Early childhood development and cognitive development in developing countries: A rigorous literature review


This rigorous literature review focused on early childhood development and cognitive development in developing countries. It aimed to: (i) review existing evidence on the review topic to inform programme design and policy making undertaken by the DFID, other agencies and researchers; and (ii) identify critical evidence gaps to guide the development of future research programmes.

Relevant keywords (early childhood development and cognitive development) were used to search for evidence in nine electronic databases, reference lists of journals, and specialist websites. Only studies published after 1992 were considered. Following a rigorous screening procedure, 111 studies conducted in 40 developing countries were selected for inclusion and findings from 70 of these 111 studies were statistically combined using meta-analyses. In addition, narrative summaries of 14 were prepared to help identify key messages from different studies.

The review found:
1. A large, high-quality body of evidence, derived from 40 developing countries shows that ECD interventions focusing on (i) parental support; (ii) early stimulation and education; (iii) nutrition and health; (iv) income supplementation; and (v) comprehensive and integrated programmes have positive effects on children’s cognitive development.
2. The largest effects are associated with comprehensive programmes.
3. Parent-focused interventions are most effective when both the child and parent are involved.
4. Using well-qualified early childhood educators and community health workers led to better cognitive outcomes for children across programmes.


  • Invest in comprehensive large-scale programmes and in well-designed and properly implemented parent-focused or child-focused interventions.
  • Invest in quality by allocating resources for training change agents (be they parents, teachers or health workers), and age- and context-appropriate curriculum.
  • The review did not identify sufficient evidence to draw firm conclusions about (i) the minimum amount of intervention needed to achieve sustainable gains in cognitive development; and (ii) the best ways in which to support and involve parents, extended-family members and communities in promoting early learning.


Rao, N.; Sun, J.; Wong, J.M.S.; Weekes, B.; Ip, P.; Shaeffer, S.; Young, M.; Bray, M.; Chen, E.; Lee, D. Early childhood development and cognitive development in developing countries: A rigorous literature review. DFID, London, UK (2014) iii + 95 pp.

Published 1 January 2014