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Jelena Djokovic at the First Western Balkans Women Conference

by , 26th May 2016

Jelena Djokovic, Director of the Novak Djokovic Foundation, yesterday held an inspiring lecture at the first Western Balkans Women Conference “She is Here”. The Conference is dedicated to the women from the entire region, covering three main topics: role of women in strengthening the rule of law, women in entrepreneurship and personal and professional development of women. Jelena presented the goals of the Novak Djokovic Foundation, with a special emphasis on what every parent should be aware of regarding proper upbringing and development of their children.

Let me first ask you a simple question – How many of you think that your child is a little genius? I can tell you that every mother I encountered believes that her child is gifted for something. I share their opinion. They are right! Every child is a genius. All children have the potential to become geniuses one day. The birth-to-three period is the fastest rate of brain development across the entire human life span. By the time they are 3, children’s brains have formed 1000 trillion connections between neurons. Imagine this stunning development. If babies’ bodies grew at the same rapid pace as their brains, they would weigh 170 pounds by one month of age. Therefore, early stimulation is extremely important to enhance brain’s capacities and prepare children to face challenges later in life.

Each stimulation fosters new synapses in the brain to be formed and existing connections to get stronger.

Children learn from randomly used opportunities. Their learning is never an intention-led process. Many think that children should not start formal learning during their early years. They’d rather let the kids enjoy in their childhood. However, learning opportunities for children in less fortunate, marginalized families are quite repetitive and non-stimulating. Children are able to absorb emotions from their environment, and reflect the stress of their parents. Babies whose parents frequently talk to them know 300 more words by age 2 than babies whose parents rarely speak to them. The brains of children exposed to two languages from birth develop better compared to those raised in monolingual environments. There are children who have never seen a book until their first day at school. Last year, in his column Novak recalled one of his visits to preschools in Serbia. He asked a small Roma boy what was his favorite book and the child responded “I don’t know what a book is”. Moreover, there are parents who can’t afford to pay even the kindergarten fee subsidy, those living in rural areas, far from preschool facilities when the lack of transportation prevents many children from access to pre-primary programs. There are places with no kindergartens at all or there is the lack of capacities in kindergartens for all kids to be enrolled. When they are six, these children must attend compulsory preschool program. However, they are unprepared to do so. They find it too hard and discouraging. We have set them the obstacle impossible to overcome right from the start.  

The consequences of poor learning opportunities and lack of stimulation are extremely negative.

Many of these children finish only primary school, or drop out of school while their academic achievements are far below the average. All this leads to their misbehavior with a potential risk to become drug addicts and bullies. Children who aren’t included in preschool education, with a bad start in life, often remain on the margins of society and trapped in an unbreakable cycle of poverty, as numerous studies have shown

Rather than investing in children and in their education and development, the societies invest in their rehabilitation and remedial services, long after the harm has been done.

The Novak Djokovic Foundation is focused on Early Childhood Education and Development. We are investing in the education of children up to 6 years of age, mostly in economically disadvantaged municipalities, where there’s a large number of children not attending kindergarten. Our goal is to get them prepared for the future life challenges. We also want to support the parents to provide their children a safe, creative and stimulating environment to grow up and develop in a proper way. To ensure they have a happy and normal childhood and enable them to learn, play, smile and enjoy with their friends. We are proud that last year the World Bank joined us in our mission, highlighting our work with children and our strategy of investing in early childhood as an example that other countries troubled with similar issues should follow.

I believe that we can create a society where young people are not a problem to be addressed but an opportunity to be invested in.

I believe you want this to happen too. However, currently less than half of all children aged 3-5 in Serbia attend kindergarten. Still there’s little public talk on investing in early childhood development and education. It isn’t a popular decision by the government, since the benefits or the visible results of these investments will come in 20 years time. At that moment the children will be grown-ups ready or not to cope with problems in their communities. People are impatient to fight for such long-term goals. That’s why we took over the role as the investors and advocates for the early childhood development and education through projects and activities of our Foundation. As UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, Novak is actively engaged in raising awareness of the importance of this matter.   

What separates children who will become geniuses from those who won’t be able to develop their inborn “genius” potential?

Living conditions, environment, opportunities, support, stimulation, education, degree of stress ,make that difference. Most parents want the best possible future for their children. Yet many are struggling to achieve this, in spite all their efforts. They need support. Some of them are in a much better position than the others. Some children are more privileged than the rest of their peers. Kids who spend their childhood facing constant stress, fear, malnutrition, sleep deprivation, wars, and migrations are less likely to fulfill their potential. There’s an ongoing debate about toxic stress many children are exposed to nowadays, with follow-up questions: “How much toxic stress a child can stand? What are the effects of toxic stress on child’s brain and behavior? Does toxic stress stay recorded in our brain and body? The answer is YES.

Jelena reflected on her own childhood experiences of growing up in a war-torn country.

We have survived bombing, sanctions, poor living standards, exile, and insecurity. These highly stressful events left irreparable emotional scars. Some of us rose above the adverse conditions and became even more motivated and encouraged to pursue our dreams, others were badly injured and handicapped, both physically and mentally. Just recently a severe thunderstorm in Paris got Novak and me jump out of bed in the middle of the night. Others in the house were sleeping like a baby. Nobody even twitched. The thunder sounded as if a bomb had exploded. On the first Wednesday of every month when air raid sirens are tested in the city we live, we experience stress and anxiety. Today refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan who fled from atrocities of war-conflict zones, searching for peace and security are directly exposed to this kind of stress. It remains unclear where they would end their journey and what to expect. Together with their children they are constantly under stress. Many countries are reluctant to allow refugees access to their territories. On their way to a better and brighter future they have to breach razor wire fences on borders, cross the seas and rivers in overcrowded and unsafe boats or walk through steep mountains. They become victims of hoaxers, kidnappers and thieves. Children have lost their homes, their families and their childhood. There is no shelter to hide from the rain or snow, no medications to treat diseases, no warm clothes in winter and no drinking water in summer.

These children receive negative stimulation, and experience only negative emotions like fear that govern their lives and actions. All they feel is pain and suffering. They know little about love, happiness, joy. These parents and children are most in need of our help and support.

The efforts of us engaged in charity work are focused in the first place on providing food, drinking water, clothing, and medical assistance to refugees… When these families and children reach their destination, they are yet to face great challenges. Cultural, emotional, psychological, financial. Our  next task is to find the best solution for their assimilation into a whole new community.

At the end of her lecture Jelena also emphasized the importance of “Family Outreach Worker” service.

Supporting families at risk” project is fully financed and implemented by the Novak Djokovic Foundation together with our partners, UNICEF and the Ministry of Social Affairs of the Republic of Serbia. The goal of the project is to support families at risk of family separation and prevent placement of children into institutions. This initiative is for parents who want the best for their children but are struggling. All children deserve the right to grow up in a family setting, with their biological parents. They need our help, support and understanding and not to be criticized. Migrant families are likely to face similar problems, and countries that will accept them need an effective strategy to deal with such family crisis. “Family Outreach Worker” service has been constantly available to all 400 families included in the project. The workers help the family to obtain personal documents, exercise their rights and master various parenting skills. They start celebrating their birthdays together. They learn to respect and take care of each other. The workers stay with the most vulnerable families for 6 months, leaving them stronger than they ever could be.

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