In an op-ed piece published in the New York Times, James Heckman, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, wrote: "The success that we nominally attribute to the positive effects of education, especially of graduating from college, is largely the result of factors that are determined long before children enter school. "
In this quote, Heckman refers to the large number of research studies that show the how a child’s first years can impact their future.
Between 0 and 5 years old, your brain is in the process of forming and growing rapidly. Very rapidly. When toddlers receive stimulating care, their development improves through new connections and neural patterns. To a large extent, these changes last over time and have a positive impact on cognitive development, which translates into academic success, good health and social skills.
"At two years old, the cerebral synapses, that is to say the connection between the neurons, are the same as those of an adult brain; and at three, they are double that of an adult brain," says Florencia López Boo, child development specialist at the IDB. "Good care and environment during the first years of life are key given the importance of this period in brain development. However, it is still extremely important to continue investing in the years that follow," she says.
For many families, it is difficult to choose the best option to educate their children at this stage. The question remains the same for mothers, usually: what is better, take them to a child care center or teach them at home? In Latin America, moms tend to assume most of the responsibility for child care, which ends up harming (and delaying) the professional development of mothers who want to work.
At the IDB, we analyzed a series of strategies that can be implemented by governments to take advantage of these critical years in children's education, and also turn those into opportunities for more women to work.
The study begins with some worrisome figure for this second objective: Latin America has one of the largest gaps in the world regarding female participation in the workforce. Despite having similar, and sometimes even better educational levels than men, there is a difference of 25 percentage points in the rate of men and women who work in Latin America and the Caribbean, according to data from 2018 of the International Labor Organization.
The majority of the population that does not work is composed of women between 24 and 45 years of age, the same age bracket when women are usually becoming mothers.
Research estimates that these gender gaps in labor participation and business activity lead to average income losses of 15.7% in the short term, and 17.2% in the long term for the entire region.
Let’s land these numbers, then: Do you know any woman –a colleague, a friend, a sister– who has had to leave her job, because she does not have the necessary support to access child care? Probably the answer will be yes: there are few women who can pay, access and provide for a daycare service or nursery for their newborn child. In response to this need, several countries in the region have implemented free or subsidized daycare programs, which in general have had good results in promoting women's labor participation. In Brazil, the number of working mothers increased up to 17%; in Chile, the rate increased by up to 10%; in Ecuador, 22%; and in Colombia, up to 37%, according to our report.
However, for these programs to fulfill their purpose of being an effective alternative for the education of children, governments must ensure that the quality delivered in day care centers is focused, specialized and of high standards.
Our specialists point out that there are five keys for parents to identify a good early education program. The first is that an educator should not have more than 3 to 6 children at his charge. The second is that children should be provided with adequate nutrition in all their meals while at care. The third one entails a rich curriculum in stimulation activities, such as readings, crafts, and logic exercises. The fourth is that the staff has to be properly trained, not only from an educational standpoint, but also from a psychological ones. Finally, it is necessary that these institutions are under a quality monitoring mechanism that generates alerts, so that governments can support, and fix them when they do not work.
The report concludes that it is possible to offer more opportunities to mothers who want to work, and in turn offer adequate care to their children. Governments can (and need) support in this objective with the expansion in offering child care services, as well as assuring the quality and access to them. They must also be accompanied by support in the workplace, encouraging female participation which also would allow fathers to take a greater role in raising their children in a non-stereotypical gender-based environment. At home, fathers can also look for alternatives to actively participate in the education of their children in a way that facilitates the professional development of the mother.
"In my house, we distribute maternity leave. I spent much more time with the girls. When they hurt themselves, they call the one who is not working," says Rubén, a father of two daughters aged 3 and 6 in the comments section of a maternity blog. "They assume perfectly that mom works a lot and that she loves her job. And when she gets home, what she likes the most is being with us."
See the full report here.