Kimsrorn, a 35-year-old mother of three, was recently practising skills that were new to her: reading and writing. Her youngest child was having problems that did not seem related to her own literacy: he was not thriving in school, and he was often sick.
“I worried and did not know what to do,” she said. She explained that she never knew what an impact her own literacy could have on her children.
Kimsrorn was one of the approximately 35 per cent of Cambodian women her age who did not receive
a full education as a child and cannot read or write – as a result, her children were missing out on some funda-mental early learning opportunities that provide the building blocks for future learning and educational achievement.
Kimsrorn has now attended maternal literacy classes as part of an early childhood development program in her village. Before this, she did not think that teaching reading and writing to children was something parents could even do.
Mothers, fathers and caregivers like Kimsrorn face enormous challenges to provide their children with “early learning” opportunities they need.
This was demonstrated in a recent research conducted by Save the Children, which suggested a strong link between a child’s cognitive and emergent literacy scores and the literacy level of their caregivers.
The idea is also supported by research and reports from other countries and regions – showing that a parent’s education is a key indicator for child development outcomes, including inter-generational poverty.
Parents are the first teachers for their children, but as many struggle with their own literacy levels they also struggle to provide educational foundations to their children – such as introducing age appropriate reading materials, or using items around the house to teach simple lessons. These parents and caregivers require additional support from their community and the government.
Caregivers who live in the most remote areas, often the most deprived already, are also the least likely to be able to access support to foster their children’s healthy development.
According to the Cambodia Demographic Health Survey 2014, in Pursat province, only five per cent of children aged three to five attend the important early childhood education classes which can help minimise any limitations they have related to parental literacy.
The same rate of attendance jumps to 40 per cent in Phnom Penh.
Despite comparatively high investment in primary schools, national investment in ECCD services remains low at just 0.3 per cent of the total education budget. Without further investment – particularly in rural and remote areas – the developmental divide between urban and rural areas will continue to grow.
We know that every dollar invested in quality early childhood development programmes yields a return of up to $13 in direct wage productivity, making early intervention for young children and their caregivers one of the most economically beneficial investments a country can make – not to mentionthe potential positive ripple effects it can have on emotional development and improved health and nutrition.
Over the last 20 years, Cambodia has made significant progress in improving literacy overall.
But we can see that a gap still remains to ensure parents are able to learn new skills, and that all children can access the services – like early childhood development and preschool services – that are critical for future learning and the prosperity of the nation.
Further expansion of early childhood education services – like those being made available to Kimsrorn – provides a remarkable opportunity for hundreds of thousands of caregivers and their children.
Application of policy developments such as the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport’s Parenting Curriculum and the Ministry of Women’s Affairs’ Positive Parenting Tool Kit holds great potential to significantly contribute to improvements in young children’s development outcomes and parental learning.
These public programmes, rolled out nationally, have the potential to foster behaviour change, promote literacy for parents, and cement the gains in education and literacy for the next generation.
And at the local level, community-based parenting sessions under the leadership of the commune and local service providers, like the one accessed by Kimsrorn, give caregivers the opportunity to share and learn from other parents’ experience to successfully promote children’s cognitive and socio-emotional development – allowing them every chance to be the best “first teacher” that all children deserve.
Steve Cooke is the director of Program Development and Quality at Save the Children.