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Child Development and Early Learning

This topic covers about Child Development and Early Learning and some key messages

Why it is important?

  • Child development refers to the changes that occur as a child grows and develops in relation to being physically healthy, mentally alert, emotionally sound, socially competent and ready to learn.
  • The first five years of a child's life are fundamentally important. They are the foundation that shapes children's future health, happiness, growth, development and learning achievement at school, in the family and community, and in life in general.
  • Recent research confirms that the first five years are particularly important for the development of the child's brain, and the first three years are the most critical in shaping the child's brain architecture. Early experiences provide the base for the brain's organizational development and functioning throughout life. They have a direct impact on how children develop learning skills as well as social and emotional abilities.
  • Children learn more quickly during their early years than at any other time in life. They need love and nurturing to develop a sense of trust and security that turns into confidence as they grow.
  • Babies and young children grow, learn and develop rapidly when they receive love and affection, attention, encouragement and mental stimulation, as well as nutritious meals and good health care.
  • Understanding the stages of child development helps parents know what to expect and how to best support the child as she or he grows and develops.
  • In many settings, early childhood programmes support parents and their children from infancy through age 8, which includes the important transition from home to school.
  • All children have the right to be raised in a family and to have access to quality health care, good nutrition, education, play and protection from harm, abuse and discrimination. Children have the right to grow up in an environment in which they are enabled to reach their full potential in life.
  • It is the duty of parents, other caregivers and family members, communities, civil society and governments to ensure that these rights are respected, protected and fulfilled.

What every family and community has a right to know?

  1. The early years, especially the first three years of life, are very important for building the baby's brain. Everything she or he sees, touches, tastes, smells or hears helps to shape the brain for thinking, feeling, moving and learning.
  2. Babies learn rapidly from the moment of birth. They grow and learn best when responsive and caring parents and other caregivers give them affection, attention and stimulation in addition to good nutrition, proper health care and protection.
  3. Encouraging children to play and explore helps them learn and develop socially, emotionally, physically and intellectually. This helps children get ready for school.
  4. Children learn how to behave (socially and emotionally) by imitating the behaviour of those closest to them.
  5. Entering primary school on time is critical to ensure the continuity of a child's development. Support from parents, other caregivers, teachers and the community is very important.
  6. All children grow and develop in similar patterns, but each child develops at her or his own pace. Every child has her or his own interests, temperament, style of social interaction and approach to learning.

Supporting Information

Key Messages - The early years, especially the first three years of life, are very important for building the baby's brain. Everything she or he sees, touches, tastes, smells or hears helps to shape the brain for thinking, feeling, moving and learning.

A child's brain develops rapidly during the first five years of life, especially the first three years. It is a time of rapid cognitive, linguistic, social, emotional and motor development. For example, a child learns many words starting at around 15–18 months. Rapid language learning continues into the preschool years.

The child's brain grows as she or he sees, feels, tastes, smells and hears. Each time the child uses one of the senses, a neural connection is made in the child's brain. New experiences repeated many times help make new connections, which shape the way the child thinks, feels, behaves and learns now and in the future.

A close relationship between the child and the caregiver is the best way to nourish the child's growing brain. When a caregiver plays with and sings, speaks, reads or tells a story to the child and nurtures her or him with healthy food, love and affection, the child's brain grows. Being healthy, interacting with caregivers and living in a safe and clean environment can make a big difference in a child's growth, development and future potential.

Babies need lots of care and affection in the early years. Holding, cuddling and talking to the child stimulate brain growth and promote emotional development. Being kept close to the mother and breastfed on demand provide the infant with a sense of emotional security. The baby suckles for both nutrition and comfort.

For young children, crying is a way of communicating. Responding to the child's cry by holding and/or talking soothingly to her or him will help establish a sense of trust and security.

This kind of early bonding and attachment to the mother, father or other close caregiver helps a child develop a broad range of abilities to use and build upon throughout life. These include the ability to:

  • Learn
  • Be self-confident and have high self-esteem
  • Have positive social skills
  • Have successful relationships at later ages
  • Develop a sense of empathy.

As children's brains develop, so do their emotions, which are real and powerful. Children may become frustrated if they are unable to do something or have something they want. They are often frightened of strangers, new situations or the dark. Children whose reactions are laughed at, punished or ignored may grow up shy and unable to express emotions normally. If caregivers are patient and sympathetic when a child expresses strong emotions, the child is more likely to grow up happy, secure and well balanced.

Boys and girls have the same physical, mental, emotional and social needs. Both have the same capacity for learning. Both have the same need for affection, attention and approval.

Young children can experience excessive stress if they are physically or emotionally punished, are exposed to violence, are neglected or abused, or live in families with mental illness, such as depression or substance abuse. These stresses interfere with the developing brain and can lead to cognitive, social and emotional delays and behaviour problems in childhood and later in life.

Children who are physically or mentally punished in anger are more likely to become violent themselves. More positive and effective ways to address children's behaviour can include:

  • Providing a child with clear explanations about what to do and what not to do
  • Responding consistently to certain behaviours
  • Praising good behaviour.

These responses by parents and other caregivers encourage children so they become well-adjusted and productive members of the family and community.

Both parents, as well as other family members, need to be involved in caring and nurturing the growth, learning and development of children. They should make both girls and boys feel equally valued as they encourage them to learn and explore – this is important preparation for school.

Mothers around the world generally take on the primary role of addressing their children's rights and needs. They love, feed, console, teach, play with and care for their children.

A father's role is as vital as the mother's in nurturing and caring for their children and protecting their rights. A father should make daughters and sons feel they are equally important. Just like the mother, the father can help meet their child's needs for love, affection, approval, encouragement and stimulation. Together, the mother and father can ensure that the child receives a quality education and good nutrition and health care.

Key Messages - Babies learn rapidly from the moment of birth. They grow and learn best when responsive and caring parents and other caregivers give them affection, attention and stimulation in addition to good nutrition, proper health care and protection.

Touch, hearing, smell, sight and taste are learning tools the child uses toexplore and understand her or his world.

Affection, attention and stimulation

Children's minds develop rapidly when they are talked to, touched and cuddled; when they see and hear familiar faces and voices; and when they handle different objects.

Children learn quickly when they feel loved and secure from birth and when they play and interact with family members and other people close to them. The more often mothers, fathers and other caregivers play with, talk to and respond to the child, the faster she or he learns.

Parents and other caregivers should consistently talk, read and sing to infants and young children. Even if the child is not yet able to understand the words, these early 'conversations' help to develop social and language skills and learning capacities.

Parents and other caregivers can help children learn and grow by giving them new, interesting and safe things to look at, listen to, smell, hold and play with.

Children who feel secure and loved usually do better in school, are more self-confident, have good self-esteem and are able to cope more easily with life's challenges.

Good nutrition

Exclusive breastfeeding on demand for the first six months, timely introduction of safe and nutritious foods at the age of 6 months and continued breastfeeding for two years or beyond provide the child with optimal nutrition and health benefits. Feeding time is also an opportunity for the child to receive affection and have contact with the mother, father or other caregiver.

Good nutrition is vital for a child's growth and development. The diet of a pregnant woman and that of a young child should be varied and nutritious. It should include essential nutrients such as proteins and essential fats to help a child's body grow and have energy, vitamin A to help a child resist illness, iodine to help ensure the healthy development of a child's brain, and iron to protect a child's mental and physical abilities.

While the mother has the primary role of breastfeeding the child, the father can support her by making sure she has nutritious food, helping with household and childcare responsibilities, and being emotionally supportive of her, the baby, the older children and other family members.

Proper health care

The health worker should inform parents and other caregivers about:

  • Necessary immunizations and the schedule to follow
  • How to avoid anaemia and parasitic diseases in children over 6 months of age
  • Why deworming is important
  • How to ensure that the child gets enough nutrients, such as iron and vitamin A, for her or his healthy mental and physical development.

Children who are anaemic, malnourished or frequently sick may become fearful and upset more easily than healthy children. They will also lack the drive to play, explore and interact with others. These children need special attention, care and encouragement to eat, play and interact with others in order to become healthy.

Infants who have completed their immunizations on time and are receiving proper nutrition, health care, love and affection have an increased chance of survival. They are able to concentrate on exploring, learning and developing cognitive, language, social, emotional and motor skills.

Protection and care from responsive and caring parents and/or other caregivers

Babies and small children should not be left alone for long periods of time. This delays their physical and mental development. It also puts them at risk of accidents.

Girls need the same amount of food, attention, affection and care that boys need. All babies and young children need to be encouraged and praised when they learn to do something new and say new words.

All girls and boys should have their birth registered in order to help ensure their right to access basic services, such as health care, education and legal and social services.

Key Messages - Encouraging children to play and explore helps them learn and develop socially, emotionally, physically and intellectually. This helps children get ready for school.

Children play because it is fun. Play is also key to their learning and development. Playing, both structured and unstructured, lays the foundation for a child's development of future learning and life skills. It helps children:

  • Develop their knowledge, experience, curiosity and confidence
  • Learn by trying things, comparing results, asking questions and meeting challenges
  • Develop the skills of language, thinking, planning, organizing and decision-making.

Stimulation, play and being included in play with other children and adults are very important for children with disabilities or chronic illnesses, such as children with HIV.

When parents and other caregivers talk and interact with children in their first language, it helps children develop the ability to think and express themselves. Children learn language quickly and easily through hearing and singing songs, having stories told or read to them, repeating rhymes and playing games.

Girls and boys need the same opportunities for play and interaction with all family members, including siblings and grandparents, and in activities outside the home. Play and interaction with the mother and the father help strengthen the bond between the child and both parents.

Family members and other caregivers can help children learn by giving them simple tasks with clear instructions, providing objects to play with and suggesting new activities. They should not dominate the child's play.

All children need a variety of simple play materials that are suitable for their stage of development and learning. Water, sand, cardboard boxes, wooden building blocks, and pots and lids are just as good for facilitating a child's play and learning as toys bought from a shop.

Parents and caregivers need to be patient when a very young child insists on trying to do something without help. Children learn by trying until they succeed. As long as the child is protected from danger, struggling to do something new and difficult is a positive step in the child's development.

Children are constantly changing and developing new abilities. Caregivers should notice these changes and follow the child's lead. Responding to and encouraging children helps them develop more quickly.

As young children grow older they need opportunities to learn and socialize with other children of their age. Group learning activities, run by a trained caregiver or teacher at home or in a nursery school or kindergarten, are important in helping children get ready for school.

Key Messages - Children learn how to behave (socially and emotionally) by imitating the behaviour of those closest to them.

By watching and imitating others, young children learn how to interact socially. They learn acceptable and unacceptable kinds of behaviour.

The examples set by adults, older siblings and children are the most powerful influences shaping a child's behaviour and personality. One way children learn is by copying what others do. If men and women do not treat each other equally, the child will observe, learn and probably copy this behaviour. If adults shout, behave violently, exclude or discriminate, children will learn this type of behaviour. If adults treat others with kindness, respect and patience, children will follow their example. If mothers and fathers treat each other with love and respect, this is what their children will learn and most likely 'replay' in their adult relationships.

Children like to pretend. This should be encouraged, as it develops their imagination and creativity. It also helps the child understand different ways people behave.

Key Messages - Entering primary school on time is critical to ensure the continuity of a child's development. Support from parents, other caregivers, teachers and the community is very important.

In most countries, children start primary school at around 6 or 7 years of age. Starting school is a critical stage in a child's development.

Both girls and boys should start school at the appropriate age (in accordance with their country's policy). By the time they enter school, they should have basic cognitive and language skills and sufficient social competency and emotional development to allow them to enjoy learning in the formal school setting.

The support of parents and other caregivers is very important for children's successful transition to school. Parents and other caregivers should equally and fully support both girls and boys in attending school regularly and being well prepared. They should also be involved in school activities. This helps children adapt to the school setting, settle more quickly into the school learning environment and attend school regularly.

Teachers should be prepared to support young children who are still developing their basic potential for learning. Teachers have a key role in building the confidence of both girls and boys so that they can equally enjoy and succeed at learning. Play continues to be a basic medium of teaching and learning in the early school years. A child-friendly school that supports active learning and promotes participation offers the best learning environment for children.

Along with families and the school, the community – both local authorities and civil society – can contribute to:

  • Making school a priority within the community
  • Making sure the school is a safe and welcoming place for all children
  • Making sure the school has the resources it needs, including community members involved in school management and parent-teacher associations.

Key Messages - All children grow and develop in similar patterns, but each child develops at her or his own pace. Every child has her or his own interests, temperament, style of social interaction and approach to learning.

Understanding the ages and stages of child development helps parents understand the changes to expect as a child grows and develops (refer to the the following chart). Parents or other caregivers should be able to seek help when they feel their child is not developing as expected.

By observing how young children respond to touch, sound and sight, parents can identify signs of possible developmental problems or disabilities. If a young child is developing slowly, parents and other caregivers can help by spending extra time with the child, playing and talking with the child, and massaging the child's body.

If the child does not respond to attention and stimulation, parents and other caregivers need to seek help from a trained health worker. Taking early action is very important in helping children who have delays and disabilities reach their full potential. Parents and other caregivers need to encourage the greatest possible development of the child's abilities.

A girl or boy with a disability needs lots of love and extra protection. She or he needs all the same attention, care and support every other child needs: birth registration, breastfeeding, immunizations, nutritious food, and protection from abuse and violence. Like all children, children with disabilities should be encouraged to play and interact with other children.

A child who is unhappy or experiencing emotional difficulties may exhibit unusual behaviour. Examples include:

  • Suddenly becoming emotional, unfriendly, sad, lazy or unhelpful
  • Consistently acting out or misbehaving
  • Crying often
  • Having sleep difficulties
  • Becoming violent with other children
  • Sitting alone instead of playing with family or friends
  • Suddenly having no interest in usual activities or schoolwork
  • Losing appetite.

The child's parents or other caregivers should be encouraged to talk with and listen to the child. If the problem persists, they should seek help from a trained health worker or teacher.

If a child has mental or emotional difficulties or has been abused, she or he needs mental health or counselling services. The child should be assessed to determine what support and treatment are needed.

How children develop

The following chart gives parents an idea of how young children develop. Each stage of development is part of a continuum, building on the previous stage and affecting the next. Not all children grow and develop at the same pace. Slow progress may be normal or may be due to inadequate nutrition, poor health, lack of stimulation or a more serious problem. Parents may wish to discuss their child's progress with a trained health worker or a teacher.


By the age of 1 MONTH

A baby should be able to:

  • turn her or his head towards a hand that is stroking the child's cheek or mouth
  • bring both hands towards her or his mouth
  • turn towards familiar voices and sounds
  • suckle the breast and touch it with her or his hands.

Advice for parents and caregivers:

  • make skin-to-skin contact and breastfeed within one hour of birth
  • support the baby's head when you hold the baby upright
  • massage and cuddle the baby often
  • always handle the baby gently, even when you are tired or upset
  • breastfeed frequently and on demand
  • always safely dispose of the baby's faeces and wash hands with soap and water or a substitute, such as ash and water, after changing the baby
  • talk, read and sing to the child as much as possible
  • give consistent love and affection
  • visit a trained health worker with the infant during the first week and again six weeks after birth.

Warning signs to watch for:

  • poor suckling at the breast or refusing to suckle
  • little movement of arms and legs
  • little or no reaction to loud sounds or bright lights
  • crying for long periods for no apparent reason
  • vomiting and diarrhoea, which can lead to dehydration.

 

 

By the age of 6 MONTHS

A baby should be able to:

  • raise the head and chest when lying on her or his stomach
  • reach for dangling objects
  • grasp and shake objects
  • roll both ways
  • sit with support
  • explore objects with hands and mouth
  • begin to imitate sounds and facial expressions
  • respond to her or his own name and to familiar faces.

Advice for parents and caregivers:

  • lay the baby on a clean, flat, safe surface so she or he can move freely and reach for objects
  • continue to hold and cuddle the baby every day, giving consistent love and affection
  • prop or hold the baby in a secure position so she or he can see what is happening nearby
  • continue to breastfeed on demand day and night, and start adding other foods (two to three meals a day starting at 6 months; three to four meals a day from 9 months and beyond)
  • talk, read or sing to the child as often as possible, not only when she or he is hungry or getting ready to sleep.

Warning signs to watch for:

  • stiffness or difficulty moving limbs
  • constant moving of the head (this might indicate an ear infection, which could lead to deafness if not treated)
  • little or no response to sounds, familiar faces or the breast
  • refusing the breast or other foods.

 

 

By the age of 12 MONTHS

A baby should be able to:

  • sit without support
  • crawl on hands and knees and pull herself or himself up to stand
  • take steps holding on to support
  • try to imitate words and sounds and respond to simple requests
  • enjoy playing and clapping
  • repeat sounds and gestures for attention
  • pick things up with thumb and one finger
  • start holding objects such as a spoon and cup and attempt self-feeding.

Advice for parents and caregivers:

  • point to objects and name them; play with, talk, sing and read to the child frequently
  • use mealtimes and other family activities to encourage interaction with all family members
  • give consistent affection and be responsive both when the child is happy and when upset
  • if the child is developing slowly or has a physical disability, focus on the child's abilities and give extra stimulation and interaction
  • do not leave a child in one position for many hours
  • make the area as safe as possible to prevent accidents, and keep dangerous objects, such as sharp objects, plastic bags and small items a child can choke on, out of the child's reach
  • continue to breastfeed and ensure that the child has enough food and a variety of family foods
  • help the child experiment with spoon and cup feeding
  • make sure the child's immunizations are up to date and that she or he receives all recommended doses of nutrient supplements
  • keep the child's hands clean and begin teaching the child to wash them with soap.

Warning signs to watch for:

  • does not make sounds in response to others
  • does not look at objects that move
  • listlessness and lack of response to the caregiver
  • lack of appetite or refusal of food.

 

 

By the age of 2 YEARS

A child should be able to:

  • walk, climb and run
  • point to objects or pictures when they are named (e.g., nose, eyes, ears)
  • say several words together (from about 15 months)
  • follow simple instructions
  • scribble if given a pencil or crayon
  • enjoy simple stories and songs
  • imitate the behaviour of others
  • begin to eat by herself or himself.

Advice for parents and caregivers:

  • read to and sing or play games with the child
  • teach the child to avoid dangerous objects
  • talk to the child normally – do not use baby talk
  • continue to breastfeed and ensure the child has enough food and a variety of family foods
  • make sure the child is fully immunized
  • encourage, but do not force, the child to eat
  • provide simple rules and set reasonable expectations
  • praise the child's achievements, provide reassurance when the child is afraid and continue to give consistent affection every day.

Warning signs to watch for:

  • lack of response to others
  • difficulty keeping balance while walking
  • injuries and unexplained changes in behaviour (especially if the child has been cared for by others)
  • lack of appetite.

 

 

By the age of 3 YEARS

A child should be able to:

  • walk, run, climb, kick and jump easily
  • recognize and identify common objects and pictures by pointing
  • make sentences of two or three words
  • say her or his own name and age
  • name colours
  • understand numbers
  • use make-believe objects in play
  • feed herself or himself
  • express affection.

Advice for parents and caregivers:

  • read and look at books with the child and talk about the pictures
  • tell the child stories and teach rhymes and songs
  • give the child her or his own bowl or plate of food
  • continue to encourage the child to eat, giving the child as much time as she or he needs
  • help the child learn to dress, use the toilet or latrine and wash her or his hands with soap and water or a substitute, such as ash and water, after defecating and before touching food and eating
  • listen to and answer all the child's questions
  • encourage creative play, building and drawing
  • give the child simple tasks, such as putting toys back in their place, to build responsibility
  • limit television watching and ensure that violent shows are not viewed
  • acknowledge and encourage positive behaviour and set clear limits
  • provide consistent affection every day
  • if available, enrol the child in an early learning (play) activity with other children.

Warning signs to watch for:

  • loss of interest in playing
  • frequent falling
  • difficulty manipulating small objects
  • failure to understand simple messages
  • inability to speak using several words
  • little or no interest in food.

 

 

By the age of 5 YEARS

A child should be able to:

  • move in a coordinated way
  • speak in sentences and use many different words
  • understand opposites (e.g., fat and thin, tall and short)
  • play with other children
  • dress without help
  • answer simple questions
  • count 5–10 objects
  • wash her or his own hands.

Advice for parents and caregivers:

  • listen to the child
  • interact frequently with the child
  • read and tell stories
  • encourage the child (both girls and boys) to play and explore
  • listen to and answer all the child's questions, have conversations (with both girls and boys)
  • encourage creative play, building and drawing
  • limit television watching and ensure that violent shows are not viewed
  • acknowledge and encourage positive behaviour and set clear and consistent limits
  • provide consistent affection every day
  • enrol the child (both girls and boys) in an early learning (play) programme that helps to prepare the child for school.

Warning signs to watch for:

  • fear, anger or violence when playing with other children, which could be signs of emotional problems or abuse.

 

 

By the age of 8 YEARS

A child's:

  • physical development proceeds more gradually and steadily than in the early years
  • muscle mass increases, and small and large motor skills improve
  • ability to understand and communicate abstract concepts and complex ideas has begun to develop
  • span of attention increases, and she or he can focus on the past and future as well as the present
  • learning capacity is expanding, and she or he is learning to read, write and do problem solving in a school environment
  • friends and interactions with her or his peer group are increasingly important
  • interest in friendships includes enjoying time with her or his peer group and turning to peers for information
  • self-control improves, and understanding of more complex emotions increases.

Advice for parents and caregivers:

  • be a good role model, equally for girls and boys
  • encourage your child to express feelings and beliefs and to solve problems
  • recognize and support your child's strengths and skills as well as limitations
  • spend time with your child, and talk and listen to her or him
  • find activities you can do together that will make your child feel successful, secure and loved
  • facilitate and support your child's playtime with friends and in extra-curricular school activities
  • acknowledge and encourage positive behaviour and set clear and consistent limits
  • show interest and become involved in your child's school – remember that the mother, father and/or other caregiver(s) are a child's first and most important teachers.

Warning signs to watch for:

  • difficulties making and keeping friends and participating in group activities
  • avoiding a task or challenge without trying, or showing signs of helplessness
  • trouble communicating needs, thoughts and emotions
  • trouble focusing on tasks, understanding and completing schoolwork
  • excessive aggression or shyness with friends and family.

 

Source: UNICEF

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