THE argument is widely acknowledged and it goes something like this: for every penny spent wisely in the crucial early years of a child’s life, then pounds could potentially be saved later in life avoiding the costs and damaging consequences of corrective remedies required to address difficulties and problems when things go awry.
This policy of preventative spending is universally accepted and supported by robust international research and it sits at the heart of the Scottish Government’s very welcome Early Years’ focus in Scotland. But what if our starting point was different?
What if we began from a premise that all children are born into this world with an innate capacity to succeed, to love, to connect and to communicate in ways that are only positive? This shifts the argument from preventative spending to an altogether more positive landscape of rewarding destinations and good outcomes. Of course, these are not contrasting policies they are merely differing perspectives of the same challenge – how to give all our children the best possible start in life.
This nature versus nurture debate should be framed differently; perhaps we need to be more consistent in our language and approach and recognise that it is about nature and nurture. The former being the gift each child brings unconditionally into this world and the latter being about us “grown-ups” and what it is we need to do, very differently, to engage and support all children in their crucial and critical early years.
It is possible for these views to be dismissed as somewhat “detached” from the gritty realities of the day-to-day existence of too many children in Scotland today. Children who are born into poverty or who enter this world with greater challenges because of a disability or whose ability to communicate is identified (or more commonly not) as needing additional support.
These real circumstances are challenging enough but when they occur within a crowded and pressured environment that seemingly and endlessly promotes material obsessions, conformity with all things “beautiful” and growing intolerance of “different”, it is perhaps not surprising to learn that families with very young disabled children with communication support needs often report feeling a sense of “overwhelmingly isolation”. This is the juncture where Sense Scotland has positioned itself in its new Early Years Programme.
Building on the success of our established Family Advisory Service and our pioneering Parent Enabler Project in Glasgow – a ten-year-plus partnership with NHS Greater Glasgow & Clyde – we are now working with parents and families across Scotland. Dedicated funding from Scottish Government is fuelling our ambition to support parents and carers to develop individual communication approaches involving, in many instances, the whole family.
Communication within a family group is one of the hardest things to get right. When that family group includes a young disabled child who also has significant communication support needs, the notion of “good communications” can seem an impossible aspiration. However, with an unrelenting belief that all children are born with an innate ability to connect and communicate and with an equal determination to suspend our often ill-conceived adult notions of how to communicate, the aspiration can become real and achievable.
In other words, if we are prepared to listen and be led by our children’s earliest expressions and noises, we can have the opportunity to establish an enduring relationship built on trust, honesty and partnership – the foundation blocks for excellent communication. This requires us (the grown-ups) to open ourselves up to new possibilities and discoveries about ourselves but it will equip us well for the certain challenges ahead in securing the best possible start for our children. There’s an old English proverb which puts it well, I think: “The soul is healed by being with children.” A more flippant retort might suggest “that it’s never too late to have a happy childhood”.
At Sense Scotland we believe everyone has a story to tell and a voice to be heard and we will explore all sorts of channels and mediums to facilitate people’s stories and aspirations. Central to this approach is the uncomplicated idea that we “stick at it”. Many of our Early Years children of yesteryears are now adults living independent lives in the community as active and contributing citizens. Along the way we have learned things about ourselves, and families tell us that too.
Most importantly however, the Early Years focus has the potential not only to transform lives; it can also deliver a better, more equal society. Now there’s a natural outcome worth nurturing.
• Eddie McConnell is director of external affairs with Sense Scotland