Research findings emphasize the holistic nature of children’s early development. Children develop best when they are healthy, well-nourished, cared for by sensitive and responsive adults, stimulated to explore and interact with their surroundings, and protected from the potentially harmful effects of poverty and more extreme situations of abuse, violence or neglect.
Service integration in early childhood can lead to improved child development outcomes, more children and families receiving services, and better use of financial and human resources.
Interventions aimed at supporting young children are effective when they address the family and home context in addition to providing direct services to the child. For example, programs that improve families’ income levels through safety nets (e.g., cash or in-kind transfers) or support maternal mental health have positive effects on young children.
The evidence: Birth to age 3
Integrating early stimulation materials and messages into home visits conducted as part of nutrition programs, positively impacts children’s cognitive and linguistic development. These integrated programs also maintain nutrition gains seen in interventions focused only on nutrition. Rates of maternal depression can be reduced through home visiting programs delivered by community health workers.
Early stimulation messages given to parents by health professionals as part of well-baby visits or visits to the local health clinic for mild illnesses can result in parenting practices and home environments that are more supportive of children’s development.
Children are most at risk for experiencing abuse and violence in their own homes. Incorporating child protection messages such as positive discipline techniques into home visits conducted by health or nutrition service providers can be effective at reducing abuse and violence in the home.
The evidence: Ages 3 to 6
Participation in high quality pre-primary education programs that integrate health, nutrition, and/or hygiene components into their models results in important cognitive, linguistic, social, and emotional gains, particularly for the most vulnerable children around the globe.
Integrating services across education, protection, and health in pre-primary programs at national scales is challenging due to varied levels of service quality, but can yield positive results for children, as happened with the Integrated Child Development Services program in India and De Cero a Siempre (website in Spanish) in Colombia.
There is consensus that lessons learned from successfully integrating water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) and School Health and Nutrition (SHN) programs in primary school settings are relevant for pre-primary programs. These lessons include:
- Children who are healthy and well-nourished are more effective learners. Frequent illnesses or disease episodes such as bouts of malaria negatively impact children’s cognitive development and school attendance.
- When clean drinking water, and adequate sanitation and hygiene are provided at school, children’s attendance at school and school performance improve.
- Schools and ECD centers can offer opportunities for children to receive effective treatments for parasite infections (deworming treatments), vaccines, and nutrition interventions that promote health and school attendance.