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Getting Children Ready for School: It Must Start Years Before

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Young children around the world who are just entering school for the first time this fall share a common emotion. Despite their youth -- perhaps only 5 or 6 years old -- they step through the classroom doors with a collective sense of anticipation at the limitless possibilities of what lies ahead. Particularly in developing countries, even young children have an intrinsic understanding that their best hope for rising beyond the circumstances that have restricted opportunity for their parents is through education, and they are eager to open their minds to the academic challenges to come.

Unfortunately, however eager, optimistic or ambitious they may be, most of these new students are insufficiently prepared to take full advantage of the learning opportunities before them. For these children, the reality of the hardships around them starts at an early age, and adequate preparation for a lifetime of learning -- preparation that we have come to term more formally as early childhood education -- is as elusive as the prospect down the road of a college scholarship.

And yet, based on what we have come to learn about the critical nature of early childhood education, we must elevate its importance if we are to make a lasting difference in these children's lives. From a physiological standpoint, scientists now understand much about the development of the brain in the first few years of a child's life, and if we miss this "window of opportunity" in stirring and nurturing young children's thinking and reasoning during those years, they will never reach their full potential, not only from a cognitive standpoint but emotionally and socially as well. In effect, early childhood education helps the brain form the building blocks needed for future achievement and stability.

Children in developing countries rarely acquire those building blocks, and in fact, they typically confront circumstances that serve to inhibit rather than encourage their proper development. The priority for families, understandably, is on matters of survival, and young children are either left alone -- suffering from a total lack of vital stimulation and the ill-effects of sustained isolation -- or are assigned responsibilities to support the family. It is not unusual to find children as young as 4 years old tasked with toting water twice a day or engaged in household chores.

There are other external factors at play. The lack of a proper diet suppresses proper brain development. Malnourishment is a persistent problem, not only for how it affects physical growth but for its impact inhibiting mental growth as well. Similarly, the perennial state of living in chronic poverty creates abiding anxiety for these families, and these stressful environments -- which often cause recurring episodes of child abuse and neglect -- can wreak havoc on a child's emotional and mental development. For families living illegally in makeshift, temporary settlements, worried that they could be summarily removed at any moment, stress is a constant, and children often bear the biggest brunt of it, especially considering its long-term effects.

Missing as well, of course, are the institutional structures that are typically found within most developed nations. Preschool and day care facilities here at home are implementing more formal early childhood programs and helping prepare young children's brains for a lifetime of learning. Such programs in developing countries are incredibly rare, and where they do exist, are most often too expensive for most families.

But this is an area where ChildFund International is working hard to make a difference. Based on the critical nature of early childhood education, we have elevated our commitment to it as among our highest priorities. On the one hand, we are building physical spaces where early learning can take place. These early childhood centers not only serve as a place where children can be nurtured, fed, encouraged, educated and attended to from a health standpoint, but they also serve parents as well. The centers host parent support groups where mothers can learn about the importance of maternal care and affection, which is not always part of a family's culture in many parts of the world.

In the Asian nation of Timor Leste, ChildFund International has built more than 75 early childhood centers. The buildings have become important centerpieces within the communities and are making a tangible difference in reshaping traditional parent-child relationships. In Honduras our focus has been on training "guide mothers," typically well-respected senior women in the village, who help teach young mothers how to raise their children in a way that nurtures and stimulates them. And often we are pleasantly surprised by the unintended consequences of such work. When we made one Honduran father aware of the negative consequences of hitting his children, he figured out on his own that it would likely be just as beneficial to stop hitting his wife.

With this new school year comes new possibilities and hope. But our best hope for improving the long-term prospects of the world's poorest children must start years before they ever set foot in the classroom. In other words, we must focus on that "window" before they ever open the schoolhouse door.