“Early Childhood Care and Education: Setting the Stage for Lifelong Development” – World Bank Article, September, 2012.


  • Care and education in the first five years of life give children a head start on skill development, school readiness, and future educational success.
  • The World Bank and the Centre for Early Childhood Education and Development of the Ambedkar University held a regional conference on early childhood care and education in New Delhi recently.
  • Participants agreed that access to quality early childhood care and education should be the fundamental right of every child from the prenatal stage onward.

New Delhi: Are parents and preschools giving children under 8 years old adequate time to play, explore, create, and learn, or are they making them memorize by rote?

Recent research in the neurosciences has established that around 80 percent of brain development takes place by the time a child is 5, with the first three years seeing the maximum growth. Clearly, the environment and experiences during these early childhood years have a great deal to do with a child’s future development and growth. In fact, early childhood experiences determine how much a child will gain from later education.

With countries around the world beginning to recognize the criticality of early childhood experiences, the World Bank and the Centre for Early Childhood Education and Development of the Ambedkar University held a regional conference on early childhood care and education (ECCE) in New Delhi recently. The conference was also supported by other international agencies such as UNESCO, UNICEF, and CARE. Participants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka attended the conference, along with researchers, experts, NGOs, and government officials. (Jump to their recommendations.)

While most developed countries endeavor to give children a better start in life by providing near-universal early childhood education – either through the public or private sector – this has remained a neglected area in South Asia. Apart from some efforts by the private sector and NGOs, few other institutions across the region provide early childhood care and education.

Among the South Asian countries, India has the distinction of implementing the Integrated Child Development Services program for holistic early childhood development. The program, which seeks to benefit some 80 million children from birth to 6 years of age, includes early childhood education, but the quality of the education provided is not very satisfactory. Overall, in South Asia, financing is mostly ad hoc and negligible, there is little coordination between institutions that provide other early childhood services such as health and nutrition, and the legal framework for developing early childhood education is non-existent across the region.

Open QuotesHigh-quality early childhood education has long-term benefits and produces strong    returns on investment. Close Quotes – Lawrence Schweinhart – President, High Scope Educational Research Foundation

Long-Term Impact: 

  • Cognitive, social, and societal skills
  • High school graduation rates
  • Employment prospects in addition to contributing to a reduction in crime.

Keynote speakers pointed out that there is now enough empirical evidence to conclude that rates of return on investments in human capital are the highest in the earliest years.

“High-quality early childhood education has long-term benefits and produces strong returns on investment,” said Lawrence Schweinhart, president of the High Scope Educational Research Foundation in the United States. It impacts cognitive skills, social skills, societal skills, high school graduation rates, and employment prospects, in addition to contributing to a reduction in crime.

Speaking of the advantage that early childhood education provides in successfully transiting to school at age 6, Venita Kaul, professor at the Ambedkar University in Delhi, explained that Indian and international researchers have acknowledged that children with adequate school readiness in terms of cognitive, language, socio-emotional skills, and concepts have better chances of successfully transiting and adjusting to formal school. Research also shows that pre-primary school attendance has a positive impact on a student’s attention, effort, class participation, and discipline.

It was pointed out that highly effective preschools have special ingredients. These include certified teachers, validated curriculum, systematic engagements of parents, as well as regular assessment and feedback.

However, while the growth of the brain is very rapid in the first six years of life, there is little per-child spending during this period, said Deepa Sankar, senior economist at the World Bank.  Quality interventions during this crucial period are therefore missed out.

In South Asia

Speaking about India’s plans to improve early childhood education, Anshu Vaish, secretary, Ministry of Human Resource Development, talked about the government’s plans to extend the right to free and compulsory education to the 3-6 age group as well.  “We are working on such a provision within the 12th Plan period that can bring about a massive change as we could then allocate funds to set up preschools and other related infrastructure in already existing government primary and secondary levels.’’

Vaish also spoke about the need to integrate efforts within the government, as there are multiple departments or ministries connected with health, education, children’s, and women’s welfare.

Speakers mentioned that in countries such as Sri Lanka and India, the pressure to learn by rote was limiting and counter to a child’s overall development, especially in the early years.

In Pakistan and Afghanistan, with security a major issue, the role of government in providing safe passage for NGOs and social activists was discussed. In Afghanistan, for example, almost the entire effort at ECCE is managed by foreign agencies, making it critical for the Kabul government to extend logistical and personal safety support.

Experts from Bhutan and Nepal, countries with low ECCE penetration, said that emerging literature on the subject is helping them devise policies to reach out to children.

There was unanimity that new tools are needed to identify and cater to requirements of children with special needs, a hugely neglected domain.


Participants agreed on a number of recommendations:

  • There is a need to develop a comprehensive policy on children in the early childhood stage. The policy should not only address health, nutrition, care, and education but also a child’s right to protection and play.
  • Marginalized groups need to be identified and targeted with both universal and specific interventions, together with affirmative actions to ensure equity in access and quality.
  • Children should get early learning in their mother tongue, with a transition/bridging strategy to move toward the school language by the time the child reaches grade 1 and beyond.
  • Planning needs to be decentralized to address the local context, with greater community-based interventions and ownership.
  • Private schools and centers should be brought within the ambit of regulation to ensure appropriate quality among crèches, day care centers, and preschools.
  • National, sub-national, and local mechanisms for monitoring ECCE programs need to be set up and strengthened.

Participants agreed that access to quality early childhood care and education should be the fundamental right of every child from the prenatal stage onward.

Provide Health/Nutrition Workshops on gardening, cooking, health, nutrition and facilitate partnerships with existing groups, such as Peaches & Greens– to increase access to fresh produce and nutritious foods.

Weaving physical activity into the program in the form of dance, exercise and yoga workshops to improve health, focus and concentration .

Engaging the families: Studies have shown a strong correlation between parent involvement and a child’s education;

For long term success, especially regarding nutrition and diet, awareness campaigns must involve the parents/caregivers.

Fostering open dialogue and interactive open houses/workshops to integrate the family and inspire change on a broader level.

We must “immunize” children against illiteracy in the critical years before the 4th grade watershed year, when interventions can have the most dramatic impact and before children become discouraged and disengaged.

Using the proven-yet-simple Montessori sensorial-based approach to phonics –sound-letter relationships– a cadre of volunteers can be readily trained and provide the additional instruction required to help at-risk children. Notably, when such Montessori-based instructional support has been incorporated into inner-city programs, the results have been astounding—in one case, high school graduation rates rose from 50% to 94%. National Institute of Health studies have found that at least 95% of even the poorest readers can learn to read at grade level if they are given proper instruction in sound-letter relationships.