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By Julián Cristiá and Steven Ambrus. 

For decades now, researchers have suspected that investments in early childhood development pay off richly. That is because providing the right intellectual and emotional stimulation to children in their first years could open a new future. It may not only lead to smarter, more prosperous and more socially-adapted adults. It could generate more equality and productivity in a society as a whole if directed at lower income groups.

As governments in Latin America and the Caribbean begin to grasp that concept, however, they are confronted with difficult choices. Given limited budgets, they must decide what programs best propel the very young forward at a reasonable cost. And there the research is still not definitive. For every advocate of pre-school, there is another of daycare, with myriad variations within those categories and still other alternatives outside them.

But there is one type of program, described in the IDB’s report The Early Years, which unquestionably offers great promise. Indeed, it is so promising in developing language and cognitive skills in the very young that it could be revolutionary if successfully replicated at a mass scale.

One version of the program was implemented in Jamaica between 1986 and 1989. Health workers visited the homes of around 65 malnourished children aged 9-24 months in the poorest neighborhoods of Kingston for an hour a week during two years. Building on the natural, intimate bond between mother and child, they taught mothers how to play with their children in the most constructive ways possible. They showed them how to use homemade toys and picture books to spark their children’s minds and impart concepts such as color, shape, size and number. They showed them how to have fun with their children while teaching language and other skills.

The results were astounding. By the end of the parenting program, children had significantly higher cognitive development scores than a control group that received no additional teaching — a difference roughly equivalent to that between a 4.5 year old and a three year old. Moreover, the gains were lasting. Twenty years later, the beneficiary children had higher IQs and educational levels, as well as better mental health than those in the control group. They even made more money, enjoying incomes 25% higher.

Could this be a fluke? Could once a week visits at such a young age really have such transformative effects across an individual’s life? To date, the Jamaica study is the only one to have followed children over 20 years. But similar trials in Ecuador, Jamaica, Colombia and Brazil have yielded similarly impressive results in terms of immediate benefits, with cognitive development scores on average only slightly lower.

And new modalities of the program show it can be delivered very cheaply. Mothers did not receive home visits in other experiments in Jamaica, St Lucia and Antigua. But they got comparable instruction through videos and discussion with community health workers while they waited with their children for doctor’s appointments. The implementation manual of that program was recently published and is available to download.

As described in another IDB study, after only five such visits over an 18-month period, the benefits were one-third of those in the Jamaica experiment of the late 1980s. But at $14 per child per year, there could hardly have been a better investment. If the long-term effects of that remarkable Jamaican experience hold up in this one, it would mean that for every dollar invested, children would reap $20 in additional earnings (in current dollars) over their lifetime. It also would mean that at that very low price, 20% of the childhood cognitive development gap between the bottom and top income quartiles in Latin America and the Caribbean could be closed.

Mahatma Gandhi once said “There is no school equal to a decent home and no teacher equal to a virtuous parent.” The parenting programs in Latin America and the Caribbean build on that basic truth. The vast majority of parents want to do the best by their children. They want to see them prosperous and happy. But many parents do not know how to teach their children or think that school will eventually do it for them. By showing parents how to creatively intervene when their children’s brains are most impressionable, plastic and fertile, parenting programs might just be the magic bullet. They could be the vehicle by which early learning contributes to reducing inequality and increasing productivity throughout the region. Only larger, equally rigorous studies at national levels will determine for sure if that is possible. But with so much promising evidence thus far, there is nothing to lose.

Lee este artículo en español AQUÍ.

This article was originally published in the Ideas Matter Blog.

Julián Cristiá is a research economist in the Research Department of the Inter-American Development Bank.

Steven Ambrus works in the communications and publications unit of the Research Department at the Inter-American Development Bank.

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