University of São Paulo: “Investing in early childhood is like a vaccine for human development”

When it comes to child development, almost all eyes are on formal education as the main responsible for social advancement and success in life. Other aspects, such as physical, mental and emotional health; individual rights and economic investments don’t look like a child’s thing.

However, healthy development in its multiple dimensions during the first years of life makes children adapt better to changes and acquire new knowledge more easily. Skills that will accompany them throughout their growth, leading them to achieve good school performance, personal fulfillment and better job opportunities, generating more responsible citizens.

“It is as if you vaccinated this development to face risks and adversities. How do we fight the risks? It is not passing the rubber, but modifying the negative impact of the risk ”, says psychologist Maria Beatriz Martins Linhares, senior professor at the Ribeirão Preto Medical School (FMRP) at USP and researcher at the recently launched Brazilian Center for Applied Research at First Childhood (CPAPI).

Created in 2021 by Insper with the support of the São Paulo State Research Support Foundation (Fapesp), the center brings together seven other organizations and of the 18 participating researchers, 12 are from USP. With the research, they hope to influence public authorities in the formulation of policies based on scientific evidence.

The CPAPI comes under veteran Core Science for Children, a coalition of organizations dedicated to science, innovation, training and developing leaders capable of promoting the quality of life and equality of opportunities for young children.


A partner institution of CPAPI, the Center on Developing Child , from Harvard University, published a working paper last year reinforcing attention to early childhood. The research indicated that children who live in an environment with supportive relationships and consistent routines are more likely to develop biological systems that work well, including brain circuits * that promote positive growth and lasting health.

The opposite also applies: excessive and persistent adversity early in life, especially in contexts of intergenerational poverty or systemic racism, can overload and even interrupt the cardiometabolic system. The consequences of these interruptions are expressed in lower educational performance and economic productivity, higher crime rates and increased long-term health costs.

* Young children’s experiences have an impact on the formation of the brain and reflect on the ability of future learning, behavior and even emotions. Check out the video:

According to the Maria Cecília Souto Vidigal Foundation, it is in the first six years of life that 90% of brain connections are formed. More than half of this window of opportunity occurs in a single term.
Little citizen
“Early childhood should be the mother of all public policies, as a horizontal theme. We cannot think of anything other than investment in early childhood if we want sustainable development for society. It has humanitarian, psychological reasons, but it also has economic reasons, in addition to ethical reasons, to guarantee rights. ”

Beatriz Linhares argues that early childhood corresponds to the most sustainable period of human development, but reinforces that the creation and monitoring of effective public policies for the first six years of a child’s life “depend on the conviction of different social agents”. Listen to the interview with the researcher by clicking on the player:

“At birth, a child faces a lottery of life. And until the 1970s, children born did not even have access to the State to guarantee their protection, ”recalls Naercio Menezes Filho, director of CPAPI and professor at USP’s School of Economics, Administration and Accounting (FEA), in São Paulo.

The economist points out that high rates of mortality and extreme poverty were being combated with the creation of the Unified Health System (SUS) and the implementation of strategies such as Family Health, in addition to programs to overcome the intergenerational cycle of poverty, such as Bolsa Família , Rural Retirement and Unemployment Insurance.

Article 227 of the Brazilian Federal Constitution
It is the duty of the family, society and the State to guarantee to children, adolescents and young people, with absolute priority, the right to life, health, food, education, leisure, professionalization, culture, dignity, respect, freedom and family and community coexistence, in addition to putting them safe from all forms of negligence, discrimination, exploitation, violence, cruelty and oppression.
In 1990, the Child and Adolescent Statute (ECA) created the doctrine of full protection and instituted the child as a full-fledged citizen. Sixteen years later, the National Congress sanctioned the Legal Framework for Early Childhood , expanding the rights of young children and indicating specific plans, programs and services from pregnancy to the sixth year. Among them, the creation of recreational spaces to play, the extension of paternity leave to 20 days under the Citizen Company program and the qualification of professionals for home visit actions.

The legal framework also paved the way for Criança Feliz , a primary care program supported by the figure of visitors, who periodically accompany the children of the poorest families in the country. Created in 2016 by the federal government, Criança Feliz has now benefited more than 750 1,000 children using a methodology focused on parents’ skills and developed by the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef).

Healthy cognitive and intellectual development depend on the environment. Building autonomy and learning potential are related to the quality of the bond and communication with the adults around

Early childhood first
“We are losing development potential up to five years of age in developing countries. Of the children in this age group, 37% are not fulfilling basic cognitive and socioemotional skills ”, says Beatriz Linhares.

The teacher refers to a series of publications by The Lancet magazine on the impacts of early childhood development. The burden is also financial. According to the study, a bad start in life can lead to problems with health, nutrition and inadequate learning, resulting in low wages in adulthood, as well as social tensions.

Estimates made by researchers from the Institute of Applied Economic Research (Ipea) and the Brazilian Public Security Forum show that Brazil’s spending on violence reaches 6% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per year, or approximately R $ 373 billion considering 2016 data. The amount is equivalent to that invested by the State in education.

The innovative work of the American James Heckman, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics in the 2000s, showed that investments in early childhood, especially in the care of children in situations of social vulnerability, have a relatively low cost. The return on investment, on the other hand, varies from 7% to 10% per year, based on the increase in education and professional performance, in addition to the reduction in costs with school reinforcement, health and expenses of the criminal justice system.

Despite the figures available, the director of CPAPI says that data are lacking to draw a profile of Brazilian children.


We do not know if child development in the country is good or bad. In education, we have Ideb, which measures learning and school flow; in health, the indicators of infant mortality and disease incidence. But people, in general, do not even know if the child is developing properly. Mothers learn in practice. “

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