Early Childhood Development in Latin America and the Caribbean
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Early Childhood Development in Latin America and the Caribbean

Children in many developing countries suffer from profound deficits in nutrition, health, fine and gross motor skills, cognitive development, and socioemotional development. Early childhood development outcomes are important markers of children's welfare in their own right. In addition, the deleterious effects of inadequate development at early ages can be long lasting.

Children display large differences in cognitive and noncognitive skills or abilities at early ages. A well-established finding from the literature on the United States is that children in households with higher income and higher parental education levels perform better on a variety of cognitive tests and have fewer behavioral problems than their counterparts from low-income households.1 Steep gradients between socioeconomic status and early childhood skills have also been found in Latin America.2 Differences in test performance persist as these children age. Moreover, research from a number of developed countries suggests that low levels of cognitive development in childhood, as measured by tests administered as early as twenty-two months of age, are important predictors of wages.3 Others argue that noncognitive dimensions of development in early childhood are important determinants of future success.4 [End Page 185] Inadequate cognitive and noncognitive skills can therefore contribute to the transmission of poverty across generations.

A variety of interventions in early childhood have been shown to have large returns. In the United States, children who were randomly assigned to the Perry Preschool Project had higher test performance later on in life, lower incarceration rates, and median earnings that were more than one-third higher than those in the control group.5 Similarly impressive results are found in analyses of the pilot Carolina Abecederian Project. There also appear to be substantial, if smaller, returns to the nationwide Head Start program. For example, Garces, Thomas, and Currie find that Head Start participants are more likely to attend college and have lower rates of delinquency and crime than nonparticipants.6 In Latin America and the Caribbean, Grantham-McGregor and her coauthors find large effects of an early childhood stimulation pilot intervention on test performance in Jamaica.7 Behrman, Cheng, and Todd report large effects of a daycare program on motor skills, psychosocial skills, and language acquisition in Bolivia.8 Attanasio and Vera-Hernández show improvements in child nutritional status of children participating in a community nursery program in Colombia.9 Berlinski and Galiani, as well as Berlinski, Galiani, and Gertler, show that a preschool construction program in Argentina increased preschool enrollment rates and led to better performance on cognitive and behavioral outcomes among preschool participants once they reached primary school.10

This paper discusses early childhood development in Latin America and the Caribbean. Explicit reference is not made to child health and nutrition per se, as this has been extensively studied in the region. The focus is on children's development of cognitive and noncognitive skills or abilities in the preschool years. A handful of recent papers suggest that Latin America faces very serious deficits in cognitive development among children.11 Less is known about levels of noncognitive skills in the region.

The paper is organized as follows. The next section briefly considers the theoretical case for investments in early childhood. The paper then selectively reviews the literature on the impact of early childhood development programs [End Page 186] in the United States. A subsequent section focuses on Latin America and the Caribbean. Here, I discuss evidence on developmental deficits in the region; the relations among child development, household socioeconomic status, child health, and parenting practices; and the impact of specific programs and policies. Finally, the paper proposes directions for future research. An important message of this last section is that the knowledge base is still thin in Latin America. The returns to comparative descriptive analysis of early childhood development outcomes in the region, as well to careful evaluations of the impact of various programs and policies, are thus very high.

The Theoretical Case for Investments in Early Childhood

A number of authors make a strong economic case for public investments in early childhood. This section briefly summarizes the arguments made in a recent, influential article by Cunha...