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Why Countries Need To Make Sure Their Kids Learn To Play Nice

Learning to get along with others is critical for kids to succeed as adults. These youngsters are working hard at the skill on a playground in Manila.
George Calvelo
NurPhoto via Getty Images
Learning to get along with others is critical for kids to succeed as adults. These youngsters are working hard at the skill on a playground in Manila.

What does helping a 3-year-old control her temper tantrums have to do with reducing global poverty? Quite a lot, says Dana McCoy.

A professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, McCoy is lead author of a study that offers a rare look at how well toddlers across the world's 132 low- and middle-income countries are mastering five core skills — including maintaining attention, following simple directions, getting along with others and controlling aggressive behavior like kicking and hitting.

The study's finding: About one out of three kids age 3 or 4 — accounting for 80 million children — are failing to reach at least one of these developmental milestones.

That's extremely concerning, says McCoy. "Previous research has shown that children who are able to meet those milestones well and on time perform better in school, are healthier and more economically productive [as adults]." Those who do not, she adds, are more likely to drop out of school and have issues with mental health and violent behavior. A companion study is still underway to quantify just how much of a cost this unrealized human potential could have on national economies. But McCoy says it stands to reason the impact will prove substantial.

Yet children's early cognitive and social development has largely been an "overlooked" issue in global poverty fighting circles, says McCoy. For instance, while there's no shortage of data on children's physical well-being --their mortality rates, nutrition levels, how tall they are — "we actually know very little about how well children are doing developmentally."

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To find answers, McCoy and her collaborators analyzed data on nearly 100,000 kids that UNICEF has collected from caregivers of 3- and 4-year-olds in 35 countries. Their goal was to figure out how to predict the state of toddlers in low- and middle-income countries. The results, published in the journal PLoS Medicine, are particularly alarming in some countries: In Afghanistan, 47 percent of children are in trouble. In 11 countries in Africa the share tops 50 percent.

McCoy says this and other research suggests that poverty is a big factor in retarding early childhood development — likely because it can lead to higher rates of malnourishment and exposure to violence. But there's also some hopeful news in the study. In Botswana, for instance, about 95 percent of the toddlers are reaching all five milestones. The takeaway, says McCoy, is that just because a kid is poor doesn't mean he is doomed. "What really matters is the opportunity that kids have to learn in supported, responsive and enriching environments."

A useful model for how to provide such an environment, says McCoy, is a home visiting program developed in Jamaica in the 1980s by researcher Susan Walker. It focused on mothers of children who were stunted — meaning they were small for their age due to malnutrition. The health workers would teach the mothers games and other ways of interacting with their children aimed at stimulating their brains. Follow-up studies have found that as adults, the kids who received this stimulation are better educated and earning substantially more than those who received only nutritional supplements.

What about those one-out-of-three kids today who are already behind? Is it too late for them?

"I wouldn't say it's impossible to fix things after a certain age," says McCoy. "But we do know from evidence that children's brains are growing most rapidly in early childhood." That's what makes intervening during those years so cost effective. Those first 1,000 days of life, she says, are the key.

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