Nurturing Education at Home in the Midst of a Health Crisis: How SDG Indicator 4.2.3 can Help Guide Where More Support is Needed

By Silvia Montoya, Director, UNESCO Institute for Statistics

In the midst of this global health crisis that threatens lives and containment measures that threaten our ways of living, we are faced with the stark reality that the world we return to will be forever altered. The far-reaching consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic may also jeopardize the hard won gains made in improving global education. 

The country statistics data collected and housed at the UIS has proved crucial in this time of crisis to help us estimate the global scope of the pandemic’s impact on education due to massive school closures. Given the importance of education as the foundation for all development, we must strive to safeguard learning at all ages. Thus, as a response, UNESCO has launched the Global Education Coalition in an attempt to support learning in the home as this becomes the new normal.

The outlook may be bleak, yet, the current crisis also presents an opportunity to rethink our perceptions of education. If we can rise to the challenge, we could harness lessons on how to adapt learning to continue in challenging times and support learners physically displaced from schools. The home is the first place where learning takes root and parents are the first and most important teachers. Thus, it seems only fitting to look more closely at the foundations of education itself.

What happens to accelerate – or hinder – children’s learning before they ever enter a classroom or even preschool or daycare? We’re only just starting to understand the inner mechanics of child development in the earliest years of life. While we have always known that these years are important, it is only now, thanks to recent leaps in neuroscience, that we are grasping their critical importance as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that cannot be squandered.

We now know, for example, that babies’ brains form new connections at an astounding rate for the first few years of life: more than 1 million every single second according to Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child. This is a pace that will never be equalled again in our lifespan.

The ‘brain-building’ process, however, is not always smooth or automatic. It is shaped not only by genes, but also by nurturing life experiences – including responsive caregiving that every child needs. If these experiences are derailed through stress, neglect, violence or a toxic home environment, the negative impact could last a lifetime without any protective measures.

Nurturing learning so no child is left behind

But can this be measured? UNICEF and the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) believe that it can, as embodied in SDG Indicator 4.2.3, which reflects “the percentage of children under the age of five who experience positive and stimulating home-learning environments”.

The methodology for this new indicator was approved by the Technical Cooperation Group on the Indicators for SDG 4 (TCG) at its fifth meeting in Mexico and the data for the indicator will come from UNICEF’s Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys (MICS), a household survey conducted in 116 countries since 1995.

The concept behind the indicator is explained in the SDG 4 Data Digest 2019. It rests on the premise that every caregiver in every home is responsible for creating a safe, stimulating and nurturing environment for every child. Their positive interactions with children are vital to promote social, emotional and cognitive development. Children who feel valued and accepted are on course for healthy relationships, as well as academic and employment success.

Indicator 4.2.3 provides a broad measure of the ways in which adults interact with children in ways that promote learning. It calculates the percentage of children aged 36 to 59 months who live in households where their mother, father or other adult household members engage with them in reading or looking at picture books; telling stories; singing songs; taking children outside the home; playing; and naming, counting or drawing. In essence, these are activities many of us are engaging in more regularly with our children in this time of confinement. The MICS is an ideal data source for this Indicator.

The UIS visualization of Indicator 4.2.3 presents the data available as a result of the MICS and identifies the poor results in sub-Saharan Africa, where less than half of all children experience positive and stimulating home environments in countries, such as Sierra Leone, Côte d'Ivoire, Senegal, Guinea, Benin , Chad, and others. There are also countries with similarly low rates in South-East Asia, Northern Africa and West Asia as well as Central America. In a time when children of all ages need support to continue learning from the home, this indicator can help give us an idea of where and how many learners may need help the most.  

Percentage of children under 5 years experiencing positive and stimulating home learning environments

Source: UNESCO Institute for Statistics, SDG 4 Data Explorer.  

Current data also signal some serious issues around equity, with the most impoverished children and those living in rural areas far less likely to enjoy a home environment that stimulates their learning. However, data also show wide variations within countries, including those that have plenty of data to share. In Mexico, for example, children in rural areas are marginally less likely to have a stimulating home environment than children in urban areas. But the biggest disparity relates to wealth, with children in the poorest 20% of families far less likely to enjoy a stimulating environment. This wealth disparity is even more marked in Côte d'Ivoire, where children in the poorest 20% of families are less than half as likely to grow up in an environment that stimulates their development than children in the richest 20%. 

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic that comes with strict isolation measures that have relegated learners of all ages to the confines of their home, it is imperative that we draw from this data to help target those in most peril of losing ground in terms of continued education. For now, further methodological developmental work is needed to ensure that the proposed Indicator 4.2.3 is relevant to children in all parts of the world. So, as learners return to the home, the cradle of education, Indicator 4.2.3 is set to provide us with a much clearer view of the education that starts – and in this current context, needs to continue – at home.

To be sure, the Indicator does not capture information on all the nuanced elements that may be used to build a nurturing home environment, such as culturally diverse approaches to parenting or the ‘soft skills’ required by parents as early teachers (e.g. how to read to a child to develop pre-reading skills). Nonetheless, by capturing a picture of the home environment, we can explore which factors work to support or block learning. Thus, the data can help us examine how our earliest environment, the home, can be better adapted to nurture learning so it continues to thrive in times of crisis. Guided by this vital information, we can enhance the chances of all learners for a successful, continued and life-long education to ensure that learning truly never stops.

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