Nation & World

‘A good start’

4 min read

Chilean early childhood program makes a difference

Late in January, a delegation from Chile visited Harvard to discuss “Un Buen Comienzo” (“A Good Start”), an early childhood education program undertaken in 2006 by the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE), Harvard Medical School (HMS), and the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies (DRCLAS), with the Chilean Ministries of Education and Health and other local institutions that impart preschool education. The pilot project and its evaluation, sponsored by Fundación Educacional Oportunidad, Centro de Estudios Educar, the World Bank, and Unicef, grew out of Chilean president Michelle Bachelet’s stated commitment to make early childhood a priority in her administration.

The main focus of the project is language and literacy skills, with a concomitant emphasis on parental involvement and child health, particularly pollution-related respiratory diseases and obesity – which affect nearly 20 percent of Chilean children. Meetings covered a wide range of topics, including the intensive evaluation of the project and the impact the program could have on policy debate in Chile and other Latin American countries.

About two dozen people attended the Jan. 23 session at the David Rockefeller Center to review the progress made thus far. Principal investigators on the project Catherine Snow and Hirokazu Yoshikawa, both professors at HGSE, presided over the meeting. The evening began with a presentation by Andrea Rolla, director of research at the Centro de Estudios Educar in Santiago and director of the project in Chile. “Chile is a middle-income country that goes from the desert to the Patagonias,” she said, “so it’s very diverse. The economy has done very well, so now our focus is on improving social policy, especially the quality of education.”

Research shows that high-quality preschool education is one of the best investments a country can make in its future, and that language and literacy skills are crucial to lifelong learning. Worldwide, children from low-income families have lower levels of reading comprehension, but in Chile, said Rolla, “More than 50 percent of parents from all different social classes report never reading books to their children, which in general leads to low levels of oral language skills in Chilean children and, later on, low levels of reading comprehension.”

“Un Buen Comienzo” (UBC) – which in its first year operated in 26 classrooms in four different centers, affecting the lives of nearly 600 children – aims to help improve children’s literacy by encouraging parents to get involved. “Before [UBC], parents thought their children only came to our center to eat, play, and sleep,” said Rolla, translating from Spanish a teacher’s comment. “Now they know there’s a curriculum here.”

“It’s a chance for parents to see the abilities of their children,” Rolla added, “and to see their own ability to teach them. That’s often overlooked in Chile.” At the same time, she pointed out, teachers report the project has given them more trust in parents as co-educators.

UBC is working toward its goals using six monthly cycles of professional development over the course of two years. During each cycle, the first week consists of a half-day of teacher and paraprofessional training, the second of a coaching visit to each preschool classroom, the third of a feedback session on the prior week’s visit, and the final week of a team meeting of the teachers and paraprofessionals at each center. Training all of the adults who work in the classroom, rather than just the teachers, has been a change from traditional professional development provided in Chile. “It’s more of a team approach than was traditional,” said Rolla.

The project’s health focus attempts to empower classroom educators to work on health issues themselves, and to refer children for specialized services as needed. “Education and health need to be integrated,” said MaryCatherine Arbour, a global health fellow at Brigham and Women’s Hospital who spends a substantial portion of her time in Chile working on the project. “Children’s cognitive development and their health are interrelated, and the teachers and paraprofessionals who work with them in Chile recognize that and want to do more, but feel they don’t have the resources to be able to.”

Interventions planned for 2008 include finishing the second year of professional development in the demonstration sites, beginning a small-scale randomized experimental study, and writing a manual for the project with an accompanying workbook of activities for teachers to use in the classroom. Within the structure of UBC, Arbour added, achievable goals for children are to improve reading comprehension and socio-emotional development, increase parental involvement, and reduce absenteeism through respiratory health intervention.

The rigorous evaluation of the project, according to Kit Barron, regional and area programs coordinator for the David Rockefeller Center, is “unprecedented for the developing world. The impact that this project could have on policy debate in similar countries is tremendous.”