The Need to Provide Holistic Support to Young Children in Acute Emergencies

Why do young children in acute emergencies urgently need support?

To protect young children and their healthy development, it is essential to offer them robust and quality Early Childhood Development (ECD) support during acute emergencies. Supporting ECD is cost-effective, promotes longer-term stability and economic growth, and provides a bridge to community recovery and resilience. This brief highlights key recommendations for action, summarizes research and lessons learned from the field, and lifts the voices of those living and working on the frontlines of crises. It is meant to guide and influence advocacy and implementation.Acute emergencies disrupt the systems and support that protect and nurture children and their families, especially younger children, who are more vulnerable and dependent on caregivers. Responsive and protective ECD interventions in acute emergencies are essential for safeguarding. They promote young children’s immediate and long-term development and well-being.

This brief calls attention to the need for dedicated resources and policies that address the unique needs of young children, their families, other caregivers, and communities during acute emergencies. By raising awareness and providing evidence-based recommendations, the brief aims to encourage collaboration across different sectors and stakeholders to work together to create fundamental, lasting changes. This contributes to ensuring young children affected by acute emergencies receive the support and opportunities they need for healthy development and well-being.

Why prioritize ECD in acute emergencies?

Because the youngest children are among the most vulnerable:

  • In 2022, 230 million children lived in high-intensity conflict zones (Save the Children, 2022). In 2018, 29 million babies – almost 1 in 5 babies globally – were born in conflict-affected areas (UNICEF, 2019). Nearly 90 million children under the age of seven have spent their whole lives in a war zone (UNICEF, 2016).
  • Young children in acute emergencies rarely have access to adequate safety and security measures, healthcare, and nourishment. They may witness and experience violence, be injured, be separated from caregivers and peers, or be exploited. They may also lose opportunities to engage in age-appropriate play activities (ErekyStevens et al., 2022). Acute emergencies also disrupt the routines and structures that support young children’s development. Young children need predictability, stability, and responsive caregiving. But when children are affected by crises, no aspect of their lives is stable or secure. They may lose their home, their family, or friends and may not be able to access learning opportunities (Plan International, 2021).
  • During crises, it may be more difficult for caregivers to secure food, water, and shelter and they also may experience their own crisis-related mental health issues. This makes it a challenge for caregivers to provide responsive care.

What can different stakeholders who provide ECD do?

Governments and policymakers

  • Allocate adequate financial and technical resources for ECD programs, including funding for integrated, cross-sectoral programming (integrating water, sanitation and hygiene, and education, for example) to meet young children’s holistic needs and prevent services from being fragmented or siloed; and ensure provision continues during emergencies.
  • Include young children and their caregivers in needs assessments. Ensure their needs are reflected in acute emergency response plans and key actions. This includes an ECD-sensitive lens when conducting a situation analysis and risk assessment, advocating for quality, inclusive ECD services in emergency preparedness planning, reducing dangers in the physical environment of young children, preparing human resources, and developing capacity to respond to young children’s needs.
  • Collaborate with local communities and stakeholders to identify and address the unique needs and challenges of young children and their families during emergencies (lack of access to basic services, family separations, the risk of exposure to traumatic experiences during a formative stage of development, for example).
  • Provide funding to build and strengthen caregivers’ and ECD practitioners’ understanding and capacity to ensure high-quality and locally contextualized ECD programs during acute emergencies (culturally meaningful forms of play-based learning, family reunification programs, for instance).
  • Design and advocate for inclusive, child-centered policies, especially in disaster risk management policies. This requires taking into account the additional vulnerabilities experienced by young children with disabilities and chronic illnesses in acute emergencies. It also involves considering the needs of young children at risk of being overlooked or discriminated against because of their gender, race, ethnicity, and income, among other factors.

Humanitarian organizations and aid agencies

  • Make sure all interventions are sustainable and relevant, collaborating with and supporting key stakeholders, including national and local authorities, service providers, ECD practitioners, parents/caregivers, funding partners, and existing coordination systems.
  • Ensure that trauma-sensitive ECD support is integrated into emergency response programs and services, including nutrition, health, education, and protection services.
  • Provide ECD-specific interventions, such as play-based and learning activities and psychosocial support, to support young children’s development and well-being as a component of a robust and comprehensive response for all children.
  • Partner with local communities to develop culturally appropriate and context-specific ECD interventions. These need to respond to the evolving needs of the affected children and caregivers and either be sustainable or integrate into local systems when the emergency is over.
  • Support parents and caregivers in carrying out responsive and positive caregiving practices; this includes ensuring caregivers understand the importance of the early years for child health, well-being, and learning, as well as directing them to available ECD services and programs in the community.
  • Reduce barriers to access, including cultural, physical, and financial barriers, and help build local capacity for sustainable ECD programs beyond the organization’s involvement.
  • Ensure gender-transformative approaches are integrated into ECD programming.


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