Best Start Brief: Early Childhood Development in Conflict and Protracted Crisis


More than 90% of brain development occurs before the age of five. With over 60 million people currently displaced worldwide — half of them children — and the average length of displacement for a refugee now 17 years, children cannot wait for the end of violence or displacement for their learning and development to begin.

Yesterday, Theirworld attended a panel discussion co-hosted by the Brookings Institution and Sesame Workshop on this critical but often neglected issue of early childhood development in conflict and protracted crises. Children living through humanitarian crises face numerous obstacles to healthy development, including physical dangers such as death, displacement, and trafficking, as well as mental and emotional harm.

Many displaced children have no safe place to play and learn, which can stunt their cognitive and socio-emotional development and deprive them of the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in school. Jeffrey Dunn, President and CEO of Sesame Workshop, explained that currently “a great many refugee kids are missing out on the stable learning experiences that are necessary to cognitive development and to a successful adult life.” In such dangerous situations, early childhood development (ECD) programmes can be a lifeline for the youngest children, helping to keep them safe and give them hope for the future.

These children need not only nutrition and health support and cognitive stimulation, but also protection from negative experiences such as toxic stress, which can disrupt healthy brain development. Emily Gustafsson-Wright, a fellow at Brookings’ Center for Universal Education, highlighted findings from a recent study that demonstrated that “children exposed to severe trauma have concentration problems, low cognitive capacity, and difficulties processing new information and retaining old knowledge.” She explained that “supportive adult relationships and quality ECD programmes can mitigate, prevent, or even reverse the damaging effects of this toxic stress response.”

But providing adequate support for healthy early childhood development is extremely challenging in a humanitarian crisis, particularly when these crises last for many years. Sara Poehlamn, Senior Director for ECD at Save the Children, emphasised the critical need to develop new approaches to build up the resilience and support the healthy development of young children living through prolonged emergencies, rather than simply working to mitigate the effects of crises.  Accomplishing this task will require innovative strategies for providing ECD services in crisis-affected areas, such as utilising context-specific media like Sesame Street programmes to reach children where there may be no other means of accessing pre-primary education.

Theirworld has made the case many times for the critical importance of providing education for children living through conflict and protracted crises. Just as education can be a life-saving intervention for older children, early childhood development programmes offer similar protection and support for the youngest children, some of whom have only ever known life as a refugee.  The need for early childhood development programmes in emergency settings is deeply urgent; children cannot afford to wait.

For more information on this issue, see Theirworld’s new brief on Early Childhood Development in Conflict and Protracted Crises.

Theirworld is currently working on a project funded by the Conrad N Hilton Foundation looking at how we can make the case for greater global investment in Early Childhood Development. We are also working alongside other Hilton Foundation-funded partners in Kenya to build on progress made in recent years and explore further opportunities to help every child get the best start in life.