08 October 2016

How early childhood education is important to child development

Story by Heamakarn Sricharatchanya / Video by Metee Thuentap 

This story was published in Bangkok Post newspaper on 8 October 2016

CHIANG MAI, 8 October 2016 – Suchanaree Yabua (nicknamed Nong Eye) holds her father’s hand as he walks her to the early childhood development centre of Mae Jo town in Chiang Mai. As soon as she enters the school grounds and greets her teacher, her best friend takes her to a playground where they join in the laughter of their friends playing with their favourite toys.
Suchanaree Yabua (or Nong Eye) who attends the early childhood development centre in Chiang Mai
© UNICEF Thailand/2016/Metee Thuentap
“I send Nong Eye to the centre because I want her to develop well,” says her mother SuwimonYabua. Nong Eye is almost five years old and has been attending this centre for two years now.

“At first I was worried about her social skills because she stays at home with my husband and I, and she plays mostly by herself. Since she started attending the early childhood development centre she has made friends and has good social skills,” says Suwimon.

There are still too many children in Thailand who do not receive early childhood development services and do not have the opportunity to develop to their full potential like Nong Eye. About 16 per cent of children aged three to five in Thailand do not attend early childhood education programmes, according to a 2012 survey on the situation of children and women in Thailand that was conducted by the National Statistical Office with support from UNICEF.

The first five years of life are the most important period for a child’s development. This is when a child’s brain develops the most and the fastest. By the time a child is three years old, the brain has formed about 1,000 trillion connections, about twice as many as there are in the brain of an adult.

The first five years of life are the most important period for a child's development because it is when a child's brain develops most rapidly.© UNICEF Thailand/2016/Metee Thuentap

 Early childhood education is critical during this time. According to the same survey, 94 per cent of children aged three to five who attend early childhood learning programmes are on track in their development, while this figure is 77 per cent among of those children who are not attending such programmes.

“What happens to a child during these early years and the experiences they have can determine his or her future,” says Hugh Delaney, Chief of Education section for UNICEF Thailand. “A child who does not receive proper care, nutrition, and stimulation, or who experiences violence or through a stressful environment can suffer some very negative consequences that can last throughout their adult lives.”

Sadly, even children who receive early childhood education do not always get all the quality services they need. In 2013, a Department of Health assessment revealed that only 67 per cent of 20,000 early childhood development centres nationwide passed their quality assessment.

The quality of the centers depends, to a large extent, on the skills and knowledge of early childhood development professionals providing these services. UNICEF works with partners to provide workshops to care staff so that they better understand the concept of holistic development of children across all domains, and have the knowledge and skills needed to support and monitor child development. They also learn counselling skills, which is beneficial when they work with parents to support development of children.

Wanida Prarasri, care staff at the centre, who has received training by UNICEF
© UNICEF Thailand/2016/Metee Thuentap
“The workshops are useful because they help care staff to develop skills to support the development of young children,” says Wanida Prarasri, care staff at the centre. “We learn how to develop learning materials and learn new techniques to stimulate young minds.”

Since last year, more than 200 care staff have been trained, and they are applying these new skills at 24 demonstration sites that enroll more than 3,000 children. These sites, supported by UNICEF, the Department of Local Administration, and the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration,  demonstrate the effectiveness of having well-trained staff, of engaging children in stimulating activities, using early learning and play materials and assessing children’s holistic development and learning, based on the Early Learning Development Standards (ELDS).

The ELDS set measurable knowledge and activity levels for children aged zero to five. A child’s development is measured against standards set across seven domains – physical development, social development, emotional development, cognitive development, language development, moral development, and creative development.

“UNICEF and partners want to see these ECD standards and approach applied at all early childhood development centres throughout the country,” Delaney says. “We want to see activities that are designed to support the holistic development of a child, not just a narrow focus on certain aspects like reading or writing only.”

Parents can also support the holistic development of children.

Parents of Suchanaree Yabua© UNICEF Thailand/2016/Metee Thuentap
  “Parents play an important role here because children spend more time at home than at the centre,” he says. “Every day, parents can spend some quality time with their children, like reading to them or playing with them.”

In addition to equipping care staff with the necessary skills, UNICEF provides tools to monitor the progress children make over time. This allows care staff to spot any areas in which children may be developing slowly and find ways to support them. UNICEF also distributes a set of 39 story books and early learning materials to 630 early childhood development centres across the country.

“By listening to these story books, children can develop listening, speaking, singing skills and cognitive learning through stories and characters. Care staff can evaluate their development by asking questions about the stories,” Wanida says.

Currently, UNICEF is working with the government in scaling up the concept of holistic early childhood development so that more children like Nong Eye will get a better opportunity to develop to their full potential.

The impact of early childhood development will benefit not only the children themselves, but also society as a whole.

“The returns can be measured not only in healthier, better-educated children, but also in a stronger workforce of the future, and a more prosperous, cohesive and equitable society,” Delaney says.

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