Growing Evidence for Educating Growing Children Earlier
Children need exposure to language early in life – Doctor’s orders. Contradicting long-held beliefs that ‘early’ in child development terms does not mean the beginning of primary school, or just before, physicians, educators, and researchers have all been sounding the alarm: early means from birth.
July 21, 2014 by Lauren Pisani, Save the Children
7 minutes read
A boy learns to write at his desk, in a pre-primary classroom in Lao PDR. Credit: Mary Young
Building the foundations for early childhood development

Children need exposure to language early in life – Doctor's orders. Contradicting long-held beliefs that ‘early' in child development terms does not mean the beginning of primary school, or just before, physicians, educators, and researchers have all been sounding the alarm: early means from birth. The first few years of life represent a period of incredible brain development, with brain pathways for both language and cognition peaking by the time the child reaches preschool. So early childhood can be a very exciting time, especially for children who hear stories every night before they go to bed or whose parents are engaging them in simple conversations over their dinner of mashed peas and carrots. However, for those children who don't have these language opportunities this surge of early brain activity can actually lead to significant cognitive and language deficits that stay with them for the rest of their lives.

Recent research published by Anne Fernald of Stanford University shows that by two years old children from lower-income families can be 6-months behind in their language development compared to their higher income peers. Fernald used a sample of children from the San Francisco area in California, one of the wealthiest areas in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, which begs the question: What does language development look like for poor children in less developed countries?

Child development internationally

Child development internationally

Data from different countries using Save the Children's International Development and Early Learning Assessment (IDELA) finds that early language skills for the world's poorest children are abysmally low, and unfortunately it's not just literacy skills that suffer for many children. The IDELA has shed light on the fact that across developing countries, children also have very low early numeracy, problem solving, socio-emotional and motor skills. Thus, it is precisely these children who should be benefitting the most from early learning opportunities. However, with the glaring lack of information, standards or benchmarks for early childhood learning within developing countries, the question has become:

How do we know if children are benefitting from early learning opportunities and which programs are the most effective?
Building evidence with a new assessment

Building evidence with a new assessment

These questions have been central to Save the Children's Early Childhood Care and Development (ECCD) programs for years, and in 2011, based on lessons learned from years of early childhood programming as well as a comprehensive review of existing child development tools, Save the Children began the process of creating the IDELA. In the first phase of the process, more than 60 items were tested covering five developmental domains with the goal of narrowing down to the most reliable and feasible items that can be used across countries and contexts with 3.5-6 year old children.

Testing and modifying the tool over the past 3 years in multiple sites across 10 different countries has resulted in a 20-item assessment that balances three key dimensions: psychometric rigor, accessibility and feasibility, and international applicability. As a result, IDELA is easily translated and administered, and has strong reliability and validity. In order to provide a holistic picture of children's development IDELA covers four developmental domains: physical development, early language and literacy, early numeracy/problem solving, and socio-emotional skills. In addition, there are also add-on items to the core IDELA that measure persistence, memory, and attention, all critical cognitive skills and strong indicators of later achievement.

Answering key questions for children

Answering key questions for children

While it is extremely challenging to find a common set of items that are relevant to young children across different cultures, with years of experimentation, Save the Children has found a simple-to-use, adaptable, rigorous tool that provides a strong indication of children development and demonstrated that it is possible and necessary to support good measurement of development and early learning at the local, national and even the global level. With IDELA, Save the Children and our partners can answer those pressing questions about how ECCD programs and systems are working and why. Studies from Bangladesh and Ethiopia are examples of how Save the Children has used IDELA to inform ECCD programming and advocacy. Government partners have requested our support to scale IDELA for use as national measurement tool for ECCD programs. The demand for reliable data on young children's development is growing and tools like IDELA fill the existing information gap. IDELA can lead the way toward providing excellent data that will not only improve existing programs but also elevate the early childhood agenda and motivate action, especially for the most vulnerable children.

If you are interested in learning more about IDELA or using this measurement tool, please contact ECCD Advisor Ivelina Borisova ( or Research Specialist Lauren Pisani (

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