Early childhood

The Issue

UNICEF in Action

Resources on Early Childhood Development


A child's right to early learning and school readiness

© UNICEF/CEECIS2013P-0396/Pirozzi

When children arrive at school ready to learn, they are less likely to repeat grades and dropout, and are more likely to finish school. Ensuring this successful transition to school depends on the child’s readiness, the families’ readiness to support learning and the schools’ readiness for the children.

Children’s readiness for school implies much more than cognitive and academic preparation. Global research has shown that children’s success in school is predicted by a combination of physical wellbeing and motor development, social and emotional development, how children approach learning, language development, and cognition and general knowledge.

To ensure families’ readiness to support learning, families must have the information and resources they need to support their children’s early development, on-time entry to school, and enrolment and continuation in school. Finally, schools’ readiness for children occurs when preschools and schools are “Child Friendly” and ready to support the needs of young learners. Such schools are inclusive of all children, offer good quality teaching with child-centred instruction and a relevant curriculum, provide a safe, healthy and protective school environment, are gender-sensitive, and promote the participation of families and communities.

The challenges

In several countries of the region, over 75 per cent of children do not participate in any organized early education programme prior to school entry, and access is increasingly unequal within most countries. UNICEF’s vision for early childhood is that all young children in the region will be developmentally ready for schooling, with a strong foundation for success in school and thereafter. However, a number of bottlenecks such as insufficient investments in the early education sector and inadequate provision must first be addressed. Additionally, services that do exist are concentrated in urban areas; children from poor and marginalized families, who would gain the most, are excluded from these services on account of cost, geographical location or other factors, such as disability. The quality of early education services is a matter of concern in the region and comprehensive and systematic monitoring information is unavailable.

While access and quality at all levels of education declined as a result of the changes in the 1990s, the situation of pre-schools is particularly dire. With the end of centralized provision, large numbers of pre-schools closed across the region. Demand also dropped because of increased out of pocket expenditures, eroding preschool quality and decreasing rates of women’s participation in employment.

Disparities between countries and within populations in early childhood development and school readiness mean that the region’s disadvantaged children start primary school already behind their peers. Young children of ethnic minorities, migrant workers and from rural areas, as well as those from poor backgrounds, are among those that are more likely to miss out.

Children of preschool age with developmental delays and disabilities are another particularly vulnerable group and are often unaccounted for in national statistics. These children are some of the hardest to reach because they remain “hidden” in society. Socially inclusive preschools that welcome children with disabilities and are equipped to support their learning needs are few and far between.

Current programmes to build school readiness tend to serve those who are more privileged, which results in the widening of equity gaps. Disparities in early learning are likely to persist and further widen during the school years, resulting in compromised education completion and long-term social and economic exclusion.

More and disaggregated data are required needed in order to identify children in need and tailor public policies to protect and promote their rights and their access to improved basic services. Ensuring that those children who may be left behind are reached early is one of UNICEF’s greatest challenges for the coming years.

Last updated November 2013



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