What determines how young children will develop and learn?
The new Save the Children report “Windows into early learning and development” sheds light on what to do to give all children the best chances in life
March 01, 2017 by Amy Jo Dowd, Save the Children
6 minutes read
students at Kokebe School, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Credit: GPE/Alexandra Humme

Millions of young children are being left behind because of who they are, what they have or where they live. Poverty, stunting, and lack of cognitive stimulation mean that nearly half of 3- and 4-year-old children in low- and middle-income countries are unable to achieve their cognitive, socio-emotional, or physical potential.

Estimated proportion of children with low development per early childhood development index (ECDI)

Evidence of these relationships abound:

  • In Afar, Ethiopia, poverty means that a six-year-old child from a low socio-economic status family is predicted to have the same developmental level as a four-year-old child from a high socio-economic status family.
  • In Bhutan, rural populations that have less access to the public services that aid early childhood development, such as including nutrition, healthcare and preschool, mean that rural children lagged n early 5O% behind their urban peers.
  • In multilingual sites in Vietnam and Laos, children from families who do not speak the majority language of the country must learn in an unfamiliar language and fall behind, especially in language and literacy development.
  • In Jordan, refugee children have access to scarce – and when present, short – early childhood care and development (ECCD) indicating a combination of home and center-based supports might best promote their healthy development.

Equity for all children must start early

These examples use our International Development and Early Learning Assessment (IDELA) data and promote a focus on improving outcomes for every last child.

Ensuring healthy development for the most marginalized children is the surest route to fostering a more equitable society for all. Solutions to meet their needs require testing and measurement to ensure they work at achieving this goal. We have begun this process in our new report, Windows into Early Learning and Development.

This analysis of Save the Children’s ECCD evidence to date found that:

  • To reach the most vulnerable children, we need to go beyond preschools.
  • Caring and stimulating environments – at homes and in centers – improve child development.
  • Serious focus and investment is needed to close the early gaps for the most vulnerable young children.
  • Interventions to support children’s development and learning should start as early as possible.

Global evidence tells us that early positive experiences in relationships with caring, responsive adults build strong brain connections; that warm, responsive, and stimulating caregiving can effectively promote development even in the presence of poverty and malnutrition; and that things as simple as talk can influence toddler vocabulary, which in turn predicts early grade reading. In short, children’s early childhood experiences are critical to lifelong success.

4 recommendations to improve early childhood development

This evidence and our own findings show that we need to:

  • Test strategies that are alternative and/or complementary to center-based work while governments work towards universal preschool coverage.
  • Promote high quality caregiving and interactions both in homes and in centers to build strong foundations for young girls and boys.
  • Create interventions that support early learning and address risk factors related to social protection to realize ECCD’s equalizing potential.
  • Leverage preschool-focused work to foster dialogue about starting earlier, targeting children under the age of three and their parents.

Early experiences and relationships shape children’s lives no matter who they are, what they have, or where they live. Evidence from Save the Children’s Emergent Literacy and Math toolkit has proven this in Ethiopia and Rwanda, where the development gap for the poorest children was closed within a matter of months. And we know that governments, NGOs, corporate, and academic partners are actively testing more solutions.

Together we can ensure that more children reach their full potential and that is why Save the Children is currently developing an IDELA website, set to launch this year, that brings together the voices of those who are working toward a world where every last child has what they need to learn and grow.

We invite partners to share their results and impressions to IDELA@savechildren.org.

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Good to know that rural children lagged nearly 50% behind their urban peers on nearly every aspect of the IDELA assessment.

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