Early childhood development is essential to delivering the SDGs

So, Early Child Development (ECD) is finally on the global policy agenda. A small group of prominent ECD advocates worked tirelessly to secure the wording of Target 4.2 of the Sustainable Development Goals which states that by 2030 countries should: ‘ensure that all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education so that they are ready for primary education’.

While recognising this is a landmark, an earlier blog of mine drew attention to the risks of subsuming ECD within an education target that is skewed towards ensuring school readiness. ECD is about so much more! Strengthening ECD will be key to achieving at least seven of the Sustainable Development Goals, on poverty, hunger, health (including child mortality), education, gender, water and sanitation, and inequality. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has reiterated this:

“… early childhood development can help drive the transformation we hope to achieve over the next 15 years. This is a pivotal time. … Too many countries have yet to make early childhood development a priority. We need to invest more, not just in education, but in health and protection. We need to target our investments and interventions to reach children at greatest risk of being left behind. ”

Having endorsement from the UN Secretary-General is a great boost. ECD is at the core of the entire vision for the SDGs just as ECD was also central to the earlier Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) –  even if the phrase ‘early childhood development’ was missing.

Making ECD more explicit within the SDGs is also backed by huge advances in our understanding of what ECD really means and why quality ECD really matters. ECD is now understood in a more holistic, more multi-sectoral way, and global policy is backed up by much stronger science. An ECD Topic Guide I coordinated for DFID surveyed this vast field – everything from epigenetic studies into the impact of maternal nutrition on foetal development, the effects of toxic stress on brain development, the interactions between malnutrition, stunting and early learning, through to the life-changing impacts of high quality programmes, as well as the many lessons from pilot programmes, and more scaled-up systems for integrated high quality ECD.

Young Lives’ fifteen year, four country longitudinal study was itself conceived as a Millennium Study, so naturally, ECD has been at the heart of our research from the beginning. We have been able to offer powerful insights into the 12,000 Children of the Millennium as well as offering forward looking lessons for the SDGs. Building on that, our new ECD policy brief offers five key research findings that we believe underpin delivery of the transformative potential of ECD within the SDGs.


1. Early deprivations affect the growth and changing structure and function of the brain
Goals 1, 2 and 3 of the SDGs (about ending poverty, ending hunger, ensuring healthy lives) can only be delivered through improvements to early child development. Decades of research demonstrates the many ways that poverty, under-nutrition, unhealthy environments, deprivations and trauma, undermine children’s current and future well-being, with the youngest at greatest risk of harm. Our understanding about why early childhood is a ‘critical period’ is being revolutionised by new evidence from neuroscience:

“…The growth and then environmentally based pruning of neuronal systems in the first years support a range of early skills, including cognitive (early language, literacy, math), social (empathy, prosocial behaviors), persistence, attention, self-regulation and executive function skills (the voluntary control of attention and behavior). Each of these skills, measured in early childhood, are predictive of school success and completion; higher earnings; active participation in communities and society; and reduced odds of delinquency, crime, and chronic and non- communicable disease.”

2. Inequalities emerge – and they are best prevented – early in life
Goal 10 focuses on reducing inequalities. The link between poverty, child development outcomes and widening inequalities is well known. A powerful catalyst for global policy engagement in these issues has been a series in The Lancet, which estimated that:

“… more than 200 million children under 5 years fail to reach their potential in cognitive development because of poverty, poor health and nutrition, and deficient care.”

Young Lives has been tracking the links between poverty, early stunting and later development. Children in India who were stunted at 18 months showed lower levels of cognitive ability at age 5, and those stunted at age 8 had lower reading, writing and maths skills by the age of 12. Stunting at 8 years old also predicted lower self-efficacy, self-esteem and educational aspirations by age 12. Poorer and socially marginalised children are most likely to be stunted, compounding other inequalities.

3. Early child development is cost-effective
Research reviews suggest a range of programme strategies can deliver long term transformations for children and families, especially targeted to the youngest and most disadvantaged children.

Economic analyses add to the weight of this evidence by showing that investment in ECD is cost-effective. However recognising the investment potential of ECD is not an alternative to respecting children’s fundamental rights to development, and engaging the power of ECD to promote social justice and greater equality, benefitting the poorest and most marginalised as well as bringing wider economic and social benefits.

4. The first three years matter too
ECD is not just about ‘pre-primary’ although the weight of policy interest has often skewed towards school readiness, including in the wording of Target 4.2. In the past, this education bias was reinforced by the balance of research evidence. Now, systematic studies increasingly show that the biggest returns may come from programmes targeted towards the very youngest children and parents, not forgetting the importance of support for the mother from around conception, since her well-being directly impacts foetal development. For example, an experimental study in Jamaica supported parents to stimulate early learning in their 9- to 24-month-old children as well as providing nutritional supplementation. These children have been tracked for over twenty years. When they were assessed at age 17 to 18 years, those who had received the stimulation intervention had higher scores on a range of cognitive and educational tests, as well as psychosocial indicators, e.g. less anxiety, depression, attention problems and higher self-esteem than the control group.

5. The importance of targeted, equitable and inclusive programmes
One of the biggest challenges for scale-up is to reach the poorest, most remote and marginalised communities; and within those communities, the children most at risk of exclusion, whether related to their gender, ethnicity or special needs. Many examples can be given of countries and communities that have successfully delivered to scale, but there is a long way to go before Target 4.2 can be achieved for every child. In far too many countries, early inequalities are actually being amplified by inequitable access to ECD programmes, which favour the better-off urban families.


Explicit reference to ECD in Target 4.2 is a landmark in the history of global policy development, but ECD is about so much more that this single education target. Quality ECD is fundamental to achieving the SDGs related to poverty and inequality, gender and social inclusion, health, well-being and the promotion of sustainable futures for all.

Scaling-up multi-sectoral ECD to deliver on the SDGs requires ambitious policy vision, combined with robust but pragmatic implementation strategies. ECD is not a ‘one size fits all’. A range of policy pathways can deliver quality ECD, building on existing infrastructure and, crucially, on family and community aspirations to support their children’s development. Scaling-up national systems also requires strong governance as well as targeted resourcing if ECD programmes are to deliver on their transformative potential.

Download Young Lives Policy Paper: Early Childhood Development in the SDGs

By Professor Martin Woodhead, Associate Research Director, Young Lives

This blog was originally posted on the Young Lives website on 23 February 2016. Reposted with permission.