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The Bremen Initiative to Foster Early Childhood Development

22. January 2018

Kerstin Schütte

JB Watson's pointed assertion that by shaping their environment he could arbitrarily train randomly selected infants to become doctors, lawyers or even thieves or beggars is still routinely quoted to illustrate the position of behaviorism, which emphasizes the role of the environment on child development. Of course, this statement was too radical. But the significance of our family background is not limited to the genes passed on through our parents. Some parents’ ability to finance their children’s Chinese or violin lessons and others inability also falls short as an explanation. Parents and educators creating an environment in daily life that is more or less conducive to the development of children are a major influence.

It is all too well known from the international comparative studies that in Germany, disparities based on family background are relatively pronounced. The reasons for this are complex, the consequences tragic for the individuals concerned and at the same time a loss for society. At the same time, the comparative studies draw attention to the fact that in German cities a significant proportion of children and adolescents come from socially and culturally disadvantaged families. However, disparities due to family background do not only arise during the course of school careers but long before children start formal education. School then faces the challenge of balancing existing disparities. Targeted measures should therefore begin in early childhood to effectively limit the emergence of disparities and to offer all children the best possible chances of a contented, self-determined life, career success and participation in the different facets of society. The Bremen Initiative to Foster Early Childhood Development (BRISE) intends to show that early childhood education and care could more effectively foster early childhood development without considerable additional resources.

That having been said, the realization that because of the cumulative nature of educational processes the course for later educational opportunities is set in early childhood is not new. Studies of the economics of early care and education revealed that early childhood support measures achieve the highest returns on investment; the sooner one invests in children's development, the greater their gain. Having tackled this topic early on, the city of Bremen has a wide range of early childhood and preschool support programs. Contrary to the common practice of occasionally making use of some of these programs, however, it seems essential to avoid longer phases without support for sustainable positive effects in the development of children from socially and culturally disadvantaged families. For this reason, BRISE systematically links everyday life programs that have proved effective and that are already established on a large scale in Bremen. Since early childhood support is particularly successful when home-based measures are combined with center-based measures, the BRISE intervention chain incorporates programs that are implemented either in families or in day-care centers. However, so far there have been no such studies from Germany – BRISE is now examining the validity of this finding in Germany.

Some of the families participating in BRISE will enroll in all programs of the intervention chain. The cumulative effects of such coordinated support on the cognitive, social and emotional development of children will be systematically investigated for the first time. To this end, various Leibniz Institutes, universities and the Max Planck Institute for Human Development have joined forces to form a research alliance that works closely with the governing authorities. The research alliance brings together renowned experts from different disciplines to provide broad empirical support for an effective early