Early childhood development (ECD) has become a priority for research, policy and programming, at national and global level, with increasing recognition of the interconnections between a nation’s development goals and the quality of services for all young girls and boys, and their families. The term ‘ECD’ is increasingly being used to reflect the evidence that young children’s survival, health, care and learning involves interconnected and dynamic growth processes from well before the infant is born through into their early school years.
ECD is thus a broad and complex field, covering multiple policy sectors, and diverse research traditions, but with the aspirations of constructing more inter-sectoral, and more integrated models of services delivery. The Topic Guide offers brief summaries of key research, evaluations and case studies, as well as links to more specialist resources relevant to this vision for ECD. It draws on a very broad range of published research and policy studies, spanning health; nutrition; water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH); social protection; and education. It includes experimental trials of innovative programmes as well as policy reports on systemic reform. Despite the ambitious scope, inevitably the Topic Guide is not exhaustive, and for example has limited coverage of child protection issues that are also at the heart of an integrated vision for ECD. Specialist services for specific groups, notably young disabled children are also essential within an integrated and inclusive vision, but detailed discussion is beyond the scope of the guide.
The case for working towards more coordinated, more integrated policy, programming, capacity building and research is not new. Early childhood pioneers have emphasised the importance of respecting children’s holistic development for at least two centuries; and flagship national programmes have been built up around service integration principles since the 1960s. There are many lessons to be learned. Introducing effective inter-sectoral integration can be a very positive step forward, but can also be very challenging to deliver in practice, especially in contexts with low resources and weak governance. The priority is to support practical steps towards quality holistic ECD in low- and middle-income countries where services for young children and families are growing rapidly, but not always coherently.
ECD is not just inter-sectoral. It is also dynamic. Just as the foetus, infant, young child and school student experience multiple transformations during their early years, so too, policy and programming must be sensitive to changing needs and priorities at different ages and stages, all embraced within the concept of ‘ECD’. The significance of early childhood can hardly be overstated. Chronologically, it spans nearly the first half of childhood. Developmentally, it is even more significant, shaping all that follows. ECD encompasses several quite distinct early developmental phases. In this Topic Guide we distinguish the period ‘from conception to birth’ from ‘birth to 2 years’, followed by the ‘preschool years’ and the ‘early school years’. These are not precise phases. They are shaped by cultural beliefs and institutional structures, as well as development changes in children’s capacities, vulnerabilities and emerging autonomy; their needs for care, ways of communicating, playing and learning; as well as the patterns of their daily lives in modern societies, including access to ECD services and schools.
The Topic Guide has three specific goals:
- to summarise evidence across the full age span of ECD, identifying key developmental phases and transitions, beginning before conception through to early grades of school, and also recognising intergenerational and life cycle issues
- to map the various sectoral entry points for delivering comprehensive holistic ECD services, and highlight the distinct research traditions, key evidence, policy priorities and programmatic expertise associated with each sector
- to identify opportunities and challenges in achieving more integrated ECD at every level: building inter-sectoral policies, management, programming, professional training, service delivery and research.