Early childhood

The Issue

UNICEF in Action

Resources on Early Childhood Development


The Issue

© UNICEF/2011/McConnico

During early childhood, the period from conception through age eight, children develop the cognitive, physical, social and emotional skills they need to succeed in school and beyond. These skills develop in a simultaneous and inter-connected fashion, and the development at each point builds on the capacities developed earlier on.

Early childhood is the most significant developmental period of life. A baby in a stimulating, nurturing, and responsive environment, who is cuddled, cooed to and comforted, is more likely to fully develop cognitive, language, emotional and social skills, all of which are vital for success in school, in the community and subsequently in life. Neuroscience and child development research have provided clear evidence that the early childhood years starting at, and even before, conception provide the foundation for lifelong wellbeing and productivity. Quality pre-school environments with well-trained teachers then take children through the second phase of the early years and get them ready for success in school and beyond.

Children’s early experiences are determined largely by supportive family and community care practices, proper nutrition and health care, learning opportunities, access to quality basic services, and protection from risk. These, in turn are dependent on enabling policies and investments for young children and families. When countries put these enabling conditions in place, children’s development is supported in every domain, laying the foundations for school readiness. 

Many young children in the CEE/CIS region are unable to reach their potential on account of the challenges of poverty and social exclusion. This region has:

• Exceedingly low rates of breastfeeding and high rates of micronutrient deficiencies and stunting
• Accident and injury rates far exceeding those of Western European countries
• The highest prevalence globally of young children living in residential care
• 1.6 million young children who do not have access to early education services.
• High rates of young children exposed to harsh discipline and non-stimulating home environments
• An unknown number of young children with disabilities and developmental difficulties hidden away in institutions or homes and not benefitting from early identification and services to help them learn and take their rightful place in society; and
• Large numbers of children from poor and rural families who are unable to access basic services that could help them obtain the support needed to succeed and break out of the inter-generational cycle of poverty and disadvantage; in the case of children from ethnic minorities, such as the Roma, social exclusion is compounded by stigma and discrimination.

“Adverse childhood experiences” (ACEs) translate into tremendous social and financial losses to the countries in the region in terms of low achievement and productivity, and an excessive prevalence of non-communicable diseases and mental health problems across the lifespan.

UNICEF sees the early childhood years as the best investment to make a difference for life and works to address both phases, very early childhood (0-3 years) and the preschool years (3-6) with country partners. Our vision is that all young children should have a healthy start in life, grow up with a nurturing and responsive caregiver/s in a stimulating and safe environment, have a high quality preschool experience before entering school, and transition seamlessly into a child-friendly school.

Our agenda for action promotes comprehensive support for all young children and their families, with enhanced support, as needed, for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged. Every single child has the right to support for comprehensive wellbeing and early education opportunities.

Last updated November 2013



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