Inequality starts at a young age

A new study looks at development levels of children ages 2 to 5 in four domains: cognition, language and communication, motor, and socio-emotional.

May 11, 2015 by Santiago Cueto, Young Lives
6 minutes read
Girls and boys in Honduras hold up the books they're reading (c) GPE/Paul Martinez

A few years ago, in a series of studies published in The Lancet, Sally Grantham-McGregor and colleagues estimated that 200 million children from developing countries were not reaching their developmental potential.

They found that children under the age of five years who were stunted and/or grew up in poverty achieved less years of education and achieved at poorer levels, even in adulthood.

This had negative consequences in their adult lives, including less income and higher fertility, thus perpetuating the intergenerational cycle of poverty.

In her study however, Professor Grantham-McGregor had to use proxies (i.e. stunting and poverty) to estimate the levels of development of children as national assessments were for the most part lacking.

New study on children’s development

There have been a few nationally representative studies assessing the levels of learning of children enrolled in pre-school. But, until very recently, there had been no studies about the level of development of children in sampling households.

Last December, the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) released the Regional Project on Child Development Indicators: Urgency and Possibility. First Initiative of Comparative Data on Child Development in Latin America (PRIDI). This is a study of development levels of children ages 2 to 5 in four domains: cognition, language and communication, motor, and socio-emotional.

The design also includes accompanying surveys, elements of children´s individual, family and community background, and participation in programs, including education and other types.

The samples are representative of households in four countries: Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Peru and Paraguay. In Nicaragua and Paraguay they include data for indigenous children.

Inequality in education starts as early as age two

The report looks at the individual, family background and context, which often times were correlated with the development levels of children. The report identified that the gaps between groups in many cases started at the age of two, and these were associated with maternal education and wealth.

At the age of five a poor and undernourished child will lag by as much as 18 months behind his or her more fortunate peers.

This led the authors to propose a sense of urgency to intervene. However, levels of development were also closely associated with the nurturing environment at home. This means that beyond structural factors like wealth and maternal education, which are difficult to change, parents could improve the development level of their children through the way they interact with their children at home.

This is only the first report of results and much more research could be done with the data collected.

Data and research instruments are available for further research

To facilitate this, the research instruments used in PRIDI, including the Engle Scale1 for measuring the development levels of children, as well as the manuals, surveys and databases, are free to use at the IADB webpage. Furthermore, there is a conceptual framework and technical annex explaining what PRIDI intended to do, and how it was done. PRIDI was was carried out in association with the International Evaluation Association and partners in the countries, including Ministries and local institutions, and thus is considered a public good.

PRIDI is likely to be the first of many initiatives of its kind. From longitudinal studies, including Young Lives, we already knew that inequality started before the age of five and is difficult to overcome at later ages.

PRIDI helps us get into the specific levels of development and inequality in four domains, and correlate these with a variety of risk and protective factors. Inequality needs to be prevented at an early age and PRIDI may hold some significant keys.

[1] Named in honor of Patrice (Pat) Engle, a developmental psychologist who participated in the first stages of PRIDI but then sadly passed away.

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