is for caregivers to realize the imperative role of ECCD in bettering not just the child’s life, but also the positive impact they will have on their families in the future. ECCD programs are a step towards breaking the repetitive cycle of people living in poor conditions. The backward mindset of not equipping the child in the required fields, even if it is due to the challenging situations families live in, should be overcome. This can be achieved by various policies and resources being used in conjunction to simultaneously cater to the hardship the family faces and also open the doors for ECCD programs for their children.

Reports from the WCECCE also mention how “multisectoral strategies”(Bianchi et al., 2022)¹³ are essential to administer beneficial development of the child. There are several aspects under the umbrella of childhood that intersect and contribute to the growth of the child. But despite this there has been a “fragmented”(Bianchi et al., 2022-a)¹⁴ provision of services unlike a balanced division of attention to all facets. In the case of India, there has been a discernible improvement in the infant mortality rate from 39.082 per 1000 in 2013 to 26.619 per 1000 in 2023 (India Infant Mortality Rate 1950–2023, n.d.)¹⁵ and full immunization coverage amongst 12–23 month old children from 62% in 2015–16 to 76% in 2019–20 (Summan et al., 2022)¹⁶. But other fields like “early learning opportunities for younger children, safety and security and responsive parenting”(“The Status of Early Childhood Development in India: Will We Reach the Countdown to 2030 Targets?,” 2021-c)¹⁷ have not been tackled yet. This further highlights the point that for an ECCD program to provide constructive results the caregiver and the child need to be centralized. All actions need to be taken by taking the unique situation of the family into account. It is equally important to understand why the family has not previously taken actions to engage their child in ECCD programs, as this would help create a better fitted plan of action for them.

In one such research in 4 villages of rural Karnataka, a Pilot Project on ECCD and Parenting Interventions was conducted by Bala Mandir Research Foundation and Child Fund India. The study was carried out in 3 phases. Phase 1 focused on collection of data about the children, the parenting style, and the socioeconomic status of the family. Phase 2 dealt with creating a plan of action by assessing the data collected, and Phase 3 consisted of imparting this valuable plan to the parents and NGOs in those villages. The process followed in the research is quintessential to grasping the holistic situation of the childrens’ families. The analysis does not only evaluate the answers given by the parents on specific topics, but also scrutinizes their behavior and willingness to discuss the topics to gauge the outlook they hold regarding these aspects. This research appropriately highlights how comprehension from both sides, the ECCD experts and the families that are introduced to ECCD, is important. The interventions carried out, such as providing the parents with “Learning to Play Calendars” that uses pictorial representations to convey parenting techniques and organization of skits for the community to showcase essential subjects (Bala Mandir Research Foundation & Child Fund India, 2011)¹⁸, were specifically catered to the people of those villages and took into the account the literacy level of the caregivers. In order to ensure that the message we want to impart is understood, such analysis is crucial.

Shabnam, the 8 year old daughter of Shyad Ali and Santhai Bibi, who were part of a labor colony in Karnataka, contracted an acute fungal infection on her palms. The infection prevented Shabnma from using her hands to eat and this caused her to become weak. Two other children caught the infection from Shabnam, since the disease is contagious, and faced similar consequences. When these children stopped visiting their early child care center, the center teacher inquired with the parents and the field officer immediately connected them with a dermatologist in Victoria hospital. Thankfully with medication the children recovered soon and resumed their schooling at the early child care center (Sampark, 2022)¹⁹. A few things to note from this incident are the lack of knowledge about hygiene amongst the parents, the inability to afford healthcare, and the repercussions on the other aspects of the child. This impact story accentuates the need for active effort and attention to detail while working with these children. Sampark, a Bangalore, India based NGO has taken many such measures to provide appropriate resources to the children of migrant workers. Sampark is actively working on ECCD in 28 locations, catering to 2000 children, in Bangalore. Each incident is a learning step, just how the caregivers of the children were informed about the necessity of health and hygiene in this case.

Early child care center teachers connected with Public Health Center nurses and provided “3252 children” with “age appropriate immunization”. Early child care center instituted academic programs that cater to 3 different age groups, with teaching and learning material specific to each category. Out of the “26% children” from a total of 7605 identified as undernourished, they used special diets to ameliorate the nourishment standard of “65% children” from the undernourished to normal. This statistical data is from the work implemented by Sampark over 5 years from 2019 to 2023 (Annual Report | Sampark | Top 20 NGO in India, 2023)²⁰. These facts testify the positive outcome that can be achieved by enforcing multi sectoral measures in the field of ECCD. Since families that live in unstable conditions can not invest too much in the child financially, they often decide to not indulge in ECCD programs despite understanding its potential benefits. Hence Sampark has worked on enlightening families of migrant workers about specific student scholarships, marriage benefits, free bus passes etcetera provided by welfare unions that reduces their financial burden and encourages them to invest in ECCD.

We can conclude that ECCD acts to improve each facet of an individual’s life and creates a secure groundwork that impacts further outcomes in one’s life. Moreover from a holistic point of view, ECCD ameliorates the economic prospect of a country by inducing a change from the very beginning that builds better overall personality and hence by ripple effect a better society. Furthermore, the focus should be on enhancing each and every aspect under the ECCD program and equivalently providing assistance and guidance to the family in areas they are deprived. This cumulative enactment of policies will be necessary to ensure that low income families are not disadvantaged by turning to ECCD programs and actually see it as a benefit, rather than a task that could worsen their economical condition. Quality of the resources provided and routinely evaluations of the services is crucial. Implementation on the local scale has proven the merits of ECCD programs, which points towards the large scale benefits that can be achieved by a more focused national and global execution. By polishing the existing national policies and fervently surveying the impacts of the actions taken, we can make ECDD orthodox path.

                                                                                                                                              – Sneh Pancholi

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