Early childhood development, or ECD, for short, encompasses a child’s cognitive, language, social, emotional, and motor development. Research has found that an estimated 250 million children are not meeting their developmental potential in the first five years of life. The risks that threaten children’s development include poverty, malnutrition, infectious illnesses, stress in families, violence, inadequate care and protection, and a lack of early learning opportunities. Without interventions, these early risks have lifelong implications on health, on behaviour, and productivity.
We also know that early childhood is a critical window of opportunity when children are particularly sensitive to experiences that promote development. This is why interventions targeting this age are so important. In the last 30 years, we have learned a great deal about what types of interventions work to support early childhood development. However, we have been less successful in replicating and scaling up these interventions in different contexts around the world to reach the large numbers of children who need these services.
Over the last three decades, we have also amassed evidence that there are multiple risks across a complexity of factors that threaten children’s development. And therefore, single sector interventions alone, while necessary, are not sufficient to promote their ability to thrive. Nurturing care is the provision of stable, emotionally supportive environment that protects children from the threats and provides them with responsive, developmentally stimulating opportunities for healthy development, learning, and interaction. It is provided by the child’s parents, family, caregivers, teachers, and community in the immediate home, childcare settings, pre-primary classrooms, and beyond. So a coordinated response means we must ensure that every child receives all of the services they need, and that their families and caregivers have resources and support to care for them. It also means teachers and carers have the tools and capacities to foster early development and learning, that communities are empowered to advocate for the needs of young children, and families and governments are accountable to their youngest citizens. While there has been increased global, and national funding, and policy commitment to early childhood in the recent years, few effective interventions promoting early childhood development have achieved scale.
A greater emphasis on implementation research and practice is necessary to inform evidence and knowledge for effective, sustainable, and high quality early childhood interventions that can be delivered at scale. ECD is the progressive attainment of sensorimotor, social-emotional, cognitive, and language capacities, as well as a sense of self that are driven by our biology, our genes, and the environment. These capacities are the building blocks for future human capital, enabling us to think, solve problems, communicate, express our emotions, form relationships, create and develop new ideas.
The period of early development begins at conception and continues to about eight years of age. Here we see children transitioning from their family and home environment, to early childhood care and education services, to primary school and their neighbourhood environments. Therefore, young children need a range of interventions to promote ECD.
The World Health Organization, UNICEF, and the World Bank Group put forward the Nurturing Care Framework in 2018. This framework describes all of the inputs young children need in order to thrive. This includes good health, adequate nutrition, responsive caregiving, security and safety, as well as opportunities for early learning. These interventions are not just needed in the first five years of life. But, really, we need to ensure that children continue to receive inputs so that they transition safely and successfully to school and to community environments. The NCF or the Nurturing Care Framework is not meant to be business as usual. It is not enough for us to consider what inputs children need but to ensure that the environment enables children to receive those inputs.
That means building the strengths and the capabilities of caregivers so that they can ensure their children are receiving adequate health, nutrition, that they are safe, and that they’re learning, that caregivers and children are supported by empowered communities, and the empowered communities, the families are supported by services. These services must work together across child protection, social protection, health, and education. And these services, the communities that we live in, our families, our children are supported by policies. At the national level, there are many, many policies that support children and families. But we need to make sure that they are working to serve children and families no matter where they live.
There are multiple interventions that can be delivered throughout the early years and the life course beyond. We need to ensure that all of these interventions come together to allow children to thrive. So what do we mean when we say interventions, platforms, systems, and policies? In addition to the essential interventions of health and nutrition, we need to ensure that ECD is promoted through parenting programs. That is, the skills that parents need to support the healthy development, early learning, responsive care, and care for feeding of their children. It includes the guidance that families might need to prevent violence, to establish safe and healthy routines, for care for their children’s health, hygiene, and nutrition.
It includes interventions in early childhood care and education. It includes interventions that are needed in the first years of primary school. It includes paying attention to the needs of children with disabilities or those who are at risk of developmental delay. It includes supporting mental well-being not only for children but for the caregivers that work with children and for their families. It includes ensuring our neighbourhoods are safe spaces, child-friendly spaces, adding also includes giving opportunities for caregivers to have education, income generation, and training so that they have access to the resources that they can choose to invest for their children in a way that is right for their family.
All of these interventions are supported by platforms. Investing in early child development– living up to our commitments under the Convention on the Rights of the Child– should be a priority for every society. The reason why is crystal clear. It makes sense on every level. Ensuring the best possible start in life for every member of society is an effective– and cost-effective– way to advance the productivity, creativity, resilience, and overall development of everyone. It helps to expand economic opportunities and can be a factor promoting the resolution of conflicts and grievances.
Rigorous studies have repeatedly demonstrated that the early years of a child’s life lay the foundation for lifelong growth and potential. Investing in policies and programs that target early childhood development will open up multiplier effects throughout the child’s life and across entire generations. It drives greater economic progress, and potentially much more inclusive and sustainable development.
Every child has a right to develop to the maximum extent possible. Every child has the right to a standard of living adequate for their physical, mental, spiritual, moral, and social development. Guaranteeing access to early childhood development programs for those in greatest need is a policy tool that has great promise to break down cycles of exclusion.
Children who live in poverty, who live with disabilities, who are growing up without parental care in the streets, in institutions, or in situations of conflict or displacement, children from indigenous peoples or marginalized minority communities, or migrant families– these are among the most vulnerable, at-risk people in our societies. We are already seeing a huge increase in children being forced to work to feed their families or forced into child marriage. Children are being exposed to heightened threats of experiencing or witnessing physical and psychological violence.
To promote ECD, children need to be nourished and healthy. In addition, they need an environment that supports children’s development and learning. For very young children, this might include a variety of early learning opportunities in the home with their family. Responsive care is a key ingredient. That is the
ability of the caregiver to understand the child’s needs and their wants and to be able to respond to a child in a developmentally appropriate way.
Shabir Ahmad is a UPSC aspirant/emerging writer from Raiyar, Doodhpathri.