ECD in Humanitarian Settings

Millions of children around the world live in humanitarian situations—forced to flee their homes due to conflict, political or economic crisis, natural disasters, health pandemic, displacement as a result of climate change or fear of persecution.  During these periods, which can often last several decades, young children miss critical supports to help them survive and thrive to their full potential. 

In humanitarian situations, multiple adversities threaten young children’s ability to flourish and reach their full potential. These include:

  • Increased risk of separation or loss of parents or primary caregivers
  • Physical injury and disability
  • Loss of the stability, consistent routines, and comforts of home and community
  • Experiencing or witnessing violence
  • Lack early learning opportunities
  • Missed health checkups and immunizations
  • Poor nutrition and malnutrition

The accumulation of multiple adversities in the critical first years of life–when brain development occurs at the most rapid pace–can have long-term, negative impacts on the child’s future learning, behavior and health. Exposure to repeated or prolonged challenging circumstances, such as those faced by children living through conflict or other emergency contexts can result in increased levels of cortisol flooding a child’s brain, this is known as ‘a toxic stress response,’ which can affect brain development, affecting the child’s learning, behavior and health with long-lasting impacts, not only for the child but for the societies in which they live. 

Additionally, experiences of conflict and crisis can influence caregiving behaviors, depriving young children of the stable, responsive and nurturing care they need in order to thrive.

For infants and young children growing up in crisis contexts, quality ECD can save lives and set the foundations for a more positive life trajectory. 

This thematic page provides key information for those supporting children in humanitarian contexts or for those that want to.

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Key Facts for ECD in Humanitarian Settings

  • An estimated 87 million children under the age of 7 have spent their entire lives in conflict zones.
  • In 2018, 29 million babies were born in conflict settings ((
  • There is under-investment of ECD in emergencies – In 2017, 3.3% of total development aid went to crisis-affected countries in 2017[i]
  • Most ECD in Humanitarian and Refugee Response Plans do not include ECD interventions that are recommended in the Nurturing Care Framework through various sectors[ii]


Key Features of ECD interventions in humanitarian settings through various sectors

  1. Education:

  • Early Childhood Education (ECE) spaces: ECE refers opportunities for children usually 3-6 years old to access learning and development activities, often through an established temporary tent or space.  ECE can be conducted through Child Friendly Spaces, outside or existing community spaces.  The focus can be on psychosocial support and play-based learning or more formal academic learning.
  1. Child Protection

  • Child Friendly SpacesChild Friendly Spaces are initially established in acute emergencies to provide a safe and protective place for young children to go to play and learn. Child Friendly Spaces are often part of Child Protection projects and can include children of all ages that use the space at different times of the day.
  • Psychosocial well-beingChild Protection actors often support activities that promote psycho-social well-being through establishing sports activities, play groups, small peer to peer groups or providing individualized counseling services for those in need.
  • Birth registration and links to social servicesChild Protection actors can help families obtain birth registration and critical information for families to access other social services (ie. Mental health support, economic support)
  1. Support for Parents and Caregivers

Parents and caregivers are children’s first and most important teachers in life.  Supporting them – their well-being, knowledge and skills – is therefore critical for young children’s ability to survive and thrive. Supporting them could be done through various ways.  Some ways include:

  • Home visits and conversations with health professionals or social workers
  • Peer to peer parenting groups where parents can discuss challenges they are facing in raising their children.
  • Key messages shared via tv, what’s app, text message, radio, general advertising
  • General support in the areas of employment, psychosocial wellbeing and education
  1. Health

  • Maternal, Newborn and Child Health provides critical health support, including immunizations and kangaroo mother care, for young children. MNCH also supports pregnant women with proper ante-natal care and new moms with breastfeeding support.  When these health services are paired with other supports such as helping parents provide cognitive stimulation to their children, and learning about stages of child development, the impact on children’s ability to survive and thrive significantly improve.
  • Mental Health, Psychosocial Support is a critical component to include in humanitarian programs as the levels of stress can be severely elevated and could result in more severe mental health challenges. The mental health challenges of adults in children’s lives can affect their ability to be the best caregivers to their children.  The health sector can support families of children with various types of mental health and psychosocial support through peer to peer groups, 1:1 counseling, and referrals to mental health professionals.  The health sector can also focus on children’s mental health and psychosocial support and supporting the mental health of front-line workers. Mental health/psychosocial support is cross cutting with various sectors that could contribute.
  1. Nutrition

  • Infant and Young Child Responsive Feeding is a critical element of ECD support in emergencies.  It helps mothers continue breastfeeding even during a humanitarian crisis and ensure children get proper nutrition, attention and responsive care during feeding.  Services also include supporting maternal nutrition and providing simple messages around nutrition to families.


General Websites

Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies ECD in Emergencies Task Team,

Moving Minds Alliance,

Early Childhood Peace Consortium,

Briefs and Reports

Nurturing care for children living in humanitarian settings,

Moving Minds Alliance, Supporting the Youngest Refugees and Their Families: Early Childhood Issue Brief,

Moving Minds Alliance, Analysis of international aid levels for early childhood services in crisis contexts: Key insights,

Moving Minds Alliance, ECD and Early Learning for Children in Crisis and Conflict,

Their World, Safe Spaces: The Urgent Need for Early Childhood Development in Emergencies and Disasters,

UNICEF Core Commitments for Children in Humanitarian Action

UNESCO, Global Education Monitoring Report, Early Childhood Development and Early Learning for Children in Crisis and Conflict,

Early Childhood Peace Consortium, Contributions of Early Childhood Programming to Sustainable Peace and Development,

Global Refugee Forum and UNHCR, Global Framework for Refugee Education,

Shah, S. (2013), Investing in the Youngest: Early Childhood Care and Development in Emergencies, Plan International,

DFID, Health and Education Advice and Resource Team,

Program Guidance

IASC Guidelines on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Emergency Settings and Accompanying Field Checklist

UNICEF, Early Childhood Development in Emergencies Integrated Program Guide

Interagency Working Group on Infant and Young Child Feeding in Emergencies, Infant and Young Child Feeding in Emergencies Operational Guidance,

UNICEF ECD Kit Guidance,

Plan International and UNICEF (2016), Early Childhood Development, Health and Nutrition in Emergencies,

Plan International and UNICEF (2016), Early Childhood Development and Child Protection in Emergencies,

Plan International, Early Childhood Care and Development in Emergencies: a Program Guide,


Shah, S. (2019), Early Childhood Development in Humanitarian Crises: South Sudanese Refugees in Uganda,

Murphy, K., Yoshikawa, H. and Wuermli, A., (2018), “Implementation research for early childhood development programming in humanitarian contexts”, Annals of the New York Academy of Science,

UNICEF (2019), UNICEF Early Childhood Development Kit for Emergencies Evaluation Synthesis


Rabbani A, Padhani ZA, A Siddiqui F, et al. Systematic review of infant and young child feeding practices in conflict areas: what the evidence advocates. BMJ Open 2020;10:e036757. doi:10.1136/ bmjopen-2020-036757

Wilton, K. et al (2017), “Parenting in Displacement: Adapting Vroom for Displaced Syrian Families”,



No time to Wait,

Falling Through the Cracks: Young Children in Emergencies,


Recording of Past Events

Covid-19 & Parent and Caregiver Support in Emergencies



The Nurturing care framework for early childhood development: A framework for helping children SURVIVE and THRIVE to TRANS- FORM health and human potential builds upon state-of-the art evidence of how child development unfolds and of the effective policies and interventions that can improve early childhood de- velopment.