There is no greater time to invest than in a child's early years. Early childhood is a unique moment to support a child's physical, cognitive, social, and emotional development and lay the foundation for later health, educational, and economic outcomes. Now, as the evidence supporting the importance of early childhood development mounts, practitioners and policy-makers alike are no longer debating whether ECD interventions work, but how to make them work better.
What we know
The early childhood development (ECD) community has spent decades building the evidence base and making the case for ECD. Evaluations and research in brain science, developmental psychology, and economics prove the unparalleled benefits of interventions that support young children and their families and, conversely, the alarming consequences of not investing in young children. We now know that:
- Investments in the early years have greater cost savings than any other time in life, and that poor and vulnerable children benefit the most from these interventions.
- Poor nutrition (which leads to stunting and other deficiencies), lack of early stimulation, exposure to abuse and neglect, and other adverse effects of poverty can have irreversible consequences for children.
- Children develop holistically and services should look to foster healthy social and emotional learning in addition to physical and cognitive development.
- Children's relationships with adults – both caregivers and early childhood practitioners – have a significant influence on cognitive, linguistic, social, emotional, and physical development. Yet parents, other family members, and early childhood workers are not always supported to provide the stable, nurturing, responsive, and stimulating relationships that children need.
Where we are now
The global community took a significant step in September 2015 by adopting the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. ECD is explicitly included in target 4.2 of the Sustainable Development Goals ("ensure that all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education so that they are ready for primary education"), and is critical for achieving a number of other SDGs as well. These goals present an exciting, yet challenging, opportunity that places a renewed emphasis on quality. Whereas we previously focused on what young children need to survive and thrive, we are increasingly exploring how to achieve and maintain quality of early childhood services at scale.
Achieving quality ECD at scale requires tackling a number of serious obstacles.
- Both domestic and international financing must dramatically increase (in low and lower-middle income countries, the cost of one year of pre-primary education alone will increase from US$4.8 billion in 2012 to US31.2 billion annually on average between 2015 and 2030).
- Greater efforts are needed to support and empower the early childhood workforce, by strengthening the professional requirements, preparation and training, composition, recruitment, compensation, diversification, monitoring, and recognition and status of those working with young children and their families.
- Parents often are not aware of or underestimate the role they play in their children’s lives.
- As the provision of pre-primary services will increase around the world, a special emphasis has to be on the quality and age-appropriateness of these services. Simply expanding the primary years to even younger ages has not had the desired impact on children’s development.
Where we are heading
New global partnerships are building on this momentum to impact the lives of young children and families. The World Bank and UNICEF recently announced the creation of a new action network that will bring together governments, civil society, development partners, funders, and private actors to support country-level nutrition, learning, and protection efforts.
The Early Childhood Workforce Initiative, a new and growing partnership led by Results for Development (R4D) and the International Step by Step Association, works at the level of country systems to support and empower those working with young children and families including (but not limited to), home visitors, childcare workers, preschool staff, community health workers, as well as supervisors, mentors, coaches, and trainers. These efforts present great potential to influence ECD at both the global and country level.
Beyond these broader levels though, we cannot overlook the role of early childhood practitioners and programs. It is critical to develop and share key resources and evidence in an accessible way to empower those who deliver ECD services. The Early Learning Toolkit was launched earlier this year by CEI for precisely this purpose. And now we are proud to announce that the Toolkit has expanded to include research, case studies, tips, and practical tools for implementing four new evidence-based and demand-driven strategies to improve the quality of early childhood programs (these strategies are Integrating Services for Young Children, Responsive and Stimulating Caregiving, Playful Learning (Learning through Play), and Supporting Early Childhood Practitioners.
These added resources, the result of a partnership between the Center for Education Innovations (CEI) and the LEGO Foundation, reflect the critical need to connect the adults in young children's lives with the latest knowledge and practical tools needed to prepare young children for productive lives. Passionate women and men around the world are committed to ensuring that children get the support they need from birth. Now, we must work to make sure these practitioners have the support they need. The result may be a brighter future for all of us.
Donika Dimovska is a Senior Program Director at the Results for Development Institute (R4D). She spearheads new ways of doing development, leading efforts under R4D’s expanding innovation portfolio in areas such as health, education, child protection and beyond. She leads the conceptualization and execution of new knowledge-generation and dissemination platforms, tools, and modalities, at the global and country levels, with the goal of harnessing innovations for development to improve social and economic systems around the world.
Mirjam Schöning is the Global Head, Programs and Partnerships, at the LEGO Foundation. She is responsible for building up the LEGO Foundation’s programs and partnerships with a particular focus on learning through play. Previously, Mirjam was heading the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship from January 2008 to September 2012 and was a member of the senior leadership team at the World Economic Forum.
Photo Credit: Hippocampus Learning Centres