The quality of care and interaction during the first five years of life has a major impact on childhood development and is a critical determinant of a child’s future health, behavior, and intellectual abilities. In Latin America and the Caribbean, access to early childhood programs has increased over the past two decades, particularly for the poor, and preschool services are now available to 69 percent to the population, according to data from the United Nations.
Despite the increased availability of services, however, no systematic information has been available until recently about these programs. Information is needed not only for policymakers to ensure that the quality of such services is acceptable and regulated, but also for parents themselves to be able to choose the daycare center that is the best fit for their children, close to their home or office, affordable, clean, and well run.
To better understand the current situation and challenges, the IDB surveyed 42 programs that offer childcare or parenting services in 19 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. The study mostly examined government programs, although it also looked at services run by civil society organizations and private entities, given their reach in certain regions. The resulting report published in 2013, Overview of Early Childhood Development Services, is the first systematic review of such programs in the region. It focuses on understanding program design, components, coverage, costs, and quality. Data was collected through in-depth interviews with the managers of the programs.
According to the survey, there is a wide range of models currently in place in the region to serve children under age three. In the Andean countries, for example, community-based models have been established where a mother feeds and looks after groups of 8 to 10 children in her own home and is paid by the government (and in some cases by parents). By contrast, in the Southern Cone, services operate largely through formal institutions where children are grouped by age and are cared for by professional educators.
The study points to the need for early childhood program to increase hiring of qualified professionals and decrease the child–to–adult ratio, a key determinant of quality. In the region, daycare services average six children per caregiver for children under one year of age. That’s double the recommended rate for children in that age group. The region average ratios are also higher than the optimal rates for other age groups.
More training and better pay is necessary to improve the quality of care. According to the survey, staff are underpaid, and their rudimentary educational credentials and competencies in early childhood development are well below the levels required for such programs. On average, early childhood teachers have completed only 2.6 years of post-secondary education, teaching assistants have barely finished high school, and caregivers have only 10 full years of education, meaning they have not finished high school. To attract qualified professionals, programs should offer competitive salaries and increase training, mentoring, and supervision of staff with low levels of education.
Increased monitoring of services is needed. Only 44 percent of daycare centers are regularly monitored on matters of safety and hygiene. Since the immune system of young children is still in development, hygiene and security issues pose particular risks for them. The study recommends that countries establish institutional arrangements in which quality standards are defined for the operation of childcare centers. It also recommends that systematic monitoring be put in place for government programs and for private programs.
Nutritional services can be channeled through childcare centers. Many countries of the region still face significant challenges in terms of providing adequate nutrition for children up to five years old. Childcare services can do more to ensure that children get the foods and micronutrients they need and have access to growth monitoring, and that families receive nutritional counseling.
Finally, the findings show that a significant improvement in the quality of childcare services is impossible without a significant budget commitment by the countries to make it happen. There may not be much short-term political gain for authorities to make such a commitment, but the investment is critical to ensure better prospects for children who are the most vulnerable.