Child well-being measurement

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Measuring progress for children

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Every year, nearly 10 million children die from largely preventable causes.[1] These include illnesses such as pneumonia, diarrhoea and malaria, as well as conflict and HIV/AIDS. Malnutrition, poor hygiene and lack of access to safe water and adequate sanitation contribute to more than half of these deaths.[2] One of the Millenium Development Goals is reduction by two-thirds the under-five mortality rate.[3] More than 90% of child deaths under the age of 18 occur before the age of five.[4] UNICEF’s Children and the Millennium Development Goals (2007) outlines progress to A World Fit for Children, in parallel to the Millennium Development Goals. It is based on progress reports from over 120 countries to the goals of A World Fit for Children and claims that by the end of 2006, around 50 governments had established specific national plans of action for children and around 100 governments have incorporated goals for children within their overall national plans.

Children depend very much on a loving and nursing environment to become physically and psychologically healthy, as supported also by the latest research in neuroscience[5].. Especially during early childhood these needs are still essentially provided by the mother. The mother’s health and education matter for the child’s health and intellectual development in all stages of development.

The health of newborns and mothers is intricately related, so preventing deaths requires, in many cases, implementing the same interventions.[6] Improving survival conditions for babies means improving conditions for pregnant women. In fact, having a child is also one of the biggest risk factors for women. Every day, 1500 women die while giving birth.[7] The UNICEF’s State of the World’s Children Report 2009 provides detail on critical issues in maternal and newborn health for most of the world’s countries. According to the report, women in the world’s least developed countries are 300 times more likely to die in childbirth or from pregnancy-related complications than women in developed countries. At the same time, a child born in a developing country is almost 14 times more likely to die during the first month of life than a child born in a developed one. The report contains customised statistical tables and data from 195 countries and territories with a focus on child well-being.

Measuring child well-being

Traditionally, child well-being is measured by objective or social indicators such as educational outcome or household income. However, such indicators are only a proxy for the quality of people’s lives. More recently, people’s perspective of their lives have started to be valued in informing policy making. Subjective well-being and child subjective well-being are measured through surveys asking people about their satisfaction and happiness about multiple facets of well-being. Their findings can be an important complement in understanding what matters in people’s day-to-day lives. Some measures of child well-being only include objective indicators, some only subjective indicators (though they often look at the same dimensions) and some measures use both subjective and objective measures of well-being. These last measures either have one dimension called “subjective well-being”, like the UNICEF Child-Wellbeing measure, or proxy well-being domains by a combination of subjective and objective indicators.

Why measure child well-being?

Knowledge and have power. Information on the state of children and changes in child well-being informs policy making and facilitates advocacy for the evaluation and monitoring of child-focused policies. Children are a separate population group deserving of policy specific to them and they have a need for social indicators of their own. Child well-being measures should not focus only on well-becoming in the sense of childhood prepares for a happy adult life but instead include consideration of a child’s current happiness. Well-being and well-becoming do not contradict each other and both perspectives (children as individuals today and children in their future status as older children and ultimately adults) are legitimate and necessary.

How is child well-being different from adult well-being?

Children and adults differ significantly in society. Children have smaller worlds, fewer more intense relationships, less maturity and strength[8] and different thought patterns, concerns, experiences and aspirations[8]. The literature therefore suggests some different indicators to be used than those measuring adult Well-being. Such additional indicators may be school achievement, school enjoyment and family structure. Meanwhile, the overlap between indicators for measuring adult and child well-being is substantial and include Poverty/income/consumption, employment and so on. The differences might also lie in the interpretation and weighting of these indicators as well as the relevant unit of analysis.

Costs and Benefits of measuring child well-being

Developing child well-being indicators and collecting data regularly is not more expensive than measuring other economic and social factors. Cost effectiveness is potentially high, as preventive measures can be taken and policies can be designed to respond to children’s needs and can be targeted more effectively to vulnerable and deprived population groups. Knowledge on child well-being enables societies to see their achievements, introduces accountability, allows rewards for real effort, and is a means to sustain pressure for the fulfillment of political promises. Measurement should however not divert attention from the practical work needed to foster children’s well-being.

Measuring and aggregation

Well-being is regarded to consist of several dimensions or domains that are to be measured separately. Each dimension is measured by one or several components, approached by one or more indicators. Indicators can be subjective or objective measures, quantitative or qualitative measures. The transformation of qualitative data into a quantitative scale is often a subject of debate. Next, the indicators are aggregated into a component of the dimension. This aggregation raises the issue of weighting the different indicators within the component. Because of the debates around the weighting issue, a current practice is to weight indicators equally (e.g. Child Development Index) because non-equal weighting requires a justification often not self-evident. Next, the components are aggregated to get the dimensional value. The issue of weighting comes up again. Eventually, the dimensions can be aggregated into an index. Again, the issue of weighting appears. There are a number of national and international indexes that are listed below. Currently, indicator choice is often restricted by data quality and availability. The data is especially scarce for developing and emerging countries. Furthermore indicators are chosen that are not easily manipulated by policy makers without a real impact on child well-being.

Dimensions of child well-being

Dimensions or domains of child well-being may include[9] (suggested for economically advanced countries):

A more child-centered approach may consider the following domains[10]:

  • Civic Life Skills
  • Personal Life Skills
  • Safety and Physical Status
  • Children’s Activities
  • Children’s Economic Status

The South African‘s Children’s Institute project Children Count includes several indicators of Housing and Services. In developing countries, where household surveys are often the unique source of information, child material well-being is measured also through assets, including the materials used for the house.

Indicators of child well-being

Indicators of child well-being should be child-focused and not just derive from generally available data. Some indicators are measured at the level of the child while others use the household as unit of analysis, or include characteristics of the service system or other social institutions. Some indicators focus on the actual well-being while other assess the potentially available resources and opportunities.[11] This distinction must be considered when indicators are selected.

A classification can be made between objective indicators (observable social facts) or subjective measures (people’s valuation of those facts), both called social indicators. A further distinction can be made between positive aspects (success in school, family support) and negative aspects (neglect, abuse, infant mortality, poor health). The current research is biased towards objective and negative measures.[12]

Indicator selection can be data, policy or theory driven. Additional criteria for selecting indicators include: comparability (consistency over time, nationally and internationally), ease of understanding, strength of data source, significance, accessibility, validity and coverage.[8]

See also


Child Well-being Indices

External Links

Eurochild Promotes welfare and rights of children and young people in Europe.


  4. UNDG. (2003). Indicators for Monitoring the Millennium Development Goals. The United Nations. New York: The United Nations.
  7. UNDG. (2003). Indicators for Monitoring the Millennium Development Goals. The United Nations. New York: The United Nations.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Thomas, Jennifer (2009), “Working Paper: Current Measures and the Challenges of Measuring Children’s Wellbeing”, Household, Labour Market and Social Wellbeing, Office for National Statistics, Newport.p.6 Available at:
  9. Dimensions used in the UNICEF Innocenti Research Report Card 7 (2007): “Child poverty in perspective: An overview of child well-being in rich countries. A comprehensive assessment of the lives and well-being of children and adolescents in the economically advanced countries. Available at:
  10. Ben-Arieh, A. (2000). “Beyond Welfare: measuring and monitoring the state of
    children – new trends and domains.” Social Indicators Research 52: 235-257. Available at:
  11. Ben-Arieh, A. (2000). “Beyond Welfare: measuring and monitoring the state of
    children – new trends and domains.” Social Indicators Research 52: 235-257. Available at:
  12. Thomas, Jennifer (2009), “Working Paper: Current Measures and the Challenges of Measuring Children’s Wellbeing”, Household, Labour Market and Social Wellbeing, Office for National Statistics, Newport. p.7