Early Childhood Development (ECD) is a period in a person’s life from conception to 8 years. Young children in emergencies are an especially vulnerable group as they are dependent on others for their survival and well-being. The Lancet journal’s new ECD series estimated that 250 million children (43%) younger than 5 years in low and middle-income countries are at risk of not reaching their developmental potential while an estimated 87 million children under the age of 7 have spent their entire lives in conflict zones. In humanitarian situations, the compilation of adversities threaten children’s ability to flourish and reach their full potential. These include separation from parents or primary caregivers, physical injury, loss of the stability and comforts of home and community, experiencing or witnessing violence. Additionally, experiences of conflict and crisis can influence caregiving behaviors, depriving young children of the stable, responsive and nurturing care they need in order to thrive. Experiences of extreme stress during the critical first years of life--when brain development occurs at the most rapid pace--can have long-term, negative impacts on the child’s future learning, behavior and health. ECD services can thus not only save lives, but ensure children’s positive life trajectory. ECD has also been found to be a highly cost-effective strategy to improve economic prosperity and stability, yielding long-term economic and social returns.
ECD services provide multi-sectoral support for children’s optimal development and well-being. Comprehensive services for young children include early learning and stimulation, health and nutrition, protection and responsive care. Within Education in Emergencies programming, ECD integration and inclusion focuses on early learning and stimulation, which can begin with programs to support caregivers and parents in the prenatal period, ensuring that childcare services provide enriching learning experiences in safe and supportive environments, as well as high-quality pre-school education or Kindergarten services paired with parent and caregiver support.
Why is ECD important especially in emergencies?
ECD provides health and nutrition services along with brain stimulation: ECD in emergencies programs can save lives by providing proper nutrition and health support directly to children. It can also save lives by increasing parents and primary caregivers’ understanding around proper nutrition and preventable diseases. Children’s bodies and brains need nutrition to be healthy. In addition to proper nutritious food and health care support, young children need cognitive stimulation. Research of stunted children in Jamaica showed the best results when stimulation and nutritional supplementation were combined. Among famine stricken young children in Ethiopia, those with nutrition and stimulation were more likely to survive and thrive than those with nutrition alone. ECD in emergencies programming brings cognitive stimulation together with nutrition and health support.
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 support with birth registration, family tracing and reunification, psychosocial support to parents and other assistance that would enable parents and primary caregivers to physically and emotionally care for and protect their children and ensure their survival.
ECD helps mitigate toxic stress that can result in permanent long-term damage: The destabilizing effect of emergencies, such as losing a parent, a home or daily routines, can greatly decrease a child’s ability to fight against the accumulating effects of stress. Harvard University found that when stress accumulates, which can happen during emergencies, it can become toxic. Toxic stress has shown to change a person’s chemical makeup, affecting not only the body, but also the brain. Further, the effects of toxic stress have been shown to last for multiple generations. ECD in emergencies programming can mitigate the deleterious effects of stress and promote children’s futures.
ECD is Cost effective and beneficial for society: A number of cost benefit analyses that compared investments in the early years vs. investments in the later years of childhood found tremendous rates of return from investments in the early years. Longitudinal studies have found that rates of return for investments in early childhood show those that participated in pre-school programs to be 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.
ECD programs promote peace, disaster risk reduction, and environmental protection: Young children are sponges during early childhood, so there is a unique opportunity to shape their perspectives and behavior. 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.