A compelling case for change has emerged for policy makers. A rapidly growing body of scientific research shows positive results on the effects of early educational intervention and experience on human development, lifelong learning, socioeconomic gains and health demand.
These findings have a number of implications for public policy in Australia and the future of our public services.
Increased investment and policy reform in early educational intervention must be a whole-of-government approach. The reform agenda should not only improve the quality and access of early childhood intervention services but it should also strengthen their overall coordination, planning, governance and accountability across the network. Such intervention programs will provide children with the best start in life.
For more than 50 years scientists have worked to highlight links in learning and developmental pathways with critical transitional periods in infancy and early childhood. The research findings are not entirely new and build on what we already know and understand of the developing brain.
What the evidence shows
There exists overwhelming evidence from a new knowledge base – across a range of disciplines such as neuroscience, biology and child development. This evidence highlights the strong influences of early learning experience and environment on how our brain is coded and wired. It also reveals the subsequent impact this has on our ability to participate fully in and contribute meaningfully to society. These facts become more convincing if we consider the brain’s extraordinarily ability to expand in the very early years of life and that by age 3 the human brain has reached 85% of its potential.
Our growing interest in understanding and harnessing the unique plasticity of the brain should be matched by our efforts to introduce appropriately targeted interventions in these formative periods.
Research conducted by Dr Vincent Felitti in his seminal study Adverse Childhood Experiences highlights two important factors:
- Dysfunction is not restricted by class boundaries;
- There is a strong correlation between ill health and dysfunction in later life with adverse experiences in early life.
It also shows that early interventions impact this dysfunction and serve to either reinforce or break the subsequent vicious circle of poverty. Such initiatives have the power to change the course and quality of a lifetime by directly influencing the behaviours and outcomes associated with intergenerational deprivation and disadvantage.
We know that very young children need a high level of engagement, emotional responsiveness and sensory stimulation that not all parents are equipped to meet. Changing demographics - particularly the increase in extended families and more one-parent households - means that parenting skills that in the past were handed down from generation to generation now have to be taught.
The evidence tells us that the right interventions delivered at the right transition points can and do make a world of difference – to the individual, family, community and society at large.
Interventions can deliver significant benefits
Investment in early childhood development programs targeted at enabling at-risk parents to provide effective nurturing as early as possible in children’s lives demonstrates increased returns generated over and above the initial cost. A good example of this is the Nurse-Family Partnership program based on the life-long work of Professor David Olds.
The program is designed to serve first-time pregnant women, mainly from low socio-economic population groups, and consists of pre- and post-natal intensive and comprehensive home visitation by nurses. The program aims to increase the competence and confidence of mothers in looking after themselves and their babies, including improving their own life course development while supporting emotional engagement and non-violent parenting.
The outcome of a Rand Corporation evaluation of the Nurse-Family Partnership program estimated that savings - in the form of reduced health, welfare and criminal justice expenditure and increased tax revenues - were four times greater than the program costs over the life of children who participated. And what’s more, evidence exists of a range of benefits of early childhood intervention programs to society beyond the financial. These benefits include cognition and academic achievement, health and social welfare, behavioural and emotional competencies, many of which last long after the intervention has ended.
Future reform that gives our children the best start in life
Engaging policy makers in a constructive dialogue of early childhood interventions with a particular focus on children from disadvantaged backgrounds is a wise investment in Australia’s future. The benefits of carefully designed and well-structured programs that target clearly defined needs and produce lasting outcomes for this vulnerable population group are clear and should guide policy and investment decisions at all levels of government. The jury is no longer out - the real question now is what we as a nation are doing about breaking the cycle of intergenerational disadvantage, underachievement and deprivation.
With thanks to the following authors:
Glover et al (2010). Understanding educational opportunities and outcomes: a South Australian atlas. Adelaide: Public Health Information Development Unit, The University of Adelaide.
Allen et al (2008). Early Intervention: Good Parents, Great Kids, Better Citizens. London: Centre for Social Justice and the Smith Institute.