Joan Lombardi, ed.
Publication Date
Publication Date: 
June 1, 2017

This edition of Early Childhood Matters (ECM), the Bernard van Leer Foundation's journal, sets out to new ideas on advances in early childhood development, while exploring the challenges of scaling up.

The introduction suggests that ideas like early nurturing can be brought to scale, including services for children and families in communities. Evidence includes: "more vocal and visible champions, growing evidence of effective services, ongoing dialogue about implementation issues." Voices of two champions of early childhood development (ECD) are featured in the publication: "Michele Bachelet Jeria, President of Chile, and Dr Jim Yong Kim, President of the World Bank Group."

The "17 articles report on subjects ranging from neuroscience to financing to quality standards, with contributions from diverse countries including Niger, Australia, Romania and Bangladesh."


  • Moving towards scale: advancing early childhood development 2017 - Joan Lombardi [Described above]
  •  Chile Crece Contigo’: 10 years on - Michele Bachelet Jeria writes of the milestones in ECD since democratisation of Chile in 1990 - over 27 years ago - committing to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC)'s four principles: non-discrimination; the best interests of the child; the right to survival, development and protection; and having a say in decisions that affect them. The national programme, as reported here, reached 2 million children from birth, including health checkups, nursery school, mental health checkups, an integrated learning support programme using stimulation and creativity tools like the ‘Games Corner’. Challenges include: structural issues connected with inequality, poverty, and violence; providing specialised training for professionals; and improving information management capacity for the registration, referral and monitoring system.

  • The best investment societies can make - Jim Yong Kim writes on the importance of the first 1,000 days in the brain development of children. He cites malnutrition, lack of early stimulation and learning, or exposure to violence and neglect as risk for an estimated 43% of children under 5 in low- and middle-income countries, as well as in war zones and for refugee families. He discusses what works: "The most effective national strategies empower families with the time, resources and skills to provide nurturing care. They target the most vulnerable young families with high-impact intervention packages that streamline service delivery and maximise cost savings." Spotlighting the issue of ECD to generate political will to invest in children is the challenge. This includes support of partnerships and initiatives, for example: the Every Woman Every Child initiative, the Early Learning Partnership, End Violence Against Children, Scaling Up Nutrition and the Power of Nutrition. 

Seven innovations:

  • Big surprises from little brains - Dr. Patricia K. Kuhl explains her work on early language acquisition and the effects of music on the baby brain. She shows that "at birth, infants can detect fine acoustic differences between all of the sounds (consonants and vowels) that distinguish words in any language." However, the brain becomes specialised for sounds by 12 months of age. Testing for differences in learning sound discrimination from humans and from videos, the research showed that infants learned from humans but not videos. Experimenting with music listening and rhythm led to the conclusion that: "...when infants experience patterned auditory, visual, or haptic stimulation, it does not simply train their sensory end organs – their ears, eyes, or their skin – it also helps establish the ability to detect and predict patterns in the world."
  • The Global Journalism Institute on Early Childhood and the Developing Brain - Karen Brown, ECD Institute Consultant, helped organise a four-day exploration of neuroscience, international policy, advocacy, and the craft of reporting on children and the brain for journalists. "The topics covered included:
    • evidence on how poverty and ‘toxic stress’ affect the architecture of the developing brain
    • how neuroscience helped move early childhood up the priority list of international aid agencies
    • how the field of epigenetics is shedding light on the ways negative and positive experiences in childhood can change gene expression
    • the common components of resilience in children – from refugees to abuse survivors – and the role of societal systems, family connections, and the community in supporting it
    • the economic argument for investing in early childhood small-scale programmes for vulnerable children, such as one in Jordan that encourages reading and another in East Africa on non-violent parenting
    • the surprising ways in which technology interacts with the developing brain."
  • Early learning and nurturing care for children displaced by conflict and persecution - Nada Elattar, Sesame Workshop, and Katie Maeve Murphy, International Rescue Committee (IRC), explain a 'multi-year intervention to bring early learning and nurturing care to children and families affected by the civil war in Syria, with the aim of developing a framework that can be used in other humanitarian situations." Among the strategies is a new broadcast television shows with Muppet role models, tailored to reflect the unique experiences of refugee children, new support materials for parents and caregivers and training resources for service providers. Formative research and initial testing will lead to an educational framework with the intent to pilot the "approach and the part of the larger initiative [to] inform and reshape services being offered in the wider humanitarian system."
  • Public–private partnership for early childhood: a chance to improve Romania’s competitiveness - Carmen Lica discusses a one-day international conference on investment in young children as an effort "to identify and convene Romanian business champions for young children." They worked, in preparation, with consultants from ReadyNation "to understand the best ways to engage business leaders by emphasising how investments in early childhood can improve future national competitiveness and the environment for doing business.... The conference yielded immediate results: several new business leaders made contact to join the initiative; and Gabriel Biris, then State Secretary in the Ministry of Finance, proposed new measures to support businesses to offer better services to their employees with young children."
  • The Kids in Communities Study: what is it about where you live that makes a difference to children’s development? - Sharon Goldfeld and Karen Villanueva describe work on community-level effects, also known as neighbourhood effects research, on child development: The Kids in Communities Study (KiCS) in Australia, "tries to answer the question: 'Can communities make a difference to young children’s development?'" by measuring measure "factors within five separate (but related) community domains: socioeconomic, physical, service, social and governance environments.... If we can understand what it is about where children live that might positively influence development then we can think about how best to guide investments that promote positive early childhood development."
  • Mothers of Rotterdam: a new medical and social support programme for vulnerable pregnant women - Johanna P. de Graaf, Marijke W. de Groot, Marije van der Hulst, and Eric A.P. Steegers summarise a response to increasing risk of poverty-related ECD problems in Rotterdam, Netherlands: prematurity, foetal growth restriction, a suboptimal start for the child at birth and inadequate implementation of the parental role by the mother. It is called Moeders van Rotterdam (Mothers of Rotterdam, MoR). "The MoR programme aims to provide care to highly vulnerable pregnant women up to their child’s second birthday, increasing the chances of a healthy and safe pregnancy and postpartum period that can give the child a good start in life" through coaching to connect women with social and medical domains and providing personalised care intensively to reduce stress, improve life and parenting skills, and increase self-sufficiency.
  • Nurturing the next generation of early childhood leaders - Rachel Machefsky interviews Lynette Aytch, Director of the Leadership Development Institute at Zero to Three and then reviews ECD leadership initiatives.

Articles on scaling include:

  • Accelerating the effective scaling of Kangaroo Mother Care and related interventions: lessons from 20 years of experience - Nathaniel Foote and Giorgio Tamburlini review the success of Kangaroo Mother Care (KMC), a birth method that provides "skin-to-skin contact between the caregiver and the baby, exclusive breastfeeding or breastmilk, and context-appropriate discharge and follow-up provided to the baby and his or her family....As part of a workshop to mark the 20th anniversary of KMC, a group of practitioners and advocates met in November 2016 in Trieste to reflect on the lessons of two decades of scaling KMC, and to develop an approach to accelerate it."
  • Promoting positive parenting practices in Niger through a cash transfer programme - Oumar Barry and Ali Mory Maïdoka describe a "a national social safety net programme – the ‘Projet Filets Sociaux’. It includes unconditional cash transfers as well as behavioural change measures to promote investments in children.... The behavioural change component originally focused on a set of material on essential family practices developed in Niger: exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months; complementary feeding after six months; sleeping under treated mosquito nets; treating diarrhoea with oral rehydration solution; handwashing and hygiene; use of preventive healthcare services; health visits for children at the first sign of illness; and family planning." The programme includes providing materials and training for community educators. Qualitative evaluations assess participation and community engagement; an impact evaluation first assessed to what extent the parenting training indeed led to behavioural changes, and then tested whether it resulted in improvements in final outcomes.
  • From small to scale: the expansion of pre-primary in Bangladesh - Zannatun Zahar, and Khosneara Khondker describe the formation and work of the Bangladesh ECD Network (BEN) and list successful models including: 
    • Early childhood development (ECD) camps 
    • Early literacy and maths parenting programme
    • Reading for children 
    • Early years pre-primary 
  • Promoting high-quality childcare at scale in Latin America - M. Caridad Araujo cites rapid expansion of publicly funded childcare services for children younger than 3 years of age in Latin America and then describes how to promote quality childcare at scale.
  • Quality standards for early childhood services: examples from South and South East Asia - Sandipan Paul describes ECD efforts in India, Singapore, and Philippines, including context specific differences and common lessons that have already emerged from experiences in the region.
  • The Power of Nutrition: innovative financing for the next generation - Martin Short and Mavis Owusu-Gyamfi developed a platform for investment into nutrition programmes in some of the economically poorest countries in Africa and Asia. "By securing commitments from governments and donors to match private donations, The Power of Nutrition is able to incentivise new actors to get involved in this important area."
  • Better policies for improved financing of services for young children - Arjun Upadhyay and Vidya Putcha discuss evidence of the importance of investing in early childhood programmes and barriers to effective financing policy. They then review principles for improved early childhood development finance policy.
  • The international Guide for Monitoring Child Development: enabling individualised interventions - Ilgi Öztürk Ertem describes the approach of the Guide for Monitoring Child Development (GMCD) to provide less generic approaches in interventions for children. Screening, surveillance and monitoring are differentiated. The GMCD, developed in Turkey, uses family centred care as a foundation.
  • Building national early childhood data systems: laying the groundwork for equitable, quality early childhood services - Abbie Raikes and Ivelina Borisova write about challenges in building effective data systems for ECD and growing demand for population level data. They suggest that the sustainable development goals (SDGs) offer "an opportunity to build on the momentum and interest in measuring child development to move in the direction of data systems that include a broader and more comprehensive view of early childhood development." They review data collection lessons from several countries. 

Concluding updates include:

  • The Early Childhood Development Action Network (ECDAN): a global network to strengthen support for young children - Lucy Bassett and Ana Nieto promote the ECDAN effort, linking it to the SDG targets that affect children. They seek to answer the questions: "Why network?" and "What will ECDAN do?" They then describe ECDAN's methods of country level engagement and where the momentum and energy of partnership can take the field of ECD.

Bernard van Leer Foundation website, July 11 2017. Image credit: Courtesy Consejo Nacional de Infancia, Chile