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Early Childhood

The most vulnerable children are our greatest priority

© UNICEF/ HQ96-1400/ Pirozzi
Children seated on a bench against a wall drink from large brown mugs at the UNICEF-assisted Kibera Day Care Centre in Kibera, the largest shanty town in Nairobi, Kenya..

As in every other aspect of its work, UNICEF’s efforts on early childhood accord top priority to children facing special difficulties and challenges, particularly those affected by HIV/AIDS, conditions of conflict, and emergency situations.

Support for orphans and children made vulnerable by HIV/AIDS 

The extreme vulnerability of the more than 10 million children orphaned by AIDS and the harmful effects this has on their development and that of their societies is one of the most traumatic consequences of the HIV/AIDS crisis.

As the first line of response, families and communities bear the brunt of the burden. When parents or caregivers become ill, children must work to earn income and produce food. They often also care for sick family members. In many places, children are struggling to survive on their own in child-headed households, while others are forced to live on the streets.UNICEF, its partners and governments are responding to this challenge by working through families and communities to strengthen the traditional safety nets provided by extended families and relatives. Schools are also being made places where children go for health services, food and security in addition to learning.

UNICEF's principal objective is to work with communities to increase and strengthen the ability of families to care for, support and protect children orphaned or made vulnerable by HIV/AIDS. To achieve this objective, energies must be focused on ensuring that all countries adopt relevant policies, laws and action plans, that health services and education are accessible to vulnerable children, and that all children are under the supervision of a responsible and caring adult.  One of the steps required to make this possible is in assisting to prolong the lives of HIV-positive parents, for example through psychosocial support, treatment of opportunistic infections and promotion of 'positive living' approaches.

Support for children in crisis or emergency situations

When familiar people, places or things are lost or threatened, and when adults are too upset or distracted to notice, children may feel afraid and forgotten.  In crisis and emergency situations, parents may find it difficult to give their children affection and security.  It is normal for children to show stress reactions or problem behaviour after frightening, painful or violent experiences. Some children withdraw; others become more aggressive. Some children appear to be coping well, even though they have not worked through their fears. Children may become 'accustomed' to long-standing violence, but it still hurts them.

If children do not receive help to understand their feelings, they may become more upset.

  • Regular routines – going to school and maintaining regular eating and sleeping schedules – give children a sense of security and continuity.
  • Enjoyable activities help children deal with stress. Opportunities should be created for organized play, sports and other forms of recreation, such as safe play areas in refugee camps or settlements, to encourage communication and fun for children. 
  • Children should be encouraged to talk about what is troubling them. They should be encouraged to express themselves but they must not be forced. They need to be listened to and to express what they have seen or experienced.
  • Children between the ages of three and six years may feel responsible for the problem. These feelings may create a strong sense of guilt. These children need support and attention from a caring adult.
  • Children need constant reassurance; they should not be scolded or punished. If a close family member has to be away, the child should be told beforehand. The child should be told where the person is going, when he or she will return and who will be caring for the child during the absence.
  • When children's stress reactions are severe and last for a long time, they need special help from a counsellor.  Drawing or playing with toys or puppets can help children express their feelings and adjust to stressful experiences. Re-enacting stressful situations through play is extremely common and helpful for very young children. This is the child's way of trying to master the impact of what happened. 

Children with special needs

In many countries, children with mental and physical disabilities face an uncertain future. Disabled children are often hospitalized in residential institutions or confined to the home. UNICEF’s efforts are driven by the imperative need to address the paucity of institutions taking a child-centred approach, discriminatory public attitudes towards disability and the lack of a humane approach to caring for disabled children. "I was in a hospital where there was EVEN a playroom," said Dzemo after leaving the Sarajevo Pediatric Clinic, and when Erna Cajic was back at home, she wrote to a nurse there: "Dear Aunt Jaca, when there was no one to comfort me or listen to me, you were there. You were there to comfort me and make me laugh." 
Children admitted to hospitals are coping with the effects of illness and may also be suffering from war-related trauma. They can face long stays in often poor and difficult conditions.  UNICEF’s “playrooms in hospitals” initiative creates child-friendly environments and a level of psychosocial support for children. Playrooms provide safe, fun spaces where children can play freely. These projects have established an active multi-disciplinary network of health professionals and introduced nurses, doctors, psychologists and parents to new practical approaches to psychosocial care for hospitalized children.

UNICEF promotes the concept of mental health care as an integral part of primary health care services and to strengthen local capacity through training. Essential materials and equipment and support for staff training are provided. These initiatives have helped to break down the stigma attached to mental illness and have contributed to making mental health care for children more humane.  UNICEF’s programmes include advocating for changes in policy, promoting change in educational opportunities for children, supporting in-service teacher training, increasing the number of special education experts and encouraging a change in public attitudes towards physically and mentally disabled people.



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