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
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
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
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.