Review of Current Concepts

Cassie Landers
Consultative Group on

Early Childhood Care and Development

December 1991


A Rationale for Investing in Early Child Development Programmes (*)

In proposing that international donors and governments turn their attention towards comprehensive programmes of early child development, a set of convincing arguments is required. ECD proponents must recognize the sources of negativism, disbelief, and skepticism that have previously curtailed programmatic activity in this field. Skeptics must be convinced of the capacity of financially feasible ECD programmes to achieve programme integration, elicit community support, and provide high quality services to at-risk children and their families.

Before turning to the growing body of scientific evidence that powerfully demonstrates the importance of the early years of a child's life and the long-term benefits associated with early intervention programmes, several compelling lines of social and economic arguments require recognition. These include:

The human rights argument. Children have a right to develop to their full potential. Allowing arrested development to occur, when it could be prevented, violates a basic human right. The 1959 Declaration of the Rights of the Child and the 1989 Convention designed to reinforce and extend its principles, are for many the most convincing and fundamental force supporting early child development programming.

The moral argument. The transmission of moral and social values that will guide the future of our children begins in the earliest months of life. There is a strong incentive to strengthen such values in societies concerned with the rapid erosion of traditional values. Early child development programmes can assist in that effort by supporting parents and communities, thus providing environments that reinforce positive cultural values. _____________________________________________________________

(*) The information presented in this paper is adapted from Landers, Cassie Innocenti Global Seminar. Early Child Development Summary Report. UNICEF International Child Development Centre. Florence, Italy, 1989.

III. The social equity argument. Stressful conditions that inhibit development in the early years affect the poor more than the rich, reinforcing social inequities. The negative outcomes of stressful environments are cumulative, and poor children fall quickly and progressively behind their more advantaged peers. Moreover, in many countries gender-linked disparities in patterns and practices of childrearing in the early years work against girls' development and educational opportunities. Early childhood development programs have the potential to help correct such discrepancies.

IV. The economic argument. Society benefits through increased productivity and cost savings associated with enhanced early child development. Preventive programs can produce savings by reducing the need for expensive curative health care; by improving the efficacy of education systems; by reducing the rate of drop-out and repetition; and by reducing the incidence of juvenile delinquency, drug and alcohol abuse, and other forms of harmful social behaviour.

V. The birth-spacing and population argument. The link between fertility rates and education levels suggests that efforts to improve the educational level of girls and women will have a strong intergenerational effect on fertility. Early child development programmes, linked to parental education and increasing girls' school attendance, can play a role in promoting family planning and the decline of fertility rates.

VI. The programmatic argument. The effectiveness of health, nutrition, education, and income-generating programmes can be improved through integration with programmes of child development, thus taking advantage of the interactive effects among these variables. Moreover, child development programmes are often an important entry point for community development activities as well as an extension for primary health care services.

The force of these arguments is strengthened by the negative effects of worldwide economic recession and changing social conditions, including increasing child survival and the concomitant need to sustain and support these gains, increasing female participation in the labor force, rapid urbanization, and the erosion of stable family-units. When viewed collectively, these arguments provide a powerful basis for families, communities, governments, nongovernmental organizations, and international donor agencies to consider investing in early child development programmes.

The discussion that follows seeks to clarify the scientific basis in support of increased investments in well-conceived and properly managed early child development programmes. In this discussion child development encompasses the unfolding of behaviors from immature to mature; from patterns of behavior that are simple to those that are complex; and the evolution of a human being from dependency to autonomous adulthood. More simply, child development is a process of change in which the child learns to handle more complex levels of moving, thinking, feeling, and interacting with people and objects in the environment. Early child development refers to the formative early year of the life cycle-the first six years of life. In this section, the major developmental tasks and challenges confronting the newborn, infant and preschool child are highlighted.

Newborn Capacities and Patterns of Early Interaction

Following nine months of growth and maturation in utero, chemical changes initiate the birth process. The transition to life outside the mother fundamentally changes the conditions required for continued development. Birth constitutes the first of several major biological-behavioural shifts in development. No longer able to receive maternal sources of oxygen and nutrients to sustain life, the infant must rely on the biological capacities developed during the prenatal period. Thus repeats the process in which the biological forces during conception interact with the culturally organized environment that awaits the child at birth.

Contrary to common wisdom of earlier decades, modern research has demonstrated the remarkable abilities of infants to seek out and process information about their environment and to act on that information. It is increasingly recognized that infant survival is directly dependent on the social support of caregivers who respond to and structure, according to prescribed patterns, the infant's interaction with the environment.

At birth infants are equipped with a wide range of capacities that facilitate both survival and healthy development. They have reflexes for the basic biological functions as well as reflexes that lay the foundation for the more complex controlled behaviours that appear later on, such as grasping, crawling, and walking. Their basic sensory capacities for hearing, touching, smelling, and tasting are mature at birth, and the competence with which most newborns use these capacities is dramatic. For example, neonates are able to hear across the same frequency range as older children, and they display a special sensitivity to the basic sound categories of human language.[1] Although vision is not fully developed at birth, infants are able to focus and follow the human face as well as attractive inanimate objects[2]. By two months of age the infant's attention span increases, and more complex, shaded images are preferred. At birth, the dermal or touch system is the most mature of all the sensory capacities. The skin, the most extensive of all sensory systems, sends a multitude of sensory messages to the brain through its receptors for temperature, contact, and pain. In addition to body contact, taste and smell play an important role in the early establishment of emotional ties. Within the first week, infants are capable of distinguishing the mother's breast milk. Infants are attracted to what is familiar and express this comfort through bodily movements and facial expressions. A calm quiet infant is highly satisfying to the mother. The mother-infant communication system, which is initially established through touch and smell, occupies a critically important place in the development of emotional ties.[3] These early expressions of emotional ties lay the foundation for the emergence of more complex cognitive, social. and emotional development.[4] In the absence of human contact, infants will begin to withdraw from their environments.

Young infants are equipped with a repertoire of communication skills, including smiles, gestures, and vocalizations, which enable participation in a complex affective communication system. For example, an infants has several goals for interacting with other objects and maintaining close proximity to its caregiver.[5] To accomplish these goals, the infant processes information about its successes or failures and uses that information to accomplish their goals or to redirect his/her efforts to other goals. An infant can effectively signal its interests for interaction through eye gaze and smiles, and caregivers interpreting the infant's messages respond through appropriate facilitation of the infant's objectives. Thus the infant is an active, not a passive, participant.

Social interaction in the newborn and in the early months of infancy appears to be a rule-governed, goal-oriented system in which the infant and its caregiver are active participants. Disruptions of this system command powerful responses from the newborn. This has been dramatically illustrated by years of laboratory investigation of face-to-face interactions by Brazelton and his colleagues. In a face-to-face laboratory play situation, mothers were asked to violate the infant's expectations for interaction by remaining alert but unresponsive.[6] The still-faced mothers remained unresponsive for only three minutes, yet their infants found this temporary violation greatly disturbing. This suggests that reciprocity and mutual achievement of the goals of social interaction form a necessary basis for the growth of affective well-being in infancy. The strategies that infants employ to bring their mothers out of immobility demonstrates their growing confidence as an effective social partner. The seriousness of their reaction when the mother remained unresponsive demonstrates the infant's critical need for maternal responsivity. When infants are unable to pull their mothers into the interaction and finally withdraw, they are reminiscent of Harlow and Zimmerman's description of the withdrawn behaviour and huddled posture of isolated monkeys, and of Bowlby's description of the withdrawn behaviour of children separated from their caretakers.[7] Sick, malnourished, or brain-impaired babies as well as those infants expecting to fail will elicit less effective social interaction.[8]

Decades of research on infant behaviour, combined with a sensitive appreciation for the range of cross-cultural contexts in which the child's capacities unfold, has led Brazelton and his colleagues to develop a model for understanding the drama of child development during this early period.[9] An understanding of the forces that propel the child along the normal path of development, is critical to an understanding and prevention of failure. According to this model, there are three sources of energy for development, including central nervous system maturation, internal feedback system, and external feedback system (Figure 1).[10]

The first source of energy is the maturation of the central nervous system (CNS) which is at the same time the most powerful and most limiting force. The growth and maturation of the central nervous system in early child development is dramatic and drives infants from one level of development to another in relentless fashion. Brain development is a process characterized by events that occur in a complex, interrelated way, in a dynamic fashion, at specific predetermined times. The brain attains 90 percent of its adult volume by 6 years of age, whereas the rest of the 6-year-old's body represents only 40 percent of adult volume. There are two periods of rapid brain growth. The first begins during the first three weeks of pregnancy, during the period of embryogenesis, when the nerves and glial cells are formed. The number of cells formed during this period remains stable throughout the life cycle. The lifetime brain potential acquired at that time is approximately 10 billion cells. The second phase of rapid brain growth lasts from the 13th week of gestation until 2.5 years. During this period many of the brain's structures and biochemical routes are developed, and a whole system of interconnections is established.[11]

The second important set of energies in early child development is the internal feedback system that provides the growing infant with a sense of inner competence. These internal programmes of development, reflecting both genetic endowment and intrauterine shaping, provide the maturational stages that are genetically programmed. For instance, when a toddler first learns to walk its face glows, its body struts and its legs are driven to perform for long, exhausting periods. The energy that has been mobilized to achieve the developmental task of walking now fuels the realization of mastery, and in turn, the infant is reinforced to move on to achieve the next developmental stage.

The third source of energy propelling early child development is the external feedback system provided by the parents and the outside environment. For instance, as the infant achieves each new goal, it looks for signs of reward and reinforcement from the outside world. Thus, infants are programmed with the energy or drive to reach out for and incorporate cues and reinforcing signals from the social world, providing a second force for achieving an inner sense of competence. While the feedback cycles that are necessary for normal affective growth are well documented, we have only recently understood the crucial role of environmental nurturance for all of the infant's development. Environmental forces can work powerfully to retard or enhance the infant's progress.

A normal infant has sufficient amount of internal energy as well as mechanisms for demanding responses from caregivers. Malnourished infants, however, are unable to elicit appropriate responses from already over-stressed, depleted caregivers. These infants' capacity for catch-up growth is limited, and the stage has been set to fuel the cycle of poverty.[12] In a malnourished infant, one with a premature CNS system and decreased amount of brain cells, where are the sources of energy? These infants expect to fail and before they have reached their first birthday they have already learned how to fail. How can one intervene early enough to interfere with this expectation for failure?

The design of early intervention initiatives for at-risk infants and their families requires the identification of critical periods or opportunities. These opportunities or "touchpoints" refer to "windows" when the infant-caregiver-environment system is particularly responsive and open to both receive and provide appropriate information. The esteemed French psychologist Jean Piaget first recognized that any developmental progression goes in a burst of energy, followed by a leveling off and a consolidation, and then another burst.[13] This period of disorganization is what leaves the system open allowing the child, caregiver, and family receptive to establishing a relationship, as well as to receive and pass on new information.

Several early universal touchpoints have been recognized by Brazelton in his work with infants and families in both industrialized and non-industrialized countries. The first touchpoint occurs in the last trimester of pregnancy when parents and families seem to be universally receptive to information. A second touchpoint appears to be the early months of life when the universal language of the infant can be demonstrated to engage the caregiver's heightened commitment and capture the sense of hope which surrounds the birth of an infant. This hope, however fleeting, is available in even the most stressful and at-risk systems.

Two ingredients seem to be critical if early intervention is to result in improved developmental outcome. These include the timing of the intervention and its quality. Intervention must be of a kind that fosters the child's sense of competence and fuels his own internal coping strategies, and it must involve appropriate caregiver response to recognize, nurture and reinforce the child's development. Efforts at early intervention may prevent a compounding of problems that occur when the environment cannot properly respond. For example, premature infants are less able to compensate in disorganized, depriving environments than are well-equipped infants. Quiet, undemanding malnourished infants do not elicit necessary mothering from already over-stressed parents.

It must be recognized, however, that in spite of desperate socioeconomic conditions characterizing the environments of many children in the developing world, families are able to produce children who do not have to be rescued from protein-energy malnutrition and other forms of abuse and neglect. Premature and growth-retarded babies do make remarkable recoveries when placed in supportive environments. Only through the careful appraisal of both the strengths and weaknesses of infants and their environments can we come to appreciate the mechanisms for failure and the sources of strength. Thus, an opportunity and a challenge is offered to practitioners and programmers to identify critical periods when early intervention strategies will be most effective. These touchpoints, when parents are ready to be empowered or children are about to conquer the next developmental task, must be socially and culturally determined. With insights grounded in the knowledge of child development as well as a realistic appraisal of available resources, each community of families must identify the timing as well as the content of the intervention.

The following section summarizes the normal developmental process beginning with a description of the infant from 3 months to 2 years of age and concludes with a discussion of the early childhood period from 2.5 to 6 years of age. This discussion, with its attention to developmental stages, attempts to provide the reader with a firmer foundation to build programs.

Developmental Achievements in the First Two Years

The period from 3 months to 12 months of age is characterized by increases in size and strength accompanied by increases in coordination and mobility. Sitting appears at about 5 to 6 months; crawling, at about 7 to 9 months; and walking, at about 1 year. During this period both memory and problem-solving abilities improve, providing infants with a firmer sense of their environment and their ability to act on it. Sometime between 7 and 9 months the infant's increased physical ability and intellectual power bring about changes in its social relations. During the period between 3 and 12 months there is a steady growth of memory. As a result of this cognitive capacity, infants become upset when left alone and are likely to be wary of strangers. Monitoring of caregiver's facial expressions helps them to evaluate their environment. They also begin to make their first speech-like sounds, which foreshadow the beginning of language.

At the same time that infants have increased motor capacity, they also show an increased capacity to understand basic properties of objects and spatial relations; they perceive different objects as members of the same category and compare present experiences with memories of past events. According to Piaget, development evolves from children's own efforts to master their environments. In this perspective, infants actively seek to assimilate their environmental experiences into their existing knowledge base, or schemes. When they are unable to do so, they accommodate their existing schemes to the environmental realities they encounter. Learning during infancy occurs by sensorimotor ways of knowing. Between 4 and 8 months they pay increased attention to external objects and prolong actions that produce interesting changes in their environment. Between 8 and 12 months they are able to coordinate separate actions to achieve goals.[14]

The combined data on the changes in a child's self-concept between the ages of 18 and 30 months is evidenced by children's declined distress at separation from their caregivers and an increased ability to engage in symbolic play, to imitate absent events, and to express themselves in elementary words and phrases. The changes that converge to create the transition from infancy to early childhood are summarized in Table 1. As indicated in the table, these changes reflect what psychologists refer to as a "bio-social-behavioural shift".[15] This shift refers to a process by which changes in separate domains converge to create a qualitative reorganization in the overall pattern of behaviour, signaling the beginning of a new developmental stage. The accomplishments of this period remind us that social and cognitive changes are accompanied by changes in physical development, such as coordinated walking and bladder control, all of which are controlled by the continued maturation of the central nervous system.

When both the environment and internal growth processes are sufficient, the separate components of development undergo further modification, and a new distinct stage characterizes the child at 3 or 4 years. A new configuration of cognitive abilities is manifested in many domains, including problem solving, play, imitation, categorization of objects, and communication. Play evolves from a concentration on variations in patterns of movement to the pretend use of objects in imaginary situations. Pretend play itself evolves, and children can carry out a sequence of pretend actions in which objects are used as agents. Late in the second year, children become capable of imitating actions seen days earlier, a kind of behaviour known as deferred imitation.[16]



Biological Domain

Behavioural Domain

Social Domain

The complexities and subtleties involved in accounting for how children develop are well known to those struggling to characterize and define the process. As confirmed by research, the contributions of biological and environmental factors as well as cultural influences and the specific circumstances in which infants and young children develop must all be considered. A child's behaviours develop not in isolation but as components of an integrated system. The requirement that developing systems must be studied as a whole is expressed with particular clarity by the embryologist C.H. Waddington: " A new level or organization cannot be accounted for in terms of the properties of its elementary units as they behave in isolation, but is accounted for if we add to these certain other properties which the units only exhibit in relation to each other."[17]

Malnutrition and the Brain

In many countries of the developing world, the environments confronting the young child are not able to support the magical unfolding of the child's potential. One of the most critical insults to early child development is inadequate nutrition. The functional and structural effects of malnutrition on the developing nervous system are known to impair cognition and behaviour and to magnify the adverse effects of socio-environmental deprivation on development.[18] At any age, undernutrition need not be severe or prolonged to produce behavioural changes that may have important implications for both parent-child interaction and the ability of the child to explore and master the environment. In studies of infants and toddlers, iron deficiency, even without associated protein energy deficits, correlates with lowered scores on tests of mental and motor developments, as well as with increased fearfulness, increased inattentiveness, and decreased social responsiveness.[19] These developmental deficits may persist after the iron deficiency has been treated. Protein-energy malnutrition reduces playful and exploratory activity as well as motivation and arousal and increases apathy and irritability, even before anthropometric deficits occur.[20,21] The physiologic mechanisms of these behavioural derangements are not fully understood but may be related to alterations in neurotransmitter[22][23]

While undernutrition produces alterations of behaviour at any age, the brain is uniquely vulnerable to structural deficits during the critical period of rapid brain growth which extends from mid-gestation through the early preschool years. The growing brain utilizes nutrients at very rapid rates. Although it is only 2 to 3 percent of the child's body weight, it uses 60 percent of the body's glucose utilization. During this critical period the brain has biosynthetic abilities which are inactive after early development making it impossible to generate new neurons after this critical period.[24]

The effects of nutrient deprivation on brain size and structure depend on the timing, duration, and severity of the nutritional deprivation in relation to the development of the brain. When the brain is deprived of an optimal supply of nutrients there are no discrete lesions. Rather, generalized distortion occurs in those areas that were maturing at the time of nutrient deficit. In other areas of the brain where the cells have differentiated during prenatal life, malnutrition in infancy reduces the formation of synapsis[25] and the branching of dendrites[26].27

Nutritional intervention is a necessary but not a sufficient mode of treatment for infants suffering from early malnutrition. Data on children from both the developed and developing worlds clearly demonstrates that medical and nutritional intervention may restore physical growth but do not bring developmental functions back to normal.[27,28,29,30] However, several investigations from the developing world have indicated the plasticity of the infant's central nervous system when exposed to interventions that provide developmental stimulation in conjunction with nutritional and medical care. Malnourished children who received focused and sustained centre- or home-based developmental intervention beginning before 2 years of age and lasting for at least 3 years showed significantly improved developmental scores at follow-up when compared to untreated malnourished children.

In a study in Cali, Colombia, 180 chronically malnourished Colombian preschool children were divided into three groups of 60 children each.[31] Children in Groups I, II and III received medical care, while Groups II and III received nutritional intervention as well. Children in Group III, in addition to receiving medical and nutritional interventions were exposed to a developmental component consisting of four hours of activities designed to develop cognitive, language, and social abilities. The results of the study indicate that adequate medical care alone produced no changes in physical growth or intellectual development. Nutritional intervention was able to increase physical growth. The group of children who received a multicomponent set of services, including medical care, adequate food, and a stimulating environment, exhibited rates of physical and cognitive development similar to a well-nourished control group. Thus, while such studies often suffer from methodological flaws of greater and lesser magnitude, the overall body of data indicates that the malfunction and poor growth due to early malnutrition and environmental deprivation are reversible with interventions with nutritional, medical, and developmental components. The implications of this research for the design of comprehensive programmes attending to a child's health, nutrition, and development cannot be underestimated.

In summary, infancy as a distinct period in the life span is recognized by all cultures. While infancy begins as soon as the child starts to breathe independently, the end of infancy is not so easily defined. According to the ancient Romans, an infant is "one who does not speak." Developmental psychologists, to establish that one stage has ended and another begun, look for converging changes in development among several spheres of physical, psychological, and social domains. For example, the acquisition of language is not an isolated event but is associated with children's social relations, self-concepts, modes of thought, and physical capacities. It is an ensemble of integrated change that transforms the infant into a young child who, though still dependent on adults, is on its way towards independence.

The behaviours that mark the end of infancy do not emerge all at once. Rather, they reflect the interplay among the patterned sequence of change in biological, behavioural, cultural, and social domains of development. As described earlier, the first few months of life provide insights into the processes of developmental change when the major task is to develop a synchronous pattern of interaction between the infant, its caregiver, and the environment. This system of mutual reciprocity is achieved through a wide range of different cultural systems of childrearing patterns and practices that respect, respond to, and support the infant's intense drive to learn through interactions with the environment. During the first two years of life, in supportive physical and social environments, the development of critical brain structures continues to fuel behavioural changes that enhance the child's abilities to learn from and shape its interactions with caregivers and the environment.

Paradoxes of the Preschool Mind

Developmental change evolves more slowly in early childhood the period from 2.5 to 6 years of age than in infancy. During this time, children lose their baby fat, their legs grow longer and thinner, and they move around the world with increasing dexterity. They present a bewildering patchwork of vulnerability and ability, logic and magic, insight and ignorance. Children at this age can talk in endless sentences but are keen listeners when an interesting story is being told. Their present desires can be curtailed with promises of later rewards, but they may not necessarily accept the offered terms, negotiating for an instant as well as a delayed reward. They develop theories about everything that are constantly measured against the world around them. However, despite their developing independence, 3- year-olds need assistance from adults and siblings. They cannot hold a pencil properly or string a loom or tie a knot. They do not have the ability to concentrate for long periods of time without a great deal of support, and they wander on tangents in their games and conversations. Preschool children's thought processes are characterized by great awareness; yet, these islands of sophistication exist in a sea of uncertainty. Children during this period, still understand relatively little about the world in which they live and have little or no control over it. They are prone to fears and they combat their growing self-awareness of being small by wishful, magical thinking1.

A dramatic accomplishment during this period is the acquisition of language. Despite intensive investigation, the process of language acquisition remains elusive, and no one theory has sufficiently uncovered its mystery. What is evident is that the growth of children's vocabulary and their increased ability to use complex sentence structures accompanied by a corresponding growth in their ability to engage in conversation appropriately tailored to the listener's needs, requires both participation in responsive human interactions and exposure to a rich language environment.[32]

For decades, Piaget's descriptions of young children's thinking dominated exploration of the preschooler's mental development. According to Piaget, children's language acquisition reflects their emerging capacity for representational thought. The ways in which children think about the world, however, are still primitive--dreams come from street lamps, we think with our ears, clouds are alive, and the sun follows us when we move. Piaget proposed that 3-, 4-, and 5- year old children make errors because they are still unable to engage in true mental operations. This type of thinking therefore was termed "pre-operational." According to Piaget, the key feature of preschool thinking is that children can only focus their attention on one salient aspect at a time. This limitation is overcome at 6 or 7 years of age, when the transition to concrete operational thinking emerges. When this occurs, children are able to combine, separate, and transform information mentally in a logical manner. They know that the sun does not follow them and dreams do not come from street lamps.

Piaget's perspective on the preschool child's development places the child at the centre of his universe. Through active interaction, exploration, and observation of the environment, the child actively creates his own learning. During development, the child's ability to engage in play undergoes important transformations reflecting and promoting levels of cognitive, motor, and social capacities. For example, the infant requires adult "scaffolding" of activities, the 2- to 4-year-old engages in solitary play while 4-to 6-year-olds have tremendous capacities for socio-dramatic make-believe games that involve other children and enactment of a variety of social roles. Play facilitates the transition to higher levels of cognitive development; the "as if" nature of play allows children to perform actions that are more developmentally advanced than those they can realistically achieve. Play fosters a sense of self-esteem and competence, supporting and reinforcing the child's capacity for effective action. As a consequence, in play a child is always above his daily behaviour; in play "it is as though he were a head taller than himself."[33]

In the past decade, Piaget's work has been challenged for its failure to account for the variation in preschool childrens' thinking. For some, the unevenness can be explained by differences in children's familiarity with specific task settings. Biologically oriented theorists argue that changes in the brain's structure are the major cause of unevenness in preschool thought. At the start of the preschool period, the brain has achieved 50 percent of its adult weight. By the age of 6, the brain will have grown to 90 percent of its weight. Within this overall process of growth, myelination -- the process by which neurons become covered by myelin, which is a sheath of fatty cells that stabilizes the neurons -- appears to play a particularly important role in preschoolers' cognitive development.[34]

In light of these varying perspectives, the position most reasonable to accept, however, is that the context-specific organization of the child's environment is constantly interacting with the biological properties of the child, which themselves develop at different rates. Appreciating the immense variation of these two diverse sources, one from the social world of human existence and one from biology, we can begin to understand the range and variability in early child behaviour. In this ecological view of development, the child's environment consists of four interrelated layers including the nuclear and extended family; the immediate community of peers and neighbours; the institutional community of schools and other social service facilities; and a cultural ethos consisting of values, beliefs, and rituals. The child's development is conditioned by the frequency and complexity of interactions within each one of these systems. For example, cognitive and social development seem to be most affected by factors of the home environment, including the caregivers' self-image, self-esteem, confidence, and emotional responsivity; the restrictions and types of discipline imposed on the child; the language stimulation provided; and the child's opportunities for exploratory play and appropriate play materials. Factors in the immediate community impacting on the child's development may consist of community attitudes, beliefs, and perceptions regarding the ideal child and childrearing patterns that foster such development.[35]

Until recently, emphasis was placed on identifying and overcoming deficiencies of the "deprived" environments that characterized the rural and urban poor. Disadvantaged environments have been thought to lack the necessary variety and quality of human interactions as well as the necessary objects and events for fostering a child's early development. Poor quality verbal interaction and absence of toys and were frequently cited as detrimental to a child's language abilities and visual-discrimination. More recently, however, the strengths of the environments characterizing the poor which are capable of fostering and promoting early development have been appreciated. Such features include, for example;

Realization is growing that within so-called deprived environments, children learn a different set of skills that are functional in their home environments but that may not be valued by formal institutions such as the school system. In the design of culturally appropriate, community-based early intervention programmes, it is critical therefore, to explore, mobilize, and build on these inherent strengths. The recognition of strengths within "deprived" environments sheds light on the factors giving rise to "invulnerable," or stress-resistant, children.[37]

Past investigations that focused only on vulnerabilities and sources of failure prevented an understanding of the ways in which protective mechanisms shield children from risk. In the past decade, efforts to understand "invulnerable" children have begun. Garmezey has proposed three categories of protective factors, which include (1) personality characteristics of the child; (2) a supportive, stable, and cohesive family unit; and (3) external support systems that enhance coping skills and project positive values.[38]

Recently, investigators have identified the child's "sense of self" as a key determinant of successful outcomes.[39,40] It is suggested that children with positive feelings of self-esteem, mastery, and control can more easily negotiate stressful experiences. These children in turn elicit more positive experiences from their environment. They show initiative in task accomplishment and relationship formation. Even in stressed families, the presence of one good relationship with a parent reduces psychosocial risk for children. For older children, the presence of a close, enduring relationship with an external support figure may likewise provide a protective function. A child with a positive self-concept seeks, establishes, and maintains the kinds of supportive relationships and experiences that promote successful outcomes. These successes enhance the child's self-esteem and sense of mastery, which leads to further positive experiences and relationships. The cycle of success can be as self-perpetuating as the cycle of failure.

In spite of these strengths, it is clear that the developmental costs of poverty are high and that poverty is a marker for potential psychosocial risk factors. Children in poverty are exposed more frequently to a clustering of such risk factors as medical illness, poor nutrition, family stress, low education levels, inadequate social-service support, and nonstimulating social environments. The costs can be measured in terms of school drop-out, unemployment, delinquency, and the intergenerational perpetuation of failure and poverty.

These stress factors additionally or "synergistically" interact with the child's inherent strengths and vulnerabilities to shape outcomes. A transactional model developed by Sameroff and Chandler has become widely used to help define developmental outcomes.[41] According to this framework, child outcomes can only be interpreted by considering the transaction between the content of the child's behaviour and the context in which the behaviours are manifested. Characteristics of the child shape its response to the environment. These interactions in turn transform environmental responsivity. Just as the child is shaped by the environment, so is the environment modified by the child. The child brings a host of attributes to the interaction, including; health and nutritional status; temperament; and cognitive, language, and social skills. The environment in turn brings specific attributes. In an environment of poverty, more risk factors are likely to be present. While adding considerable complexity to the determinates of child outcomes, such a model also suggests an opportunity for practical intervention strategies. Change in any aspect of the child's differing environments can create positive transformations in another.

The period of early childhood ends at the age of 6 or 7 years, when children pass through the next bio-behavioral shift and assume the accompanying social roles and demands. Generally by this age, children's brains have achieved a level of complexity similar to adults. It is the age of formal schooling, and children also gather with friends and peers beyond the family. Developments in early childhood provide the essential preparation for the new demands and opportunities to come.

Several important ECD programming implications can be derived from the theoretical perspective presented here. It is evident that in order to capture the opportunities in early childhood, programmes must focus on the short-term learning goals that lead to long-term results. For example quality early child programmes must encourage child initiative if they are to be successful inpreventing long term negative consequences. One may also conclude with confidence that only quality early child programmes enhance young children's development while inadequate programmmes may even increase the risk of school failure and social problems. To achieve long-term effects, high quality ECD programmes are those that stimulate young children's intellectual and social skills, creative expression, movement and personal initiative. Programme staff should be trained in the basic principles of early child development and receive ongoing supervision including including observational feedback, evaluation, and staff development. Finally, group sizes should be as small as possible, and parents and caregivers should see themselves as partners in the education of their young children.[42]

In bringing this theoretical discussion to a close, it is perhaps useful to conclude with the insight of a proverb, "As the twig is bent, so grows the tree." If forces in the environment bend a sapling long enough, the tree may become so bent that its leaves cannot receive the sun's light, and it will not flower and reproduce. Yet, if the forces bending the tree cease or if a gardener stakes the tree upright, the only lasting effect may be a slight bend in the trunk. The tree will prosper and make a genuine contribution to its environment.1


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2 Haith, M. N., Berman, T., and Moore, M.J. (1977). Eye contact and face scanning in early infancy. Science, 198, 853-855.

3 Engen, T., Lipsitt, L.P., and Kaye, H. (1963). Olfactory responses and adaptation in the human neonate. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychobiology, 56, 73-77.

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