January 8, 2016
There has been a dramatic shift in eduction funding in the United Kingdom in recent years, away from Higher Education towards Early Years (from age 0-3). This change of emphasis is based on the results of neurological research, which suggests that the Early Years are of critical importance for shaping long-term mental development. Indeed, the early years are frequently portrayed as a short window of opportunity to develop a child’s full potential. This has given rise to the term ‘Early Years Determinism’. The phrase ‘Foundation years’, coined by politicians in the UK, further reinforces the importance of early education. It suggests that, if the foundations are firm, the building has a good chance of success. However, if the foundations are bad, it also implies that the building is inevitably doomed to topple and fall, no matter how much effort you put into building it! This all places a lot of extra stress on parents, nannies and carers. The implication being that, if you fall short of expectations in the first three years of parenthood, then your child is condemned to a future of underachievement! Therefore, if your child can’t read the Financial Times by the time they start school, everything is lost! But, is the concept of Early Years Determinism based on reliable scientific evidence?
The most frequently cited evidence in support of Early Years Determinism comes from General Ceausescu’s Romania. After the downfall of Ceausescu, countries in the West were appalled by the extreme levels of child neglect evident within the nation’s state-run orphanages: where children were malnourished, unloved and imprisoned in their cots for up to 23 hours a day without any adult interaction or stimulation. There have been several scientific studies on the effects of this extreme neglect on the long-term development of normal cognitive function. The results of one of the most comprehensive studies revealed that, after several years of adoption in the West, 46% of children, who were deemed ‘globally intact’ (from a total of 54), continued to suffer significant functional impairment in at least one domain; particularly executive functioning, language and memory. However, despite this fact, 63% of all the children included in the study (totalling 85) went on to develop normal levels of cognitive function, as measured by IQ tests, after several years of adoption. This suggests that, even when a child is subjected to the most extreme levels of infant neglect, the human brain is still generally resilient enough to adapt and recover in later life.
Despite the appalling nature of this evidence, parents in the UK should probably take heart. Although most of us would like to be better parents, our shortcomings are almost certainly insignificant compared to the extreme levels of neglect evident in Ceausescu’s Romania. For example, you may not read to your child as frequently as you would like, but the effect of this ‘neglect’ is almost certainly negligible.
As a nation, we worry far too much about the targets and tick-boxes associated with 21st century Early Years Education. Instead we should be more concerned about giving our children the freedom to be children and to explore and discover the world for themselves, through social interaction and play. By developing curiosity and reasoning, through informal education and play, we can better equip our children to determine their own future potential.
Written by Rob Hodgkison, Harmony at Home Ltd. All rights reserved, 2016