Tracking early childhood development
Data and evidence are critical to understanding what young children need.
Early childhood development (ECD) has many dimensions and unfolds at a breathtaking pace. Measuring ECD is a complex undertaking, and it is a new field, marked by rapid evolution, great urgency – and significant gaps in our knowledge.
We have long understood children’s development to their full potential as a fundamental human right. We now know, from recent neuroscience research, just how critical the early years of life are in the development of a child’s brain and in shaping their future. Meanwhile, economics has shown us the great benefits of investing in young children during this unique developmental window – and the wrenching costs, to children and societies, of failing to do so.
We now know just how critical the early years of life are in the development of a child’s brain and in shaping their future.
In 2016, the world was shocked when the medical journal The Lancet estimated that 43 per cent of children under 5 in low- and middle-income countries were at risk of not developing to their full potential. But with the underlying data based on composite, proxy indicators, what that means, and what to do about it, remains open to interpretation.
We don’t yet have a full picture of the well-being and developmental status of the world’s youngest children, owing to the following challenges:
- Many of the available data points are collected by each sector, separately, and often cannot be used in an analysis that cuts across sectors. In this context, analyses of caregiving practices and home environments are limited and need strengthening.
- Establishing a system for tracking child development data at the population level is particularly challenging due to the multidimensional nature of ECD.
- A lack of disaggregated ECD data prevents us from fully understanding how factors like age, gender, disability, or discrimination based on ethnicity or race affect young children’s chances of reaching their potential – and how we can change that equation.
- Research evidence on child development and the impact of policy and programme interventions in low- and middle-income countries and humanitarian contexts is still limited.
Measuring and monitoring ECD is critical to understanding what young children need and identifying those at risk of being left behind and not achieving their full developmental potential. Our knowledge is built upon a range of evidence, including numerical data, qualitative research and analyses, implementation research and evaluations. We depend on this evidence to target and improve interventions, advocate with governments to improve conditions for young children and their families, and make the case for investments in ECD.
UNICEF works with governments and other partners to close the gaps in our knowledge of young children’s development, support monitoring and reporting on its many dimensions, and generate evidence to advocate for better resourced and targeted interventions in the early years of life. We also report on global results from the implementation of ECD programmes in our country offices.
UNICEF provides financial and technical assistance for the collection and analysis of data on children’s survival, health and nutritional status, access to play and early learning, their home environments, and the care and discipline they receive from their parents and caregivers. The Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys (MICS) are an example of such support. Conducted at regular intervals since 1995 and implemented in over 100 low- and middle-income countries, they are the largest source of internationally comparable data on ECD.
In the Sustainable Development Goals, the international community recognized the importance of ECD through the inclusion of a dedicated indicator, SDG 4.2.1, which measures the proportion of children under 5 years old who are developmentally on track in health, learning and psychosocial well-being.
As the custodian agency for this indicator, UNICEF led the development and validation of a new measurement tool, the Early Childhood Development Index 2030, and is supporting national governments to report on progress toward the SDG target of ensuring that, by 2030, all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education.
The resources below cover the major measurement tools, research and data repositories on ECD that represent our most up-to-date, always evolving knowledge of the state of the world’s youngest children.
|Early Childhood Development Index 2030
|UNICEF Data: Early Childhood Development
|Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University