Early childhood is the most rapid period of development in a human life. Although individual children develop at their own pace, all children progress through an identifiable sequence of physical, cognitive, and emotional growth and change. The Early Child Development (ECD) approach is based on the proven fact that young children respond best when caregivers use specific techniques designed to encourage and stimulate progress to the next level of development.
The ultimate goal of Early Child Development (ECD) programs is to improve young children's capacity to develop and learn. A child who is ready for school has a combination of positive characteristics: he or she is socially and emotionally healthy, confident, and friendly; has good peer relationships; tackles challenging tasks and persists with them; has good language skills and communicates well; and listens to instructions and is attentive. The positive effects that ECD programs have can change the development trajectory of children by the time they enter school. A child who is ready for school has less chances of repeating a grade, being placed in special education, or being a school drop-out.
ECD interventions include educating and supporting parents, delivering services to children, developing capacities of caregivers and teachers, and using mass communications to enhance parents and caregiver's knowledge and practices. Programs for children can be center or home-based, formal or non-formal, and can include parent education.
Why Invest in Early Child Development
The reasons for investing in Early Child Development (ECD) programs are numerous and interrelated. A child's ability to think, form relationships, and live up to his or her full potential is directly related to the synergistic effect of good health, good nutrition, and appropriate stimulation and interaction with others. A large body of research has proven the importance of early brain development and the need for good health and nutrition.
ECD project research has proven that children who participate in well-conceived ECD programs tend to be more successful in later school, are more competent socially and emotionally, and show higher verbal and intellectual development during early childhood than children who are not enrolled in high quality programs. Ensuring healthy child development, therefore, is an investment in a country's future workforce and capacity to thrive economically and as a society.
The benefits of ECD thereby encourage greater social equity, increase the efficacy of other investments, and address the needs of mothers while helping their children. Integrated programs for young children can modify the effects of socioeconomic and gender-related inequities, some of the most entrenched causes of poverty.
- Studies from diverse cultures show that girls enrolled in early childhood programs are better prepared for school and frequently stay in school longer. Early childhood interventions also free older sisters from the task of tending preschoolers, so that they can return to school.
- With ever more mothers working and more households headed by women, safe child care has become a necessity. Providing safe child care allows women the chance to continue their education and learn new skills, thereby addressing the intersecting needs of women and children.
Including early childhood interventions in larger programs can enhance the programs' efficacy. Early childhood interventions in health and nutrition programs increase children's chances of survival. Interventions in education programs prepare children for school, improving their performance and reducing the need for repetition.
A healthy cognitive and emotional development in the early years translates into tangible economic returns. Early interventions yield higher returns as a preventive measure compared with remedial services later in life. Policies that seek to remedy deficits incurred in the early years are much more costly than initial investments in the early years. Nobel Laureate Heckman (1999) argues that investments in children bring a higher rate of return than investments in low-skill adults.
There is growing evidence about how critical the early years are to a child's development. It is becoming increasingly clear that the development of the brain in the early years is a pathway that affects physical and mental health, learning, and behavior throughout the life cycle. Evidences show that children who are well nurtured during this period tend to do better in school and stand a better chance of developing the skills required to contribute productively to social and economic development.
Medical research has demonstrated that the most rapid period of brain development occurs in the first few years of life and that the experiences of early childhood have an enduring effect on an individual's future learning capacity.
What the Research Says
- Brain development that takes place prenatally and in the first year of life is more rapid and extensive than previously suspected;
- Brain development is much more vulnerable to environmental influence than we ever suspected;
- The influence of early environment on brain development is long lasting;
- The environment affects not only the number of brain cells and number of connections among them, but also the way these connections are "wired;"
- Early stress has a negative impact on brain development.
The effect of undernutrition on young children (ages 0-8) can be devastating and enduring. It can impede behavioral and cognitive development, educability, and reproductive health, thereby undermining future work productivity. Since growth failure occurs almost exclusively during the intrauterine period and in the first two years of life, preventing stunting, anemia, or xerophthalmia calls for interventions, which focus on the very young.
Whether or not children are well-nourished during their first years of life can have a profound effect on their health status, as well as their ability to learn, communicate, think analytically, socialize effectively and adapt to new environments and people. Good nutrition is the first line of defense against numerous childhood diseases, which can leave their mark on a child for life. In the area of cognitive development, "when there isn't enough food, the body has to make a decision about how to invest the limited foodstuffs available. Survival comes first. Growth comes second. In this nutritional triage, the body seems obliged to rank learning last." (Sagan and Druyan)
Good nutrition and good health are very closely linked throughout the lifespan, but the connection is even more striking during infancy. Over half of child mortality in low-income countries can be attributed to malnutrition.
Many of the most prevalent infections and diseases -- acute diarrhea, malaria, measles, and intestinal parasites-- tend to achieve their highest incidence during the early childhood (here defined as from birth to age eight) phase and claim millions of young lives a year.
Stunted physical growth and development have been traditionally viewed as the major consequence of ill health in early childhood, but there is now growing recognition that there are also consequences for mental and intellectual development. The long-term consequences of events in early childhood for human capital and productivity are difficult to assess directly, but associations have been shown with proxy measures such as physical growth. Stunting is associated with reduced physiological capacity and work output, and reduced physical growth and poor educational achievement both have negative consequences for employability.
Primary prevention or remediation in early childhood is needed to avoid these constraints on physical and intellectual development and their long-term consequences for human capital development. For many of the most prevalent conditions, cheap and simple interventions of proven effectiveness (such as immunization against measles, ORT for diarrhea, and anthelminthics for parasitic infections) are already part of programmatic experience, while other interventions (such as the use of bed-nets for controling malaria) have proven to be effective at the operations research level.
A comprehensive program of care for young children, however, extends beyond disease control. The rate of recovery from measles, for example, is enhanced by Vitamin A supplementation, and over half of child mortality in low-income countries can be attributed to malnutrition. The promotion of early child development implies the need for the early delivery of a comprehensive package of interventions through a cost-effective and sustainable approach.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has developed an integrated approach to the assessment, classification, treatment, and counseling of sick children and their caretakers. The approach forms the basis for new treatment guidelines. It provides for integrated management of childhood illness (IMCI): acute respiratory infection, diarrhea, malaria, measles, and malnutrition.