Early Childhood Development

Early Childhood Development (ECD) is a period of rapid and critical development - from conception to 8 years. Quality nurturing care during this period - adequate nutrition, good health, protection, responsive caregiving, and early learning - is vital for children’s physical, cognitive, linguistic and social-emotional development.

Globally millions of children are missing out on the benefits that quality ECD can bring. An estimated 250 million children (43%) younger than 5 years in low and middle-income countries are at risk of not reaching their developmental potential because of extreme poverty and stunting. For children growing up in crisis contexts  - including an estimated 87 million children under the age of 7 who have spent their entire lives in conflict zones - the risk is even greater. 

In humanitarian situations, multiple adversities threaten children’s ability to flourish and reach their full potential. These include increased risk of separation from parents or primary caregivers, physical injury, loss of the stability and comforts of home and community, and experiencing or witnessing violence. Additionally, experiences of conflict and crisis can deprive young children of the stable, responsive and nurturing care they need. Experiences of extreme stress during the critical first years of life can have long-term, negative impacts on the child’s future learning, behavior and health. Exposure to repeated or prolonged challenging circumstances can result in ‘toxic stress’ which can hinder brain development, limiting cognitive ability with long lasting and profound impacts.

Participation in quality early learning (also known as preschool/pre-primary/kindergarten/nursery education) brings significant and long lasting benefits to children. Yet for millions of children growing up in low income countries and in crisis contexts, early learning opportunities remain out of reach. UNICEF estimates that only half of children in the world have access to pre-school education and opportunities are severely limited  in countries affected by conflict. 

Why is ECD important especially in emergencies?

  1. ECD provides essential services during a unique period of brain development in children: Approximately 90% of the brain’s growth occurs within the first 5 years of life and about 80% of that growth occurs within the first 2 years of life. Research indicates that children who are deprived from nurturing and responsive care and who lack opportunities to play, communicate and explore have smaller brains and fewer neural connections

  2. ECD provides health and nutrition services: ECD in emergencies programs can save lives by providing proper nutrition and health support directly to children, and  by increasing parents and primary caregivers’ understanding around proper nutrition and preventable diseases. In addition to proper nutritious food and health care support, young children need cognitive stimulation. ECD in emergencies programming brings cognitive stimulation together with nutrition and health support.

  3. ECD programs help protect children from harm: Young children in emergency situations are often in precarious situations where they may not receive sufficient care and protection from physical and emotional harm. ECD in emergencies programs can provide support that enable parents and primary caregivers to physically and emotionally care for and protect children and ensure their survival.

  4. ECD helps mitigate toxic stress that can result in permanent long-term damage: The destabilizing effect of emergencies can greatly decrease a child’s ability to fight against the accumulating effects of stress.  When stress accumulates it can become toxic. Toxic stress has shown to change a person’s chemical makeup, affecting not only the body, but also the brain. ECD in emergencies programming can mitigate the deleterious effects of stress.

  5. TJump, IRC
    © T Jump, IRC

    ECD provides early learning opportunities that support better learning and improved life chances in adulthood: Robust evidence shows that participation in pre-school education sets strong foundations for future learning and life chances, as it promotes cognitive and emotional development. It is particularly important for  the most marginalised children and is key for tackling the challenges of equity and quality necessary to achieve sustainable development goal 4 (SDG4). 

  6. ECD is cost effective and beneficial for society: Investing in early childhood development is a cost-effective way to boost shared prosperity, promote inclusive economic growth, expand equal opportunity, and end extreme poverty. Longitudinal studies have found that those who participated in preschool programs are more likely to start school on time, less likely to drop out of school, more likely to graduate from secondary school and obtain a job as an adult, and less likely to commit crimes and end up imprisoned

  7. ECD programs promote peace, disaster risk reduction, and environmental protection: ECD in emergencies programs can integrate concepts of peace, tolerance, disaster risk reduction, environmental protection, and others through play-based activities, making it more likely that they will carry these experiences and perspectives with them into adulthood.


This collection was developed with the support of Maria Benavides, INEE Early Childhood Development Coordinator.

1 January 2012 Toolkit United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), World Health Organization (WHO)

Care for Child Development

Care for Child Development (CCD) is an evidence-based approach designed to promote early learning and responsive caregiving through integration into existing services in a variety of sectors such as health, nutrition, education, and child protection. 

1 January 2018 Toolkit International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), World Vision

Toolkit for Child Friendly Spaces in Humanitarian Settings

The toolkit provides a set of materials to assist managers and facilitators/animators in setting up and implementing quality CFS. These resources have at their core the protection of children from harm; the promotion of psychosocial well-being; and the engagement of community and caregiver capacities.

16 February 2017 Manual/Handbook/Guide Save the Children

Early Childhood Development in Emergencies Manual

This manual provides guidance on how to assess need, design, and implement Early Childhood Development in Emergencies (ECDiE), supporting each of the four core components of a response: early learning and stimulating environments, positive child-caregiver interaction, protective environments, and holistic child wellbeing.

29 October 2021 Report Early Childhood Development Action Network (ECDAN)

Ending Corporal Punishment in the Early Years of Childhood: An essential right and need of every young child

Corporal punishment is the most common form of violence against children and most likely to be experienced in early life, causing injury and death to thousands of young children every year, as well as numerous other impacts to physical and mental health, relationships, and lifelong wellbeing.

16 December 2019 Project Brief
Moving Minds Alliance

Supporting the Youngest Refugees and Their Families

Early life experiences shape the architecture of the brain and lay the foundation for later development. The very youngest refugees† face compounding risks that threaten their long-term development and wellbeing. Still, the multi-dimensional needs of displaced infants, toddlers and those who care for them remain overlooked and underfunded.

1 September 2020 Report Theirworld

Protecting Children in Armed Conflict

This document summarises the findings of the report Protecting Children in Armed Conflict, led by Shaheed Fatima QC (published in 2018 by Hart/ Bloomsbury), and produced for the Inquiry on Protecting Children in Conflict, chaired by Gordon Brown. Theirworld, Save the Children Fund and the Global Health Academy at the University of Edinburgh have supported the work of the Inquiry. 

28 May 2021 Policy Brief United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organziation (UNESCO)

Inclusion in early childhood care and education: Brief on inclusion in education

Inclusion in education must start in the early years when the foundation for lifelong learning is built and fundamental values and attitudes  are  formed. Inequality in learning and development emerges during early childhood, before children begin primary school. Beginning to address inclusion when children begin primary school is simply too late.

28 October 2021 Report
Bernard Van Leer Foundation

Early Childhood Matters: Caring for children and the planet

This edition of Early Childhood Matters is dedicated to examining the many ways that climate change and early childhood intersect. In 34 articles, we hear from leading policymakers, researchers, educators, urban planners and activists from around the world, about how to both develop ecological resilience and improve well-being in the early years.