The development status of children varies widely among countries and is weakest in the areas of literacy and numeracy

Early childhood development is multidimensional, encompassing several aspects of a child’s well-being: physical, social, emotional and mental. In general, development takes place in a series of predictable and common stages: Children become progressively more independent and learn increasingly advanced skills and capacities as they grow older. However, children do develop at different speeds and may reach developmental milestones at different times. What is considered normal child development also varies across cultures and environments, since expectations and parenting strategies may differ not only among countries but also among cultural, ethnic or religious groups within the same country. UNICEF was instrumental in developing an early childhood development index that measures four domains of development: literacy-numeracy, physical development, social-emotional development and learning. Its findings show wide variations among countries, with literacy-numeracy being the most challenging for children overall.

Notes on the data

Data sources

In 2007, UNICEF commissioned a review of existing tests, measures and items used to establish the developmental status of children aged 0 to 6 years, with a specific focus on those tested cross-culturally. This work led to a recommendation to create a set of age-specific indicators in five developmental domains: motor, language, cognitive, social-emotional and learning. In early 2008, a validation study of the recommended items was conducted with the goal of producing a reliable and feasible set of items to be used in the Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys (MICS).

The validation study was conducted in two countries: Jordan and the Philippines, in close collaboration with local UNICEF offices. Data were collected from approximately 900 children aged 3 to 6 years in each of the two countries, with an even distribution between boys and girls. Both urban and rural regions of each country were also represented. A subsample of the total was also used for reliability testing (both test-retest and inter-rater reliability).

The recommended set of questions was tested alongside several other validated tools, including, for example, the Early Development Instrument[1] and the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire[2]. All items used in the study were translated into the appropriate local languages.

A series of factor analyses were also conducted to detect the underlying factors and item integrity (using all variables from each of the various instruments). These factor analyses resulted in a long (48-item) and short (18-item) set of items covering six developmental domains: language, cognitive, physical, social, emotional and approaches to learning, with each demonstrating excellent reliability and validity. Items are based on benchmarks that children would be expected to have reached if they are developing like the majority of children of the same age.

Following discussion and consultation between UNICEF and a broad group of experts, the 18-item draft early childhood development index (ECDI) was field tested in February 2009 in Mombasa, Kenya.

After the field work experience in Kenya, further revisions were made to the draft index and the number of items was reduced from 18 to 10. The original language and cognitive domains were collapsed into one domain (literacy-numeracy), consisting of three items, and the social and emotional domains were combined (social-emotional), consisting of three items. The two remaining domains, physical and learning, consist of two items each.

The four domains are defined as follows:

  • Literacy-numeracy: Children are identified as being developmentally on track if they can do at least two of the following: identify/name at least 10 letters of the alphabet; read at least 4 simple, popular words; and/or know the name and recognize the symbols of all numbers from 1 to 10.
  • Physical: If the child can pick up a small object with two fingers, like a stick or rock from the ground, and/or the mother/primary caregiver does not indicate that the child is sometimes too sick to play, then the child is regarded as being developmentally on track in the physical domain.
  • Social-emotional: The child is considered developmentally on track if two of the following are true: The child gets along well with other children; the child does not kick, bite or hit other children; and the child does not get distracted easily.
  • Learning: If the child follows simple directions on how to do something correctly and/or when given something to do, and is able to do it independently, then the child is considered to be developmentally on track in the learning domain.

Response categories for all questions included in the ECDI are: yes, no and don’t know. The ECDI score is then calculated as the percentage of children aged 36 to 59 months who are developmentally on track in at least three of these four domains. The index is best interpreted within the context of other variables related to support for early childhood development in the home and community.

MICS module on early childhood development

MICS surveys have a standardized modules on early childhood development.

Download the MICS module on early childhood development (PDF) 


[1] Janus, M., and D. Offord, ‘Development and Psychometric Properties of the Early Development Instrument (EDI): A measure of children’s school readiness’, Canadian Journal of Behavioral Science, vol. 39, no. 1, 2007, pp. 1─22.

[2] Goodman, R., ‘Psychometric Properties of the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ)’, Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, vol. 40, 2001, pp. 1337─1345.