Photo: Oded Antman / Bernard van Leer Foundation
HomeStoriesNurturing care: the role of the education sector
HomeStoriesNurturing care: the role of the education sector

Nurturing care: the role of the education sector

A new year brings predictions. Here is mine: in 2018 the momentum around early childhood development will continue to build. No surprise, given the growing evidence about the importance of the early years to long-term health, behaviour and learning.

Photo: Oded Antman / Bernard van Leer Foundation

A new year brings predictions. Here is mine: in 2018 the momentum around early childhood development will continue to build. No surprise, given the growing evidence about the importance of the early years to long-term health, behaviour and learning.

The concept of ‘nurturing care’ will be central to every aspect of early childhood in the upcoming year. Defined in the landmark Lancet Series on Early Childhood Development (Black et al., 2017), nurturing care includes five integrated components: health, nutrition, safety and security, responsive parenting and early learning. The concepts behind nurturing care reinforce the fact that the domains of development are interrelated and interact with each other and can be mutually reinforcing.

In May 2018, a framework for nurturing care will be launched at the World Health Assembly highlighting the importance of multisector coordination. This is a major step forward for young children to survive and thrive.


Photo: Oded Antman / Bernard van Leer Foundation

We have learned over the past several decades that we need efforts across sectors to impact child development. While the health sector has a particularly important role in the earliest years of life, it can enhance its efforts to promote nurturing care for young children if it partners with education, child protection and other sectors. Here are six recommendations on how the education sector can help promote nurturing care.

  1. Reinforce the fact that education begins at birth. As we know, learning does not wait until children reach the schoolhouse door. The education sector has been traditionally more involved in serving older children, and only in more recent years started to include preschool age children. Yet education agencies can also play an important role in promoting early learning for children under three.
    While many parenting programmes are emerging through health and child protection agencies, schools can play an important role in reaching younger siblings and serving as a hub of support for parenting groups. In addition, education agencies can partner with community-based child care programmes to promote early learning. By starting early, education agencies can help assure continuity throughout the early years.
  2. Put a strong emphasis on social-emotional development, as well as cognitive, language and other areas of development. As more and more young children enter preschools around the world, we have to make sure that curriculum and overall programming is developmentally appropriate and not a “push down” from curricula designed for older children. This is particularly important as we continue to assure nurturing environments which promote the holistic needs of children.
    The foundation of lifelong learning is laid when the social-emotional development of young children is supported in an atmosphere that promotes curiosity, motivation, a strong self-concept, self-regulation and an appreciation of home language and culture.
  3. Assure good health practices and adequate nutrition are central to any preschool and other early childhood programmes. While there is a recognised need for a strong focus on good health and nutrition in the first 1000 days of life, this should continue through the early years. Preschools and other early childhood programmes provide the perfect setting to promote improved nutrition at home and in the programme; and to monitor and promote physical development and overall well-being.
    Partnerships between community health and nutrition and local education agencies are essential to assure the most nutritious meals are served and there is ample physical activity and safeguards to promote healthy development.
  4. Include family engagement as a core part of a quality early childhood programme. Early learning programmes provide a “gateway” to reach families. While education traditionally has focused on the children, increasing evidence points to the important role of families, and the need to assure that family engagement is a central part of a quality programme.
    Early childhood programmes can encourage parent volunteers, a parent voice in decision making, parent education and networking. Our goal is to promote a sense of empowerment among families so they feel confident about the important role they play in the lives of their children.
  5. Partner with social protection programmes. Responsive parenting and early learning can thrive in families that have a network of support and adequate resources. Poverty, isolation, violence and other factors can undermine efforts to provide a nurturing environment. While some early childhood programmes provide comprehensive services, it is likely that most programmes will have to partner with other community agencies to provide opportunities for networking, employment and training, and other critical adult services.
    Together, education and social protection agencies can provide a “whole family” approach that will contribute to both child and parent well-being (Aspen Institute, 2016).
  6. Integrate children with special needs and outreach to the most vulnerable. All children have a right to access early childhood programmes. As preschools expand, we must assure that children with disabilities are included, and that teachers and administrators are prepared to assure their success. At the same time, there are a growing number of conflict situations around the world that make access to early childhood programming more challenging as families are torn apart and migration increases.
    Assuring safety and security is a basic need and a foundational component of nurturing care. Outreach and sensitivity to vulnerable children should be a priority. Child protection and education go hand and hand, particularly in the early years.

So as we move into a new year, let’s celebrate the growing interest in early childhood and promote the best care for all young children. We can start by reinforcing the need for partnerships across multiple agencies to assure healthy and successful child development and strong and nurturing families.

Joan Lombardi, Senior Advisor, Bernard van Leer Foundation


Black, M.M. et al. (2016). Early childhood development coming of age: Science through the life course. The Lancet 389 (10064): 77-90. Available here (accessed December 2017).

Aspen Institute and the Bernard van Leer Foundation. (2016). Breaking the Cycle of poverty: whole family approaches. Available here (accessed December 2017).