The evidence is clear: Early childhood development must be a global and national priority. Governments already have pledged to achieve the early childhood development targets in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). But they need to back up this pledge with action and place early childhood development at the top of their economic and political agendas.
UNICEF calls for governments and partners to:
1. Invest urgently in services that give young children, especially the most deprived, the best start in life.
Increasing the overall share of budgetary allocations for early childhood development programming is a critical step governments can and should take. For example, allocating 10 per cent of all national education budgets to pre-primary education will greatly expand the number of children with access to early learning opportunities, which can improve their educational attainment and increase future earnings. Innovative financing can also help governments reach more children with more effective programming. Approaches can include earmarking taxes to pay for early childhood development services or instituting ‘payment by results’ frameworks that tie investment to outcomes.
2. Expand access to effective and essential early childhood development services in homes, schools, communities and health clinics.
To reach more children and families more cost effectively, governments and their partners can integrate early childhood interventions into existing services such as routine health screenings at preschools and parenting support as part of home-health visits for new parents. To well-known and effective services such as antenatal care, nutrition support and community-based childcare, these interventions can be added: breastfeeding counselling, guidance on responsive stimulation, early learning, and parenting programmes to protect children from violence.
3. Make family-friendly early childhood development policies a national priority – and a private sector imperative.
Policies, programmes and other support that enable parents and caregivers to provide the best start in life for their children pay off in healthier, better educated children, a better equipped workforce and more sustainable growth. All countries should provide two years of tuition-free pre-primary education, which is critical for early cognitive development and also enables working parents to generate more family income. Key workplace policies include 12 months of paid parental leave; breastfeeding facilities and remunerated breastfeeding breaks for the first six months; and onsite childcare and early learning programmes for the children of employees.
4. Collect data on essential indicators of early childhood development and track progress.
To assess progress towards giving every child the best start in life, we need to measure young children’s social, emotional, cognitive, language and motor development against internationally comparable data. As countries track progress towards achieving the specific targets that address young children in the SDGs on health, nutrition, education and protection, they can also disaggregate data to better track equity gaps so they can reach the children in the greatest need.
5. Provide dedicated leadership for early childhood development programmes and coordinate efforts more effectively across sectors.
Early childhood development programmes cut across sectors including health; nutrition; education; protection; and water, sanitation and hygiene. Policies and programmes also need to be integrated. A coordinating minister or body can oversee efforts so they are better integrated and more effective and cost-effective. Similar structures at the provincial, municipal and village level can help reach the most deprived children.
6. Drive demand for high-quality early childhood development services.
Parents and caregivers are the single most important factor in giving children the best possible start in life. Communication for development programming and other public information initiatives can build greater understanding of the critical importance of nutrition, protection and stimulation in helping children reach their full potential. With this understanding, families can generate greater demand for high-quality early childhood development services.