In President Ollanta Humala's Peru just as in all of Latin America making good grades in school, finding a good job and having access to opportunities to get ahead largely depend on a single number: the first 1,000 days in the life of an individual, in other words, from conception to age two.
Providing health, nutrition and a nurturing environment during this stage not only guarantees that mother and child will survive the pregnancy and remain healthy, but also that the child's brain will develop adequately to enable learning in school and throughout life. The reason? Up to 80% of our brain architecture develops during those 1,000 days.
According to a labor skills study that I conducted recently, the development of generic skills—cognitive and socio-emotional—is essential for job success and for the development of an individual's "learning aptitude" throughout life, which will allow him or her to adapt to new situations and to deal with problems.
How can the development of these aptitudes be fostered? Acquiring skills is a cumulative process throughout the lifecycle. It is like climbing a staircase: from early childhood until adulthood, development and learning in each step establish the foundation for reaching the next step. There are sensitive periods in which the interaction between heritability (genetic influence) and the family and community environment is decisive. Investment in early childhood is essential because neurology teaches us that the plasticity of the brain declines with age. Thus, the earlier the investment, the easier and more effective it is to exercise a positive influence on brain development.
Three crucial stages should be taken into account when establishing public policies. The first, as I mentioned, covers the first 1,000 days of life, also known as the "nutrition window of opportunity." This is why cost-effective interventions to support household income and ensure access to quality basic services, as well as hygiene and feeding knowledge and practices, are so essential, particularly for mothers.
The second stage covers early childhood development, from age two to five years, when school-readiness aptitudes develop. During this pre-school phase, the focus is on acquiring language and a critical socio-emotional skill–the capacity for self-regulation. For many psychologists and educators, these skills determine whether a child is prepared for school. Self-regulation is crucial for strengthening behaviors and tasks that require delaying gratification, such as studying, following schedules and achieving goals, as well as for controlling emotions and reactions throughout life. School entrance exams should strive to avoid giving too much weight to acquiring writing or math skills, as this may leave less room for promoting children's socio-emotional development.
The third stage corresponds to basic education, during which aptitudes for continuous learning are consolidated. Although the window for expanding language and other cognitive skills (such as memory) remains open throughout life, the developing brain architecture makes it more efficient to attain these skills before puberty.
Socio-emotional skills such as self-regulation, and with it, the perseverance and capacity for teamwork, continue to strengthen until early adulthood. The acquisition of these skills is influenced by the quality of relations the child has established in his or her family and social environments (including school) and the different factors that affect education quality, especially teaching practices, learning resources and parental support.
Recent studies demonstrate that it is possible to build children's socio-emotional skills through public interventions to support families and schools. An important example is Tools of the Mind, a pre-school curriculum and teaching practice program that focuses on developing children's self-regulation.
In this intervention, which emphasizes play, children move along a continuum—they are first regulated by others until they can eventually regulate themselves using mental tools that help them control their behavior and promote reflective thinking. Another example is the curriculum of the Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies program (PATHS), which teaches primary- and middle-school children skills for self-regulation, emotional awareness, decision-making and conflict resolution.
In both cases, teachers receive detailed curricular materials, training and support throughout the school year. Similar interventions exist for secondary school.
Controlled randomized studies have shown that these programs significantly improve children's self-regulation and other socio-emotional skills, which in turn strengthens their academic and social performance.
The high social return on early childhood investments has also been demonstrated. Countries such as Colombia and states such as New York and Illinois in the United States have already adopted socio-emotional learning standards in their education systems. A recent rigorous evaluation of a youth employment training program in the Dominican Republic showed that it is possible to improve youth's labor entry by teaching them socio-emotional skills. In Mexico, one of the largest programs in the region, Educación Inicial, reaches some 400,000 children and their parents in remote communities around the country.
In Peru, the World Bank has actively engaged in improving the national education system through technical assistance projects, which include the crucial math and reading skills exam known as the Evaluación Censal de Estudiantes (ECE).
The evidence is clear: there are policies and programs that have a cost-effective impact on the development of an individual's generic skills. This is a synergetic process, where each stage builds on the previous one.
Without a good base of generic skills, job training of adults tends to be ineffective. What is not adequately addressed in early and middle childhood is very difficult to remedy later. Families and societies that do not manage to make timely interventions miss the opportunity to do so. Nearly two decades must pass before the investments in early and middle childhood translate into a more productive labor force and improvements in household and national income.
We have to start now. Political commitment and social consensus are crucial for supporting these efforts.