Early Childhood Development: Last on the Hierarchy of Needs?

Photo Credit: OECDEducationToday

Short of opening up crania–a task for which we are grossly unqualified–FrameWorks researchers are in the business of looking into people’s heads. We look for patterns of thinking that are evident behind patterns of talking, justifying, arguing and reasoning about issues. This is the reason why Naomi Quinn’s seminal methods account is called “Finding Culture in Talk.”

Lately we’ve been looking for culture in the talk of the community of professionals who work in international development. We’ve been interested in shared patterns of understanding that the members of this field bring to bear in thinking about children’s issues and early child development. Our goal is to figure out (and test) ways to translate the science of early child development into this domain in order to increase programatic attention on this issue.

We’re finding out many interesting things about how this field thinks about their work and the issues that comprise it, but there is one finding that stands out as particularly revelatory: members of this field share and employ what we refer to as a hierarchy of needs mental model.

I think this goes a long way in helping us understand a more explicit pattern–the history and durability of the field’s focus on child survival. Employing the hierarchy of needs mental model, international children’s issues are represented as a hierarchy of linear and sequential tiers. The crux of this mental model is that the concerns comprising foundational levels of the hierarchy must be satisfied before issues on subsequent levels may be addressed. This model is brought to bear in thinking about all kinds of issues–for example that health must be addressed before issues like education.

But by far its most pernicious and predictable application in the field of international development and children’s issues is in thinking about the issue of child survival. In this case, child survival constitutes the base of the hierarchy and other issues, like child development, represent some level above this foundation. Informants in our work assume that issues of child survival must be satisfactorily dealt with before work on development can be prioritized. This hinders support for funding of child development programs by making development the perpetual next step–the work that can only become a priority once child survival has been satisfactorily addressed.

Our challenge moving forward is to figure out how to unseat the hierarchy of needs as the dominant model that is brought to thinking about funding and programs on international children’s issues. If it continues to be the orientational mental model, early child development will always be the next step and a child survival focus will continue to be its own worst enemy.

In the words of one of our informants, “[the child survival emphasis] doesn’t deal with the consequences of it’s own success — one of which is that, once you have the child survive, then you’ve got to start worrying about their development, right? And that’s the link that hasn’t been made.”


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