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children health

Economics and science meet in early childhood development

Shanta Devarajan's picture

Economists are skeptical bunch, but they seem convinced of the value of interventions in early childhood (0-6 years) and, conversely, the multiple, long-term and often irreversible effects of the failure to provide infants with nutrition, health care and stimulation. 

For instance, Norbert Schady and Chris Paxson’s found that whereas at age 3 all children (from a sample in Ecuador) had the same vocabulary score, by age 6, children from the poorest quartile scored 50 percent of those from the richest quartile.

Meanwhile, scientists studying the development of the human brain (and body) are reaching the same conclusion. 

In a fascinating presentation, Jack Shonkoff describes the process of brain development that is interrupted, sometimes permanently, by adversity in early childhood.  Overproduction of hormones associated with stress can leave toxic effects. 

He also shows how human contact (as opposed to contact with inanimate objects or no contact) can significantly improve a child’s cognitive development.  A group of pre-schoolers were exposed to a nanny who spoke to them in Chinese for a few hours a week; in a couple of years the children were speaking fluent Chinese.  Another group was exposed to a high-quality video in Chinese, but they didn’t develop any speaking ability in the language.