What they need is what you need

By Ambreen Nizar
Tue, 09, 20

“The question is not whether we can afford to invest in every child; it is whether we can afford not to.” - Marian Wright Edelman...


Early brain and behavioural development in children sets the stage for later achievements in life. There is ample and unequivocal research showing that the foundation of healthy adulthood and productivity is laid in the early years. Also, their living environment effects the developmental potential of children in their formative years. If there is some form of developmental delay, an unsupportive environment and under stimulation weigh in as much to the problem as the underlying biological and genetic constitution of the child.

Traditionally labelled by socio-economic characteristics, neither poverty nor wealth are explanatory. They are in fact misleading. Not all children from poor homes live in unstimulating environment; neither do all children from affluent homes receive adequate support for their developmental progress.

Family or home environment for the young child includes many other parameters. The pillars holding a child's environment strong are sensitive parents (or sometimes caregivers if parents are not present) who are responsive to their child's needs. Parents who show affection and provide rich environment facilitate development. As a corollary, a harsh way of punishing the child to discipline leads to low self-esteem.

Besides the quality of parenting, other factors playing in are physical home environment, quality of language spoken, limited amount of distractible audio-visual stimulation and adequate cognitive aka higher mental stimulation. For instance, parents having a satisfying relationship with each other have the cognitive and emotional resources when interacting with their children. Availability of age appropriate toys and learning materials along with adult interaction benefits child's cognitive learning.

Play is a very important contributor to a child's physical and social development and wellbeing if it allows freedom for exploration. Active play typically occurs outdoors and refers to a form of 'gross motor' or total body movement in which young children exert energy in a freely chosen, fun, and unstructured manner. Access to active play in nature and outdoors with its risks is essential for healthy development. It is associated with a wide range of physiological, psychological and socio-emotional health benefits that can track into adulthood, and importantly, contribute to a decreased risk of chronic disease.

Protection from safety hazards is another very important aspect and unhealthy environments also have their negative part to play. Household air pollution and below par water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) being the main risk factors. These risk factors target the vulnerable increasing the burden of communicable (acute respiratory infections, pneumonia, diarrhoea), non-communicable diseases and malnutrition. They directly affect child developmental, resulting in cognitive deficits and affecting sensorimotor and socio-emotional development, especially if exposure occurs during the first few years of life.

Scientific research has proved that nurturing environment provided in very early years of childhood is most important for their development and their brain function in adulthood. Exposure to severe deprivation (in first few years of life) is associated with profound and enduring alterations in brain volume and structure in young adulthood. Such alterations were identified in brain MRI scans conducted in one study. The ones deprived had substantially smaller brains (i.e. reduced total brain volume TBA) than their non-deprived counterparts did, it was clearly detectable even when individuals exposed to this form of deprivation were subsequently brought up in families that provided nurturing environments for the rest of their childhoods.

Many parents send their young children to Montessori and playgroups where they get stimulation to learn and socialise. After invasion of Covid-19, school closures have shifted education from the classroom to the home, and for the immediate future, the burden of education now falls largely on parents. It is time to see how much of learning stimulation young kids are receiving while restricted to their homes within the full spectrum of socio-economic strata. It is also important to understand how much parents and caregivers are aware of the need of providing a rich environment to kids and how much they respect their identity and needs.

Parents can be the buffer between, and-or the mechanism through which, crises in the environment affecting young children's experiences. Parenting and family factors are the critical drivers of children's early healthy growth and development and are thus primary in determining the immediate severity of pandemic on young children now and in the future. Before the pandemic, 43 per cent of all children under 5 years of age were estimated to be at risk of not achieving their developmental potential. The challenge has now amplified for parents and caregivers

Research on the effects of prior pandemics and disasters indicates that there will be both immediate and long-term adverse consequences for many children, with particular risks faced during early childhood, when brain architecture is still rapidly developing and highly sensitive to environmental adversity. Close attention and great efforts are required to address these emerging issues effectively and avoid any long term consequences in children. Families can spend more time together talking, playing, and learning and help children develop self-discipline skills. Children are constantly exposed to epidemic-related news, so having direct conversations with children about these issues could alleviate their anxiety and avoid panic. Home confinement could offer a good opportunity to enhance the interaction between parents and children; involve children in family activities, and improve their self-sufficiency skills. With the right parenting approaches, family bonds can be strengthened, and child psychological needs met.