Giving young children the best chance – and measuring their progress

In the first of our series of guest blogs on the five proposed outcome-oriented post-2015 global education targets, Abbie Raikes, programme specialist at UNESCO, looks at the challenges of measuring early childhood development and learning.

post2015We now know that early childhood, far from being a time of “just playing,” lays the groundwork for learning, well-being and health in adulthood. The returns on investments in early childhood are among the highest in education. However, the world’s young children often do not receive the attention, resources, and support they need for healthy development.

Reliable information on young children’s development and learning can spur action. Many countries are surprised when they learn how many children are denied the conditions for healthy development, and how quickly inequity takes root, even within the first years of life. Early childhood development’s presence in proposed targets for the post-2015 development framework is a great step forward, and highlights the need for data for global, regional and national tracking.

Is it really possible to measure early childhood development (ECD) and learning? The answer is clearly yes. While there are certainly important individual differences, human development follows predictable patterns that lay the groundwork for reliable, valid measurement. We have strong evidence from around the world demonstrating that children’s development and learning before school is related to outcomes later in life. A big step towards “learning for all” is taken when all children are given a good start in life.

With this in mind, the conversation has turned to how best to support good measurement of early childhood development and learning, from the national to the global level – and specifically, how the post-2015 “data revolution” can work on behalf of young children.

There is agreement that good measurement must strike a balance between the science of early development, the technical strength of the instrument, and the context and culture that the child knows best. Some have raised concerns about using assessments with such young children. These concerns underscore the importance of careful planning. Well-constructed assessments do no harm and data are never used for “high-stakes” decision-making. Assessments of ECD ideally have the following characteristics:

  • Assess several domains of development, including language, physical, social/emotional, and cognitive, rather than knowledge of pre-academic competencies alone. Children’s development is not “domain-specific” – for example, language, physical and social/emotional development all work together to propel cognitive development. Developmental milestones such as children’s abilities to resolve conflict in a socially appropriate way and balance while walking on a line are important indicators of a child’s overall functioning.
  • Reflect recent science on early development.  Scientific understanding of young children’s development is advancing all the time, offering more accurate predictors of children’s development. A good example is the faculty known as “executive function,” which is not based on knowledge but on a child’s ability to focus attention and think before acting.
  • Respond to each child’s unique developmental timing. Measures should be designed to take into account the varying pace of development in different domains. Not all children develop competencies on the same schedule – the question is whether children’s development is on track when taken as a whole, rather than whether a child can “pass” a specific item at a specific time.
  • Reflect cultural influences on young children’s development, to measure accurately the full range of competencies that young children possess. While people everywhere follow similar developmental patterns, how these skills are displayed varies based on the context and culture where people live. It can be difficult to find a common set of items that are relevant to young children across cultures. This tension must be acknowledged when considering measurement for global or regional comparisons.

boyThe ECD community, including UNICEF, the World Health Organization, UNESCO, the World Bank and the Brookings Institution, is now sharing expertise and data and discussing new ways of meeting the growing demand for reliable information on ECD. UNICEF was at the forefront with the development of the MICS-Early Childhood Development Index, for which data now have been collected in more than 50 countries.

There are several existing regional initiatives as well, including the Regional Project on Child Development Indicators (PRIDI; Inter-American Development Bank), the West African Prototype (UNICEF); the Early Development Instrument (McMaster University); and the East Asia Pacific Child Development Scales (Hong Kong University). NGOs such as Save the Children have also developed measures with strong technical strength. The existing work provides a strong basis for consistent, reliable ECD measurement. The key now is to coordinate and collaborate to use the existing data and develop new approaches as needed.

– Read the second in this series by Ray Adams on The challenges and rewards of measuring global learning after 2015.



  1. Are these regional centres developing indicators that will be relevant to all young children? Please provide links to more information.
    Centres developing indicators for post 2015 Goals are not including children with other disabilities and other minority groups who are particularly at risk of exclusion from ECD initiatives.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I couldn’t agree more that measures should be relevant to all children. Of the existing instruments, many are administered through household surveys and contain a range of items focused on children’s developmental status across domains, which increases (but doesn’t guarantee) their application to all children. At the same time, there is agreement that more nuanced measurement is needed to capture the range of capabilities of all children, especially for children between birth and three years.

      You can find information on the PRIDI here:,7454.html; the EDI here:; and the EAPCDS here: There are also efforts underway focused specifically on children with special needs – here is some background information:

      1. Having read these links, I remain concerned that the indicators now being developed will exclude many children with disabilities in low and middle income countries (LMICs) who make up one third of the world’s 57 million out of school children.

        Although their rights to education and therefore to participation in society are now part of international law in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) ( ) and are also clearly reflected in the growing consensus on the post 2015 MDGs, governments must be held accountable both to their own people and to the international community for developing national action plans for year on year increases in the number of children with disabilities admitted to their schools, as well as matching plans to provide training and support to teachers and other practitioners, including families.

        The lack of relevant and reliable data on people with disabilities in most countries now constitutes the major obstacle to monitoring the implementation of the CRPD and the post-2015 Goals. People with disabilities are often not included in Household and Social Surveys which are used by all UN and international monitoring agencies, nor can they be counted without a birth certificate or are if they are excluded from school or health and social welfare provision. Not to be counted can be considered as an extreme form of discrimination.
        Although several groups are collecting a useful data on children and adults with disabilities in a range of countries, these studies were not originally designed for monitoring of the CRPD or post-2015 Goals. Examples include the well-established work of the UN Washington Group on Disability Statistics (United Nations Economic Council (2012) and the UNICEF-supported Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys (Gottlieb, Menner, Cappa & Durkin (2009); Llewellyn, Emerson, Madden, & Honey, 2012).
        Of particular concern is the absence of a clearly identifiable disability element in the work of groups developing comprehensive indicators for the monitoring of the SDGs between 2015 and 2030. These groups include:
        • The UK Overseas Development Institute for the UN Development Programme (Melamed & Sammans (2013)
        • The Centre for International Governance on Post 2015 Goals, Targets and Indicators (Carin & Bates-Earner (2012)
        • the UNESCO World Inequalities Data Base on Education (WIDE) which does not seem to be planning to collect disability-disaggregated data on the same basis as for gender, poverty, rural or urban location and language of instruction (UNESCO-UNICEF Institute of Statistics (2012 )
        • The OECD proposal to extend its PISA and other indicators for SDG monitoring (OECD 2012, 2013).

        Good work is certainly in progress but there does not seem to be evidence of co-ordination between different research centres to ensure that indicators are consistent with UN policies to ensure that post-2015 Goals are fully inclusive.

  2. ECD is really very impressive. childhood development (ECD) and learning measurement tells us the ability of child. Nice article. Thanks to share.

  3. There is no doubt of the benefits of proper ECD. But it has to be properly provided, by people who know what they are doing and in child-friendly surroundings. In too many countries, too many young children, 3 to 5 year-olds, are brought into schools where there is no-one who knows how to provide for their educational or other needs, where they are crowded into huge classes with older children, made to sit still while a teacher (if there is a teacher) tries to teach the older children in the class in a traditional way. That is a sure way of turning children off education. Countries give far too little thought to how they will provide ECD, or to training staff in ECD.
    The international debate on ECD tends to assume that all ECD is good. It isn’t.

    1. You are absolutely right that the quality of ECD programs is a big issue – we are also now investigating approaches to measuring quality, in hopes that more consistent and reliable information will lead to increased attention on quality.

  4. In the Philippines where parents’ time are reduced to staying on the road in going to and coming from work–leaving their home early in the morning and coming home late in the night–this idealized situation of having them help their children is a fantasy. It bogs down to how a country looks at its citizens, and in the Philippines, it looks like these citizens, the poor ones, are objects, things, commodities, numbers. At day’s end, it is the quality of life that is suspect here.

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