Setting Early Childhood Development Standards

Illustration: Alyssa Arizabal

Ten years ago, a review of 20 major efficacy or effectiveness studies of Early Childhood Development by Engle et al. (2011) concluded that participation in pre-primary education is essential to prepare children for learning and school, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. 

Boyden (2015) addressed the complexities of children’s lives, the impact of poverty upon them, and the difficulties in predicting educational outcomes drawing from the United Kingdom Department for International Development’s (DFID) Young Lives Project.  This project followed 12,000 children for 15 years in four countries (India, Ethiopia, Peru and Viet Nam).  In that study, poverty, inequality, cultural and linguistic disparities, and shortcomings of formal schooling, were seen as factors in influencing educational outcomes.  Children’s transition from home to school starting at a young age was carefully studied. 

UNICEF has argued for years that the key transition for young children is no longer the transition to formal schooling, but the transition from home care to childcare or some kind of institutional setting before school begins (UNICEF Innocenti Centre, UNICEF IRC, (2008).)  Even at this early stage in life, very young children should know and be able to do things in the domains of physical, cognitive, socio-emotional and language development from birth to eight years of age (The Lancet, 2016)

The EDI (Early Development Index) is a comprehensive teacher-report instrument that assesses school readiness in five major developmental domains of physical health and well-being, social competence, emotional maturity, language and cognitive development, and communication skills and general knowledge (Janus and Offord, 2007).

Framework for Early Childhood Development

UNICEF has put together a framework for Early Childhood Development called Going Global which sets down standards which countries can follow.  Going Global was adopted by the Philippines in 2003.

The program starts with awareness-building and advocacy around the need for ELDS (Early Learning & Development Standards) and child outcome standards.  Appropriate policy or legislation to provide for ELDS is also advocated leading to the drafting of ELDS child outcome standards, which need to be validated before finalization and approval. 

In the Philippines, the assessment of the program by the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) reflects dimensions of practice that reflect the influence of child outcome and developmental standards that are more school-based or reflect classroom (and institutional) pedagogical practice) with assessment practices within the classroom/institution that use milestones to establish developmental profiles of children.   There is simplified child record-keeping “broadly consistent” with the ELDS, but there has been no attempt to ensure matching indicators, levels or domains.  The observation has been that these instruments prioritize the cognitive (and more easily measurable) domains than the others (see box article below).. 

In the Philippines, there are two tools used to assess children’s readiness for schooling:  The Early Childhood Care and Development (ECCD) checklist and a more restricted school-readiness assessment tool.  The ECCD checklist was designed to screen children on entry, and to identify those with developmental delays.  It is also administered periodically to record progress.

A separate school-readiness instrument was designed for all children on entry to primary school to inform a school’s response to children with different pre-school experiences.  With the introduction of universal one-year of kindergarten, a similar instrument is administered at the end of the kindergarten year (for Grade 1) and triggers a catch-up session for children who underperform.  It has a much more limited coverage than the ELDS (or the ECCD) checklist concentrating on learned knowledge, classroom behaviors and operational skills.

The ECCD screen is used by teachers to help plan classroom activities and provide additional individual help but, it is reported, that it rarely triggers external services (UNICEF, 2016).  This is an unfortunate shortcoming.  Evidence should inform teacher action.

There is broad evidence, including research in Jordan and the Philippines, that children who have some pre-school experience are better prepared at the start of primary school, though the research is based on limited instruments that prioritize measures of cognitive domains while under-emphasizing other domains.  Those of us who subscribe to Howard Gardner’s Eight Intelligences Theory believe that every child has innate intelligences of which the academic or what Garner calls Logical/Mathematical Reasoning is only one, but which school systems zero in on because teachers are attuned to this intelligence by training and orientation.  The other intelligences are Linguistic, Spatial, Bodily-Kinesthetic, Musical, Interpersonal, Intrapersonal, and Naturalist.  (In the basic education years up through senior high school, we should encourage the development of multiple intelligences among our children.) 

A growing number of countries are moving towards a universal Grade 0 which is the de facto inclusion of a preschool year within primary school facilities.  Advocates of this relationship of pre-school within primary education say that this can facilitate communication between and among teachers about practice and about individual children.  The contrary view is to let preschool children have freedom not to be bound to formal education so closely.  This gives them room to explore at the start of their learning journey.

Studies show that there have been positive psycho-social changes in children entering primary school having had pre-schooling, such as increased confidence, communication skills, and responsibility, which are considered important in preparation for transition.

Providing Early Childhood Development at Home

We need to nurture and care for very young children from the start if we believe that their development, particularly the development of their brains, begins at conception.  Scientific evidence indicates that early childhood is not only a period of special sensitivity to risk factors, but also a critical time when the benefits of early interventions are amplified and the negative effects of risk can be reduced. The most formative experiences of young children come from nurturing care received from parents, other family members, caregivers, and community-based services.  Nurturing care is characterized by a stable environment that promotes children’s health and nutrition, protects children from threats, and gives them opportunities for early learning through affectionate interactions and relationships. Benefits of such care are life-long, and include improved health, wellbeing, and ability to learn and earn (The Lancet, 2016).

As stated earlier, the interventions start with good health.  Essential to this is nutrition to support growth and health; child protection, for violence prevention and family support; social protection, for family financial stability and capacity to access services; and education, for quality early learning opportunities.

At this age, and while at home, government support is crucial for scale and to support families living near poverty.  This, it does through the 4Ps (Pantawid Panilyang Pilipino Program) conditional cash transfer program, the first part of which is a health intervention for pregnant and lactating mothers.  The condition for pregnant mothers was a monthly health checkup; the condition for young mothers …

taking their children on regular clinic visits for basic health services (such as immunization and growth monitoring), and regularly attending sessions where the beneficiaries learned about topics such as family planning, good citizenship, and financial literacy (Kandpal et al. 2016).

Parent support programs promoting nurturing care, especially those using behavior change techniques, can have positive effects on early childhood development outcomes in basic health and nutrition, education, and protection interventions.  On the other hand, maltreatment during childhood is associated with reduced volume in brain regions involved in learning and memory.  Children who receive inadequate care, especially in the first 24 months of life are more sensitive to the effects of stress and display more behavioral problems than do children who receive nurturing care.

Programs in health and nutrition to support ECCD, as well as education, early learning opportunities, child day care, preschool, and WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) can develop good habits at home which a child can learn through mimicry and habitual use.    

An enabling environment is the last of the standards for ECD.  This includes child protection services (prevention of violence in the home and community), social protection services (for vulnerable families), policies to support families, and system enablers (capacity building, indicators, M&E (monitoring and evaluation), and financing).

Again, to stress the point, to develop strong brain architecture, babies and toddlers require dependable interaction with nurturing adults and a safe environment to explore.


What should we, as parents, aspire to develop in very young children (i.e. under 5 years of age)?  Having raised three children all of whom have developed their own unique characteristics, interests and futures, our experience has been to focus on seven domains. 

Physical health and well-being.  Is your child in good health?  Is your child within the accepted bio-mass body weight and height range?  (The answer should be yes, otherwise, seek medical assistance or nutritional information.)

Social and emotional development.  Does your child relate well with other children and with adults?  Have they developed good social skills and habits (i.e. good manners, common courtesy, respect of elders and of other children, hygiene and cleanliness, good grooming, proper eating skills)?

Emotional maturity.  Does your child know how to deal with other children or adults without throwing temper tantrums when they don’t get their way?  Do they know how to manage their emotions?

Language.  How are their language skills?  Can they express themselves clearly when speaking to others?  How extensive is their vocabulary?  (A child of 3-5 years old should have a vocabulary of 300-500 easily understood words to express themselves and describe what they are seeing, doing.)

Cognitive development (Logic and reasoning).  A child of 3-5 should be able to recognize things they see and understand relationships between objects, events, and people.  Children should be able to tell a reasonable story about what they see or are doing.  At that age, a reasonably long conversation can occur and questions can be answered no matter how fantastical the answers might be (imagination is actually a plus for very young children’s learning).

Communication skills.   Can your child speak in easily understood phrases at 2-3 years and in short complete sentences at 3-5 years?

General knowledge.  Does your child have general knowledge of the world around them being able to describe their home environment, their community, and their daily activities including and especially, play?

These are things we should all develop in our very young children (i.e. under 5 years of age) and it should be a complete package to give them the best chance in life to succeed.

With inputs from the UNICEF MSTP 2002-2005 that developed nationally-accepted early childhood development standards in six pilot countries: Brazil, Ghana, Jordan, Paraguay, Philippines, and South Africa.

Some conclusions about Early Childhood Development

Children’s early experiences and environments can have a lasting influence on their future success in education and life as brain development, which takes place during the first few years of life, builds the groundwork for all later learning, development of new behaviors, and good health.


Previous research reveals that the return on investment is estimated to be over 17 US dollars for each 1 US dollar invested in pre-school education. ( UPKFullReport.pdf).   

Studies also indicate that children who have received quality early childhood care and education show stronger probability of advancing to higher education and obtaining better remuneration (UNESCO (2010).  Conference concept paper: World Conference on Early Childhood Care and Education. images/0018/001873/187376e.pdf)

The Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG 4) states in Target 4.2 that: “By 2030, 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.”  The World Education Forum (Incheon, May 2015) also advocated for a global commitment to investing in equitable and comprehensive quality ECCD.

The UNESCO benchmark for ECCD investment is 1.0 per cent of GDP.  Even the OECD, however, does not achieve this level (0.6 per cent on average) showing how difficult this target is to achieve. 

Juan Miguel Luz is a fellow of FEU Public Policy Center and was a former Undersecretary of the Department of Education.