As so eloquently put by American author Dorothy Law Nolte in her 1954 poem titled “Children Learn What They Live”, if children live with hostility, they learn to fight. It could be simple antagonistic acts they see at home such as a push here or a shove there. It could be more escalated behaviour, such as a slap, a punch or a kick. It could also be other forms of abuse which include emotional and financial abuse, or harassment.

With their volatile young minds still in the crucial developmental stages, this behaviour may become entrenched into children’s beings, subconsciously creating a culture of violence which may become life lived.

The benefits of quality Early Childhood Development (ECD) and care highlighted by the national Department of Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation could help to combat this. According to their report titled “Early childhood development and child violence”, the long-term impact of ECD on future education and earnings is well documented. However, poor environments, nutrition, inferior quality education and widespread violence continue to limit the prospects of children in South Africa, the report notes.

In the United Nations report “Violence prevention must start in early childhood”, scientific evidence shows that a violence-free early childhood matters. The report is clear: the first 1 000 days of a child’s life are the foundation for a person’s whole future development. Violence in early childhood is not only stressful, but also a painful experience for a child in the immediate term, with the further risk of mid and long-term consequences.

The developing brain structure and function can be altered, which can impact language acquisition and cognitive functioning. This results in social and emotional competency deficits, also generating fear, anxiety, depression, the risk of self-harm and aggressive behaviour in children. It is therefore essential to end violence in children’s lives early on; the benefits for society are manifold.

One way of doing this is by investing in quality early intervention programmes such as those offered by Ntataise and its Network of 20 Early Childhood Development not-for-profit organisations. Over the past 40 years, Ntataise has pioneered and developed numerous early intervention programmes for vulnerable communities with an emphasis on inclusivity and anti-bias, care, family, love and respect.

These programmes include playgroups, clinic outreach and parent support platforms which provide a firm grounding in equality, empathy, self-regulation, problem solving, confidence and respect in young children.

Much-needed support is provided to vulnerable families, parents and caregivers, who attend the programmes with their children, giving them an opportunity to learn more about their child’s emotional and physical development needs, the importance of early stimulation and loving child care. Advice on child nutrition, health, immunisation and birth registration are also covered in these programmes.

It is through these programmes that Ntataise staff are alerted to signs of vulnerability, abuse or neglect of both young children and women in their homes. As a result of the trust built and safe spaces created, Ntataise is able to direct or refer them to relevant support services.

With the 16 Days of Activism Against Women and Child Abuse currently in full swing, Ntataise seeks to not only to spread the message of opposing violence against women and children but to ensure that such violence does not become entrenched in the minds of the young to begin with. We should all desire to participate in a movement that assists in transforming mindsets, developing life skills and building safe-spaces for our children at a young age.

Early interventions and access to quality ECD can bring positive change for a more inclusive, accepting and empathetic society. To transform any aspect of society, it is always best to start with the children in mind because they do indeed learn what they live.

Sarah McGuigan is the Executive Director of Ntataise, a not-for-profit organisation founded in 1980 with the objective of helping women in disadvantaged rural communities gain the knowledge and skills needed to establish and sustain effective Early Childhood Development (ECD) programmes for children in their care.

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