Early childhood is a critical time for human development, when cycles of poverty, violence and inequality can be countered through effective interventions for young children and their families.
Why Early Childhood Matters
The period of early childhood runs from before birth to the age of 8, the first 1,000 days being especially significant as the brain is undergoing its most intense period of neural growth. Children’s early experiences are crucial at this point, requiring responsive carers (and societies) to meet their health and nutrition needs while creating safe, secure and stimulating environments for optimal development.
Early childhood is also the period when children are most at risk, since negative influences on a child’s growth during this time can change the architecture of the brain, impacting later health, educational attainment, participation and well-being, even into adulthood. This is particularly the case for children affected by conflict, when prolonged exposure to violence and upheaval can lead to depression and anxiety, permanently affecting emotional and intellectual development in the most severe cases.
Fortunately, there is also increasing evidence suggesting that well-structured early childhood development (ECD) initiatives can help mitigate the worst impacts of not only negative familial experiences, but also wider environmental stressors, such as conflict and poverty. Such initiatives, promoting nurturing care, can include home visiting and parenting programmes, along with good healthcare and early learning opportunities, supported by appropriately trained staff and government policies.
The Multiplier Effect of ECD
A growing body of economic evidence demonstrates that investment by governments in effective ECD services can yield some of the greatest public policy returns on investment — particularly for poor, marginalized or conflict-affected communities — for example, by contributing to school readiness and retention, acquisition of qualifications, a healthier lifestyle, active citizenship and social cohesion. However, government investment still tends to prioritise later periods of human development.
Progress toward the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) can be amplified through investment in early childhood policies and services (see table above). For instance, as evident in the examples below from UNICEF and Refugee Trauma Initiative, early childhood interventions are integral to realization of the first 5 goals on ending poverty; ending hunger; ensuring health and well-being; ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education; and achieving gender equality.
Furthermore, Goal 10: Reduce inequality within and between countries has a target on orderly, safe, regular and responsible migration and mobility of people, through the implementation of well-managed migration policies, which must not leave out the youngest children. Meanwhile Goal 16: Promote peaceful and inclusive societies is more likely to be realized if it builds on the vital contribution ECD can make to promoting peace and social cohesion, in addition to reducing violence and discrimination.
On the margins of the High-Level Political Forum for Sustainable Development (HLPF) held every year in New York, the UN Missions of Bangladesh and Rwanda, UNICEF, the Moving Minds Alliance, the Early Childhood Peace Consortium (ECPC), and the NGO Committee on Migration are hosting a joint side event to highlight the fact that ECD is an essential cornerstone of sustainable development, peace and prosperity. (Learn more about the event.) Following are examples of integrated, multi-sectoral early childhood interventions in developing as well as emergency contexts that contribute to multiple SDGs.
Working with Government to Scale Up ECD and Promote Responsive Caregiving
UNICEF works closely with governments on development efforts to try to give every child the best start to life. For example in Rwanda, with UNICEF’s support, the government instituted a National ECD Policy that is cost-effective, brings together different stakeholders, and has gained significant political support — all essential componenets to make ECD services widespread and systematic. UNICEF works with the Government of Rwanda Housing Authority to develop ECD spaces that can be easily and affordably replicated. In 2018, more than 27,000 young children aged 0–6 accessed these safe spaces where they could play, learn and be nurtured, including refugee children in the Mahama Camp.
Only 1 in 5 parents in Rwanda are engaged in activities that support early learning at home, such as reading or playing games with their child; men are particularly disengaged with learning and nurturing activities at home. More than half of children under age 2 are victims of violent discipline (UNICEF Rwanda, 2018). UNICEF is collaborating with the Government of Rwanda to raise awareness about caregiving, so that the home environment can be optimal for child growth and development, as well as changing social norms through engaging male caregivers in child care, stimulation and learning. Through outreach to families via faith-based organisations, a specially designed radio programme entitled ‘Itetero,’ local community theatre called ‘Urunana,’ and the ‘World Cup to My Village Initiative’ during the 2018 World Cup, more than 286,000 people were reached with messages on quality early childcare, learning, stimulation and stunting reduction.
Supporting ECD in Humanitarian Action
In humanitarian and fragile settings, ECD services are increasingly recognized as essential to ending preventable deaths and supporting healthy development among newborns and children under 5 years. UNICEF is working to raise the profile of ECD as a critical component of emergency response.
For its own work, UNICEF created the ECD Kit to strengthen the response for young children caught in conflict or emergencies. The Kit complements basic services related to young children’s hygiene and sanitation, health and nutrition, protection and education. It contains materials to help caregivers create a safe learning environment for young children, aged 0–8, and offers children access to play, stimulation and early learning opportunities. Each Kit is designed to reach up to 50 children. In 2018, more than 17,000 Kits were distributed across 84 countries, reaching more than 476,000 children. In an effort to better protect children in crisis, and promote their well-being and dignity, UNICEF launched its “Humanitarian Action for Children 2019” strategy in January 2019, appealing for $3.9 billion to provide humanitarian assistance to 41 million children.
Working with Refugees to Deliver Early Care
Baytna, Refugee Trauma Initiative’s (RTI) early childhood programme, has been developed in consultation with experts and the refugee community in Greece to provide culturally sensitive early childhood care that takes into account the lived experience of young children and their families. Refugees in Greece come from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, amongst other countries, where chronic long-term conflicts have been catastrophic to society, and where very little state and community protection exists for the youngest children. Baytna provides healing spaces for young refugees with experienced multidisciplinary facilitators (e.g. dance therapists, ECD specialists) who run activities for children as well as their caregivers.
The Baytna practice is values-based and representative of the communities that RTI serves, serving a gender ratio of 50/50. Baytna activities aim to mitigate the effects of trauma and toxic stress, while also preparing children for schooling. It also includes activities that train mothers to run their own groups, empowering the community to take charge of their needs and providing employment opportunities to refugees.
One such mother is, Layla (pictured to the left), who for the past five months has been running Baytna sessions for young children in Northern Greece. Layla and her two children live in a camp where there is little available to support her own or her children’s development. Working as a facilitator has given her a renewed sense of purpose as well as a plan for her future.
Baytna’s theory of change is that by ensuring that children are able to form healthy and secure relationships with their caregivers, peers and Baytna facilitators, they can also develop the resilience necessary to overcome their challenging beginnings. Baytna facilitators help children identify and process difficult emotions. Baytna Bear is a frequent visitor with stories about his friends and his feelings, inviting the children to consider his emotions and reactions.
Refugee Trauma Initiative is working with local organisations to scale the Baytna model and build capacity to deliver targeted care to young children. With financial support from Open Society Foundations and Help Refugees, RTI launched Baytna Hubs earlier this year, creating a consortium of 6 organisations around Greece working to adapt and deliver the Baytna approach, providing access to many more children. Local organisations will be trained over a period of 12 months to develop this practice, ensuring sustainability of the programme.
ECD Contributes to Building Peace
The SDGs affirm that “there can be no sustainable development without peace and no peace without sustainable development.” ECD services can not only help individual children to reach their full developmental potential, but can also help families, communities and societies become more stable and peaceful in the long term. Early childhood interventions offer sustainable solutions for social cohesion, as they promote trust and mitigate factors that perpetuate violence in society, such as violent behaviours, identity-based conflicts and inequality.
Evidence suggests that programmes designed to minimise conflict within families have been successful in reducing harsh punishment and verbal and psychological violence. From a socio-ecological perspective, early interventions with parents and early learning programmes for young children promote harmonious relationships and pro-social behaviours within the family. For example, an intervention in Liberia that taught parents about the effects of violence and the importance of empathy for children had a range of cascading positive effects for families (Giusto et al., 2017). Qualitative findings suggest that the programme strengthened caregivers’ sense of identity as protectors and role models, which reduced harsh discipline and in turn resulted in their children experiencing less fear and more positive interactions and enjoyment. Caregivers also reported reduced conflict among spouses and more peaceful home environments.
At the community level, additional evidence suggests that bringing families from different backgrounds together in groups as part of parenting education programs has a transformative influence on communities by providing opportunities for shared positive experiences centered around the common goal of child well-being. Case studies from around the world show that ECD services can “transcend existing political divides and encourage those involved in conflict to re-focus their attention and priorities and to think instead of their own children and their future,” thus fostering social cohesion (Connolly et al. 2007). ECD services designed and strategically positioned to address conflict drivers and community stressors can empower children and families to be agents of peace, strengthen social networks, and contribute to an inclusive, people-centered approach to sustainable development.
These are just a few examples of the multiplier effect of ECD, which benefits not only individual children but also their families, communities and societies. With just 10 years left to achieve the 2030 agenda, ECD is one of the smartest, most cost-effective investments leaders can make . In the words of former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, “[t]he Sustainable Development Goals recognize that early childhood can help drive the transformation we hope to achieve.”
This week, for the first time since the adoption of the Global Goals, SDG 4 on quality education, SDG 8 on decent work, SDG 10 on inequality, and SDG 16 on just and peaceful societies are under focused review at the UN HLPF. The purpose of our side event is to make the case for ECD programs and services as having transformative potential to drive progress toward these and other SDGs, based on a growing body of research and evidence. By creating enabling policies and increasing investment in the early years, policymakers and donors gathering in New York this week can take advantage of a critical window of opportunity in early childhood, or else risk leaving behind the youngest and most vulnerable among us.
*If you will not be in New York on 17 July, follow the side event live on Twitter using the hashtag #ECD4SDGs.
This post was co-authored by:
Tina Hyder, Deputy Director, Early Childhood Program, Open Society Foundations and member of the ECPC Board
Mari Ullmann, Manager, Moving Minds Alliance
Zarlasht Halaimzai, Executive Director, Refugee Trauma Initiative
Nada Elattar, Early Childhood Development Specialist — Emergencies, UNICEF
Aditi Shrikhande, Consultant, Early Childhood Development, Programme Division, UNICEF