"Physical and psychological punishment of children is accepted in Chile, " says Blanca Hermosilla, a pre-school consultant to the World Bank and head of innovative programmes at the education ministry. "The smaller the child, the more he or she gets beaten."
A study by the United Nations' children's fund (UNICEF), released in 1994, found 63 per cent of Chilean children are physically abused. Earlier this year, newspapers reported a study of court cases involving child abuse which revealed that many of the children had also experienced sexual abuse.
In response, the ministry of education made a series of television adverts - "Look at me!", "Talk to me!", "Teach me!" and "Keep me company!" - to focus attention on pre-school children and their hunger for love and learning.
It was hugely successful. More than 70 per cent of those who saw the ads remembered them, especially among lower-income households, and many parents said they had stopped hitting their children as a result. Using the same simple message, Hermosilla and a small team of social scientists developed programmes to bring pre-school education to young children, even those in remote rural areas.
In 1990, the ministry of education began to train regional supervisors and school directors in a programme designed to support 20,000 families help their children begin school with a minimum of trauma. The most unusual programme, "Know Your Child", has brought poor and rural children from isolated communities into contact with learning materials and activities that raise their skills to the levels of the more privileged.
"We choose a highly vulnerable area, of extreme poverty, where there are no pre-school programmes," said Gaston Guzman, the anthropologist on the three- person national team responsible for "Know Your Child". A group of 12 mothers chooses one among them to become group leader. She receives training, then shares what she has learned with the group. Using visual aids and workbooks, the women study basic hygiene, child psychology and other topics.
The drop-out rate - only 5-8 per cent - is extraordinary among rural programmes, where women have heavy work schedules and must walk miles to reach meetings.
According to Chile's national commission for pre-school education, early experience can "break the poverty cycle". The report cites UNICEF studies which found even a brief pre-school experience can reduce the likelihood of later drug addiction and delinquency.
The commission's report convinced the Chilean congress to expand pre-school programmes, as well as to finance a second round of advertisements. Over the next four years, the ministry plans to spend US$27 million so that by the end of the decade one in three children under two and over half of all four to six-year-olds are in a pre-school programme.