Every child has the right to develop to their fullest potential – a new measure to monitor SDG indicator 4.2.1

Provided by UNICEF
© UNICEF/UN0425499/Karahoda


Early childhood offers a critical window of opportunity to shape the trajectory of a child’s holistic development and build a foundation for their future. As children grow older and their brains mature, they learn increasingly complex skills and become progressively more independent. However, children can develop at different paces and may reach developmental milestones at different times. Child development also varies across cultures and environments, since expectations and parenting strategies may differ not only across countries but also across cultural, ethnic or religious groups within the same country. Despite some variations, all children can greatly benefit from enriching environments to nourish their developing brains and fuel their growing bodies.

Measuring children’s development is a complex undertaking. In order to capture information on children’s achievement of developmental milestones across countries, UNICEF, along with a technical advisory group, developed a set of specific questions to be posed to mothers/caregivers to measure the overall status of children within the domains of physical development, literacy-numeracy, social-emotional development and learning.31 This 10-item index – the Early Childhood Development Index, or ECDI – was added to the Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys in 2009, and has since been used in over 70 countries.

31 For more information on the background of the ECDI, please see: Loizillon, A., N. Petrowski, P. Britto and C. Cappa (2017). Development of the Early Childhood Development Index in MICS surveys. MICS Methodological Papers, No. 6, Data and Analytics Section, Division of Data, Research and Policy, UNICEF New York.

The importance of Early Childhood Development (ECD) as a necessary and central component of global and national child development has been recognized by the international community through the inclusion of a dedicated target (4.2) and indicator (4.2.1) within the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Until the development of a new measure, the ECDI has been used so far as a proxy indicator (children aged 36 to 59 months who are developmentally on track in at least three of the following four domains: literacy-numeracy, physical, social-emotional and learning32) for global reporting on indicator 4.2.1, Proportion of children aged 24-59 months who are developmentally on track in health, learning and psychosocial well-being.

32 The four domains are defined as follows: (1) Literacy-numeracy: Children are identified as being developmentally on track if they can do at least two of the following: identify/name at least 10 letters of the alphabet; read at least 4 simple, popular words; and/or know the name and recognize the symbols of all numbers from 1 to 10. (2) Physical: If the child can pick up a small object with two fingers, like a stick or rock from the ground, and/or the mother/primary caregiver does not indicate that the child is sometimes too sick to play, then the child is regarded as being developmentally on track in the physical domain. (3) Social-emotional: The child is considered developmentally on track if two of the following are true: The child gets along well with other children; the child does not kick, bite or hit other children; and the child does not get distracted easily. (4) Learning: If the child follows simple directions on how to do something correctly and/or when given something to do, and is able to do it independently, then the child is considered to be developmentally on track in the learning domain.

Current status for Indicator 4.2.1

Of the countries in the UNECE region, only 1 in 5 (12 out of 56) have comparable data for global monitoring and reporting on SDG 4.2.1. In those 12 countries, more than 7 in 10 children aged 3 and 4 are developmentally on track, with levels exceeding 90 per cent in Turkmenistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia. In all countries with data, children fare worse in literacy-numeracy compared to other domains.

Figure 11

Percentage of children aged 36 to 59 months who are developmentally on track in at least three of the following four domains: literacy-numeracy, physical, social-emotional and learning

Source: UNICEF global databases, 2021, based on MICS and Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS), 2011-2019.

Early Childhood Development Index 2030: a new tool to measure SDG 4.2.1

Although the ECDI was one of the first international population-based measures of early childhood development, it did not cover the domains outlined in the SDG indicator formulation and was designed only for children aged three to four years.

Therefore, UNICEF, as custodian agency of 4.2.1, was tasked with leading methodological work to develop a new universal measure of early childhood development outcomes aligned with the SDG indicator formulation. Over a period of five years, a sequence of carefully planned technical steps were executed, incorporating both qualitative and quantitative methods to identify the best way to measure indicator 4.2.1. The process involved extensive consultations with experts, partner agencies and national statistical authorities. The result is the Early Childhood Development Index 2030 (ECDI2030).

The ECDI2030 captures the achievement of key developmental milestones by children between the ages of 24 and 59 months. Mothers or primary caregivers are asked 20 questions about the way their children behave in certain everyday situations, and the skills and knowledge they have acquired.

The ECDI2030 addresses the need for nationally representative and internationally comparable data on early childhood development, collected in a standardized way. The module can be integrated into existing national data collection efforts. It is accompanied by standard guidance and a framework for technical assistance to support data collection. And because the data can be disaggregated by key demographics and subnational areas, the use of this measure can also help advance the SDG commitment to leave no one behind. Data generated through the ECDI2030 will be used for global reporting on SDG 4.2.1 as countries begin to implement the new measure, thus replacing the ECDI.

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