Measuring Early Childhood Development: A Toolkit for Doing it Right

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A class of 4 year olds and their teacher say namaste in rural Nepal.
Photo © Aisha Faquir/World Bank

The early years are a critical period for development of children’s brains and bodies and the cognitive, linguistic, socio-emotional, and motor skills they need to thrive in school and succeed later in life. Too often, poverty and its associated problems, such as poor health services, weak education systems and lack of parental knowledge, limit the support, care, and stimulation that children require for healthy development.

Early childhood programs are aimed at helping children get what they need to reach their potential. Designing and evaluating the impact of programs requires first understanding how to measure and track children’s development. This is the challenge. Measuring early childhood development in low- and middle-income countries requires trade-offs and choices that can be difficult to manage for even the most experienced researchers. A new toolkit released by the World Bank’s Strategic Impact Evaluation Fund aims to help researchers and development practitioners understand how to assess early childhood development accurately and reliably.

“It seems like we are swimming in a sea of data lately and we need a GPS [global positioning system for navigation] to figure out how all these pieces fit together,” said Joan Lombardi, a senior advisor at the Bernard van Leer Foundation, during the recent toolkit launch at the World Bank. “I think this makes the issue of measurement so challenging and one of the reasons this book is so important.”

A Toolkit for Measuring Early Childhood Development in Low- and Middle-Income Countries, which expands upon and updates a 2009 handbook, offers users a detailed review of the newest tools to measure children from birth to 8 years, and how to apply them to ensure data can inform policy dialogue. The book reviews the challenges that researchers face in selecting tools that accurately measure children’s linguistic, cognitive, motor and socio-emotional skills, and provides explanations and suggestions for how to do it.

Among other things, researchers need first to clarify the purpose of the assessment before choosing the measurement tool or else risk collecting inaccurate data; once they have picked a tool, they need to take into account the impact of cultural contexts to ensure that they adapt the tool accordingly; and finally, they need to realize that not all tests can be a good indicator of future success, especially when working with younger children.

The book is accompanied by an updated Early Childhood Development measurement inventory, an online spreadsheet that can be filtered by users to narrow down the instruments appropriate for their specific measurement needs. The excel spreadsheet includes 147 instruments—the previous version had just 41—and provides information on the areas of development that each instrument assesses (such as cognitive skills or social-emotional skills), the age range it has been used for, the method of administration (such as direct observation or caregiver reports), the purpose of measurement (such as population monitoring or program evaluation), countries where it has been developed and used, as well as logistics and cost. The spreadsheet allows users to filter these attributes to identify instruments that meet their specific criteria.
The updated toolkit also provides a guide to analyzing pilot data and tips for enumerator training and high-quality data collection, as well as a review of tools using new technologies such as Near-Infrared Spectroscopy, which measures brain activity through thermodynamic responses.

The book was co-authored by Lia C. H. Fernald (University of California at Berkeley) and Elizabeth Prado (University of California at Davis), together with Patricia Kariger (University of California at Berkley) and Abbie Raikes (University of Nebraska College of Public Health).
“All children have the right to fulfill their developmental potential and our hope is that this toolkit is a support to provide actionable data on child development and inform evidence-based policy making in pursuit of that goal,” Prado said at the launch. 


Daphna Berman

Communications Consultant

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