Infant Development and Care in Brazil: Investing Now for the Future

Introduction

Each week, two government employees take a speed boat into the Amazon Rainforest to reach a small village. They then walk for 2, 3, sometimes even 5 hours, dodging alligators and snakes along the way. And after a tiresome and often perilous trek, they reach the home of a young family with a baby. The reason they’re there? To teach the parents how to play and talk with their child. The Brazilian government believes that it can fight poverty and criminality in the country with early intervention, rather than intervention at the point when problems arise, and that the investment that they are making in the first 1000 days of the lives of babies from low economic status families will give a positive return again and again over the next 100 years.

Overview of Brazil’s Child Development Program – ‘Crianca Feliz’ (Happy Kid)

Of course, the Brazilian government didn’t just randomly decide to create this program; it was brought forth by a man who’s background in the field almost matched his will to implement the program: Osmara Terra. Terra has been trying to understand the concept of how people develop for the past 30 years. Following his cardiology career spanning into the 1990’s (where he read endless papers on the topic), he entered the political field as mayor of Santa Rosa while obtaining a master’s degree in neuroscience. He wanted the policy he created to be based in science, and so he always asked himself “In every single activity I always ask myself, ‘What is the public policy that can be more transformative?’” he says. “How can we most dramatically improve the quality of life for our citizens, their health, their education?” This thinking led to him to the creation of the program ‘Crianca Feliz’.

‘Crianca Feliz’ is the largest social prevention program of it’s kind in the world. Currently, the Brazilian government has deployed an ‘army’ of social workers that reaches a staggering 300,000 families per week, which it is hoping to increase to 4 million by 2020. Social workers are travelling to the poorest parts of Brazil to teach parents how to play, care, and show affection to their children take action on a simple concept: emotional safety underpins cognitive growth. Intelligence is not fixed, but formed through experience. The idea here is that by creating strong neural connections with play early on, the greater the ability and capacity the individual will have to learn later on. The social workers visit mothers during pregnancy to teach the moms how to communicate with their baby whilst still in the womb, and continue to visit the families after the child is born until the age of 3; the social workers are not there to replace the interaction the mother has with the child, but rather to aide and teach the mother about the reasons and techniques for interaction.

 

Jamaica Did Something Similar, First

While ‘Crianca Feliz’ is the largest program of its kind, it is not the only and it is not the first. Peru is also currently running a similar program with an influence of 100,000 families. However, one of the most pervasive examples of this type of social intervention – and also, largely what ‘Crianca Feliz’ was based upon – comes from 1970’s Jamaican study. In the study, researchers designed programs that sent doctors and nurses to visit mothers every week in their homes for two years, bringing toys and books that would help parents become better teachers to their babies and to increase stimulation and play. The resulting studies found that children whose mothers received coaching made significant developmental gains, and not just in the short term. Twenty-two years later, the kids from one group who had received those home visits as young children not only had higher scores on tests of reading, math, and general knowledge, they had stayed in school longer. They were less likely to exhibit violent behavior, less likely to experience depression, and had better social skills. They also earned 25% more on average than a control group of kids whose mothers had not received the coaching.

Developing Child: The Harvard Connection

The Harvard University Centre on The Developing Child describes the importance of early childhood experiences using a seesaw as a metaphor for an individuals development/experience over their lifetime. With a seesaw, there are three components that affect the way it balances: the amount of weight on one side, the amount of weight on the other side, and where the fulcrum is placed (i.e., if placed in the middle and the weight is even on both sides, the balance will be perfectly horizontal). The seesaw metaphor is as follows: on one side of the seesaw is negative experiences experienced over a lifetime, and on the other side is positive experiences. The fulcrum represents the early experiences had as a child. The photo to the right explains how positive and negative experiences are affected by where an individual’s fulcrum is placed.

Harvard’s extensive research into the topic emphasizes four ways that a child’s fulcrum can be placed in the left spot. These are:

  1. The availability of at least one stable, caring, and supportive relationship between a child and the important adults in his or her life. These relationships begin in the family, but they can also include neighbors, providers of early care and education, teachers, social workers, or coaches, among many others.
  2. Helping children build a sense of mastery over their life circumstances. Those who believe in their own capacity to overcome hardships and guide their own destiny are far more likely to adapt positively to adversity.
  3. Children who develop strong executive function and self-regulation skills. These skills enable individuals to manage their own behaviour and emotions, and develop and execute adaptive strategies to cope effectively with difficult circumstances.
  4. The supportive context of affirming faith or cultural traditions. Children who are solidly grounded within such traditions are more likely to respond effectively when challenged by a major stressor or a severely disruptive experience.

 

Conclusion

Alongside Harvard’s research on child development comes classes and seminars; which interestingly enough, is how Osmara Terra got support for his initiative. He sent ministers, diplomats, secretaries, and others in position of power to Harvard to spend a week learning about child development. And when they returned? Terra had gained the necessary support to implement ‘Crianca Feliz’, the biggest social intervention program of its kind, ever.

 

This article is sourced and curated from Quartz and Harvard’s University Centre on The Developing Child.

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