Save South Africa with free ECD programmes

The Community Chest regards the provision of free early childhood development programmes (ie, ECD centres for children 0-5) to poor families as fundamental to the development and protection of vulnerable children and to bringing an end to some of the violence against women and children.

ECD forms a vital part of the development of every child. We know that children who have access to quality ECD from an early age are mostly better suited to coping with formal schooling and life in general.

Children in disadvantaged communities are deprived of fundamental basic socio-economic rights, including access to basic nutrition, health care, shelter, education and social services. Without access to quality ECD which includes loving, nurturing care, good nutrition and appropriate cognitive and physical stimulation, too many young children are left permanently stunted intellectually and emotionally, thus feeding the vicious cycle of inter-generational poverty.

The Centre on the Developing Child at Harvard University stated in its publication: “The Impact of Early Adversity on Children’s Development”, that “what happens in early childhood can matter for a lifetime. To successfully manage our society’s future, we must recognise problems and address them before they get worse.

In early childhood, research on the biology of stress shows how major adversity, such as extreme poverty, abuse, or neglect, can weaken developing brain architecture and permanently set the body’s stress response system on high alert. Science also shows that providing stable, responsive, nurturing relationships in the earliest years of life can prevent or even reverse the damaging effects of early life stress, with lifelong benefits for learning, behaviour, and health”.

The study further states that from “the prenatal period through the first years of life, the brain undergoes its most rapid development and early experiences determine whether its architecture is sturdy or fragile”.

It must therefore stand, as a crucial priority for the South African government and its academic, health and education partners, that by ensuring the maximum development of the child in the first five years of his or her life, we are in fact making a huge investment in the well-being of both the child and the country.

The study also states that “during early sensitive periods of development, the brain’s circuitry is most open to the influence of external experiences, for better or for worse. During these sensitive periods, healthy emotional and cognitive development is shaped by responsive, dependable interaction with adults, while chronic or extreme adversity can interrupt normal brain development.”

It is clear that early and healthy stimulation of the brain forever shapes the emotional and cognitive abilities of the child.

One of the many challenges faced by South African children is an unacceptable level of personal and community adversity. This includes high levels of family and community violence, the trauma of untimely deaths of close family members, absence of a parent, and lack of food and general nutrition.

The lack of access to ECD opportunities, formal education and the lack of resources to participate in education add to the adversity facing children. The environmental degradation visible in many communities where children are trapped, brings with it further unbearable stresses. Those who are entrusted to care for children are often unable and unskilled to manage the challenging behaviours that children who are not coping may display.

For any child, acquiring the resilience to cope with adversity is an important part of healthy child development. The Harvard report states that when children are threatened, their bodies activate a variety of “physiological responses, including increases in heart rate, blood pressure and stress hormones such as cortisol”.

When a young child is protected by supportive relationships with adults, he/she learns to cope with everyday challenges. Scientists call this positive stress. Tolerable stress occurs when more serious difficulties, such as the loss of a loved one, a natural disaster, or a frightening injury, are buffered by caring adults who help the child adapt, which mitigates the potentially damaging effects of abnormal levels of stress hormones. When strong, frequent, or prolonged adverse experiences such as extreme poverty or repeated abuse are experienced without adult support, stress becomes toxic, as excessive cortisol disrupts developing brain circuits.”

Research has shown that such prolonged toxic stress can slow or even stop both brain development and physical growth. Prolonged exposure to cortisol can cause long-term damage to the developing brain and can negatively affect the immune system.

About 80% of South Africa’s children live in conditions where such physiological damage is done to their brains every day. Creating safe places, protective educational spaces and healthy play spaces all help to reduce the production of cortisol and thus protect brain development and physical growth. In addition to the developmental benefits ECD provides for children, it also forms a crucial part of the safety infrastructure of vulnerable communities.

Many communities are exposed to high levels of crime and violence. Child murders and violence against women are showing alarming increases.

Most parents affected by poverty do not have the capacity to provide quality ECD for their children, thus the child grows up without the necessary brain stimulation and with broad exposure to toxic stress – poverty, neglect, parental substance abuse and mental illness, and exposure to violence. These have a cumulative effect on an individual’s physical and mental health. The more adverse experiences in childhood, the greater the likelihood of developmental delays and the presence of other negative social and behavioural problems.

The study states that “adults with more adverse experiences in early childhood are also more likely to have health problems, including alcoholism, depression, heart disease and diabetes”.

It also states that “numerous scientific studies support these conclusions: providing supportive, responsive relationships as early in life as possible can prevent or reverse the damaging effects of toxic stress”.

In poor and vulnerable communities, free ECD opportunities become an imperative resource to families.

Using the Food Poverty Line (FPL) as a base, 21.7% of South Africans live in extreme poverty. That’s over 12 million people, who earn below R335 per month, who are unable to pay for daily basic nutritional requirements.

Assessments must be made to find parents who cannot afford to pay for ECD programmes and we must ensure their children have access to these. If South Africa is to become a prosperous nation, with far fewer failure rates within the school system and with decreasing crime and violence trends, we need to ensure that the foundation of ECD is a right for every child in this country.

We must design a new ECD subsidy system that funds the vulnerable and poor child and not the child of a parent who can afford to pay for an ECD service.

As part of the analysis around the current spate of child murders, we must research to what extent violence relates to the impact of poor nurturing and developmental deficits in both victims and perpetrators.

On examination, we can see a correlation between current crime rates, violence against women and children, and the lack of access to quality ECDs for children.

Could we change this negative pattern of behaviour over the long term by providing free ECD programmes as a crucial input into the well-being of the lives of women and children

Community Chest calls on partners and organisations working with children to begin the dialogue on how free ECD programmes can be provided to children, to protect and develop them.

* Daries is the special projects manager at Community Chest.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

Weekend Argus