The UN has the SDG’s for global challenges, so where are the CDG’s (Childhood Development Goals) for children?

Sarabeth Berk, Ph.D.
6 min readAug 5, 2019

What are the key things we need to do to ensure all children grow up to be healthy, competent adults who reach their full potential? That shouldn’t be a hard question to answer, but it turns out it’s currently “un-googleable.”

If you want to know the fundamental things young children (between ages 0–8) need to thrive, there isn’t a simple cheat sheet, but there should be.

Humans are complex, so I’m not expecting child development to be one or two variables. Years ago, the United Nations created a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) to describe the things we need to do to ensure the future prosperity of our planet. They did it with a set of 17 colored boxes that fit neatly into a one-page graphic, and you know what? For something as complex as our world, they did a darn good job of distilling this into an easy to understand resource that’s easy to find online.

United Nations Sustainable Development Goals as of 2015

If the United Nations can create a set of goals for our planet, then why doesn’t a corollary exist for early childhood development, which I’m calling the CDG’s or Child Development Goals? If you know where this lives, please share, but after my own digging, I’m convinced it doesn’t.

Below, are my initial thoughts along with a list of what CDG’s might consist of. Please add your responses and ideas too.

What happens when you search for CDG’s?

As of August 2019, if you do an online search in Google for the terms “child development goals” (CDG’s), the top results include: Classroom Goals, CDC’s Developmental Milestones, Goals for Younger Children by CARES, more developmental milestones from a children’s hospital, a website with a list of goals to achieve as preschool teacher, and finally two items from UNICEF. One about UNICEF for Every Child, and the second is UNICEF’s Early Childhood Development website, which starts to hint toward a set of developmental goals, but leaves you with a lot of reading and scrolling to do, instead of a simple set of reference points.

In these search results, none of them (aside from aspects in UNICEF) were actually a list of goals. (Note: growth milestones are different than goals). These results show wide variations in terms what the field believes is important for child development. None of these results are wrong in their information, but they all provide different kinds of information around early childhood needs instead of one grounding set of goals.

What lists of CDG’s currently exist?

It’s not easy to obtain a list of agreed upon child development goals, yet with persistence, you can find things that are close. However, in my opinion, it shouldn’t be at the discretion of one program, organization, or leader to create their own set of goals since we’re talking about child development, which is a human condition and should be agreed upon across fields, sectors, and states.

Examples I’ve found that attempt CDG’s or list factors that impact brain development:

Are CDG’s part of the SDG’s?

To some extent, yes, but the CDG’s that are outlined in the SDG’s are not human development goals as much as goals around supporting specific marginalized populations, which includes children.

For background, in 2000, the Millenium Development Goals set off a global effort to end poverty. The MDG’s also drove progress in a myriad of other important areas such as preventing deadly diseases, and expanding access to primary education for all children. In 2012, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development produced a set of goals around urgent environmental, political and economic challenges. The SDG’s are a bold commitment that furthers the work of the MDG’s and interconnects a global effort towards solving challenges in a united way.

In 2015, “early childhood development was included in the Sustainable Development Goals, reaffirming its growing status in the global development agenda.” Nine of the 17 SDG’s are said to include a focus on early childhood, and UNICEF is the custodian or co-custodian of certain SDG indicators to support the implementation of the SDG’s in humanitarian efforts around the globe.

To provide an example of what this means, here are UNICEF’s custodian indicators:

  1. Under-5 mortality
  2. Neonatal mortality
  3. Early childhood development
  4. Child marriage
  5. Female genital mutilation
  6. Child discipline
  7. Sexual violence against children

In essence, children are part of the SDG’s, but these developmental goals are for the development of a better civilization, not overall human development or the brain development of young children.

Why do we need CDG’s?

We need a set of northstars — a common list of child development goals that society can both point to and have as a shared understanding. I imagine them like this:

“The CDG’s are a set of goals that matter to the development of young children — no matter their background, what community they live in, or what resources they have in their lives. This set of goals supports brain development at its most critical stage — including nervous system and immune system development — which shapes the trajectory of physical, mental, and behavioral well being throughout adulthood.

CDG’s are the missing guideposts for early childhood practitioners, caretakers, policymakers, clinicians, advocates, parents and beyond. We need CDG’s so we know which building blocks are most critical to focus on as we create programs, develop new solutions and look for new impact measures. CDG’s should be public and widely-disseminated — like the SDG’s — something that any household or anyone who wants to do what’s best for young children can access and easily find.

What could the CDG’s look like?

Aims like kindergarten readiness and improving math scores aren’t developmental goals. We need to focus on things that develop a child, specifically their brains.

Why does it matter that we focus on brain development? Over 700 million neural connections are formed each second in the first few years of life, which is more than any other period of human development. Helping brains develop is the cornerstone of everything else we do downstream. It sets children up for success in all facets of life. New research shows heart disease, asthma, ADHD and other health concerns that occur in adolescence or adulthood are connected to childhood experiences. The quality of a child’s brain development has lasting impacts for the rest of their lives.

The following elements are examples of what the CDG’s might encompass. They are based in research, are measurable, and are seen as being imperative to brain development at the earliest years of life:

  • Positive adult relationships and responsiveness from caregivers
  • Positive early experiences
  • Good nutrition
  • Sleep and naps
  • Less toxic stress
  • Time for play
  • Stimulation from talk
  • Safety and protection

“Too many children are still missing out on the ‘eat, play, and love’ their brains need to develop. Put simply, we don’t care for children’s brains the way we care for their bodies.” (UNICEF)

Why the CDG’s matters to me?

In transparency, I’m leading a new effort called Futurebound, which is targeted at changing the future of child development. We’re creating an innovation ecosystem in Colorado to solve the greatest challenges for young children, especially those who are under-resourced.

Part of this work includes supporting new ventures (nonprofit and for-profit), and if our goal is to create innovative solutions, then ventures need to know what problems to solve. To date, there is no clear set of problems to focus on in early childhood. It’s all over the map. To have a set of CDG’s would greatly benefit new and existing ventures so that they go after what’s most critical for child development and therefore make a bigger positive impact on the lives of more children.

What are your thoughts?

I think this is a major topic, and I know a lot of smart people have been thinking about this for longer than I have. If you have resources, comments, or totally support this idea (or not), let me know. Share your feedback in the comments or reach out to me.



Sarabeth Berk, Ph.D.

Creative Disruptor I Innovation Strategist I Systems Builder #MoreThanMyTitle #HybridProfessional