What States Can Do - Part V: The right start for our children

For all children, the earliest years are critically important for their physical and emotional health, for their social development and cognitive skills, and even for their later educational achievement and life chances.

This has been known for centuries. Five hundred years ago, the Dutch humanist and theologian Erasmus said, "One cannot emphasise too strongly the importance of those first years for the course that a child will follow throughout his entire life".

In South Australia through our Thinkers in Residence program (www.thinkers.sa.gov.au), we asked Canadian early childhood expert, the late Dr Fraser Mustard, and more recently Professor Carla Rinaldi from Reggio Emilia in Italy, to advise us on how to improve early childhood education. It's a policy area we take very seriously. In South Australia every child aged 4 is entitled to government funded preschool education.

Fraser Mustard told us that states and nations with early childhood development programs beginning in the earliest years of infancy (birth to age 2) secured the highest scores in literacy and numeracy. These findings are compatible with what we now know about early brain development, language and literacy.

In Reggio Emilia, a northern Italian town with a worldwide reputation for advanced thinking in early childhood education, young children are viewed quite differently. They are treated as citizens with rights. They are not seen as just empty vessels to be filled up with knowledge by enthusiastic teachers. Instead there is a real emphasis on unlocking and respecting a child's imagination which can play a key role in problem solving and in a child's search for knowledge and understanding. A strong embrace of the visual arts encourages children to express themselves creatively. In doing so, it helps them develop their theoretical and analytical skills.

Just over a decade ago, Chicago Economist and Nobel Laureate Jim Heckman said "We cannot afford to postpone investing in children until they become adults; nor can we wait until they reach school age – a time when it may be too late to intervene. Learning is a dynamic process and it is most effective when it begins at a very young age and continues throughout adulthood." In 2006, a major work for the Brookings Institution, outlined three important principles to improve early childhood development:

•    intervene early (at least at the time of birth)

•    intervene often

•    intervene effectively.

But its not just about better preschool education, as important as that is.

For governments, it makes sense to invest in these early years through better targeted health services. Not doing so often results in much bigger spending later in life when problems are harder to fix. Studies around the world show that a lack of investment in the early years can lead to significant social and mental health problems. The Rand Corporation estimated that for every $1 invested in early childhood and parent support programs, $7 could be saved in later life; in health, and criminal justice systems. Unfortunately, government Treasury officials seldom think this way.

The first few months of a baby's life are both important, as well as joyous and worrying, particularly for first time parents.

In South Australia, the state government in 2003 launched its ambitious 'Every Chance for Every Child' program. Funded by the state, it involves home visits by qualified paediatric nurses to virtually every baby in South Australia within four weeks of their birth. We call it a 'Universal Contact' visit. This service has proved to be not only popular but extraordinarily helpful for babies and parents alike, particularly for young mothers, single or otherwise, who often feel isolated in their homes and finding it hard to cope. Sometimes there are issues such as post-natal depression to deal with.

The first home visit under the 'Every Chance for Every Child' program is comprehensive. It includes conducting a child health check - a full physical examination, responding to the needs of parents and providing them with information and advice on bonding, feeding and settling their baby, and ensuring the best possible environment for the infant, including safe sleeping arrangements.

Last year 95% of South Australian parents with brand new babies received visits under this program.

This first visit enables the early identification of family and child development issues leading to early intervention and problem prevention. For many, the first visit is enough, but there is much more help available to assist families who need extra support. This can involve a series of follow up home visits or attendance at a Child and Family Health Service Clinic. First time parents are offered access to 'new parent' groups, a 6 week program 'Getting to Know Your Baby' facilitated by a Child and Family Health Service nurse.

An even more comprehensive family home visiting program is available to provide additional support for struggling families. Our Family Home Visiting scheme is a two year, nurse led preventative parenting program based on building a partnership between the child and specialist nurse, and the family, to provide a supportive environment and the best possible developmental start for children. The program has a multidisciplinary approach and includes Aboriginal cultural consultants to assist Indigenous Australian families.

The program focuses on the health and safety of young children, child development, relationships (especially between the child and parent) and community connection – linking the family into services in their local area. It's not a 'one size fits all' approach but is flexible, responsive and tailored to meet different needs and circumstances. Ongoing health checks, immunisations and hearing screening, are part of the program.

I would encourage policy makers to take a close look at the Reggio approach to early childhood education and the 'Every Chance for Every Child' infant health program in South Australia.

Getting the best start – at the start – makes sense for children, families, communities, states and nations.

This Blog was published on the Center for National Policy website.

Mike Rann is Fellow for Democracy and Development with the Center for National Policy, Washington, D.C.