As we work towards age-appropriate, stimulating childcare centers for every child from birth to primary school and beyond, what happens with parents at home, especially in a child's first few years of life, remains the foundation upon which all subsequent learning opportunities rest. Psychologists, children's rights advocates, and economists agree that the first few years of life are uniquely critical in developing skills which will help a child succeed throughout life. Although research is ongoing, we already have a strong body of evidence on what works in parenting ECD interventions. Unfortunately, not all children have the nurturing, educational environment at home that they need to develop to their fullest potential. How are innovative educators working to help mothers and fathers in a variety of contexts best support their children?
The Power of Media
One high visibility method for spreading positive parenting practices is by using the power of the media. In Kyrgyzstan, the 26-episode television show Reading Together encouraged families to read with their children. With a new episode released every week, families from all around the country were invited to the show, where young children completed in reading-themed challenges and won prizes. The popular show encouraged similar activities in Kyrgyz schools around the country, and following airing of the episodes, two apps were released with Kyrgyz-language storybooks and games to encourage reading to and with children.
National television programs can have broad reach and start valuable conversations around early childhood education among parents and communities, but to achieve and measure deeper impact, working in individual communities is often preferred. Intera za Mbere (“First Steps”) is an initiative that combines the media with in-person outreach. Low-income Rwandan families may be unaware or skeptical of the importance of early learning and stimulation. By combining parenting workshops, distribution of literacy materials, and radio programming, the initiative was able to reinforce the importance of early reading for more than 1,000 Rwandan parents of children under 3 in the pilot program. A Value for Money (VfM) analysis of the project is underway, and will inform the nationwide scaling up of the project starting in 2017.
Meeting Parents at Home
Expensive infrastructure or the latest technology may be able to help older students on the path to success. However, in early childhood development the evidence points to a different story: cognitive development is best promoted by active engagement between caregivers and children. Recognizing the importance of psychosocial stimulation, several long-term initiatives have focused on meeting parents at home to teach better parenting behaviors.
As part of the Colombian campaign De Cero a Siempre ("From Zero to Always"), government agency FAMI has launched an intervention to target vulnerable mothers in rural Colombia. The Integrated Intervention Targeted at Deprived Preschool Children sends trained program facilitators to offer mothers an updated curriculum of parenting practices promoting cognitive, verbal, and motor skill development of children under two. Programs such as these are a key step to reducing the development gap between rich and poor children and promoting a more equitable society.
Similar programs exist in other contexts as well - in Turkey, a long-running home visit initiative, the Mother-Child Education Program (MCEP), provides a 25-week long curriculum including discussion classes and in-home trainings to mothers of 5-6 year-old children who cannot access preschool. With data available since the program began in 1993, there is clear evidence that children who are exposed to the MCEP program do better in school, are less likely to drop out, and even have more success in the job market later in life. The program has been replicated in 13 different countries to date, including Lebanon, Mexico, and Laos.
In response to feedback from MCEP participants, the Mother-Child Education Foundation in Turkey has also launched an initiative targeting parents who are often left out of the story- fathers. The Father Support Program has reached over 80,000 fathers, engaging them to be active in the development of their children through structured trainings. By helping fathers play a role in promoting positive behaviors and develop better relationships with their children, the program is forging a new path. As one of the few initiatives of its size specifically targeting fathers, we look forward to more evidence from the Father Support Program as well as new examples of the benefits of father-specific ECD parenting interventions.
Intensive programs such as these are key to achieving impactful holistic ECD parenting programs. However, in some contexts a shorter, less intensive program can target specific behaviors. The Saving Brains initiative in Grenada was created to address the prevalence of corporal punishment in the Caribbean. Using a bus to visit rural, hard to reach areas around the country, the trainers share positive discipline techniques with parents, working to change cultural norms surrounding physical discipline. Similar programs around the Caribbean using trained “roving caregivers” were shown to a be cost-effective and adaptable solution for targeting vulnerable families to improve parenting practices.
As the evidence builds, we have more and more reason to invest in parents. No one is better placed to give children the best chance at a successful life, and by giving mothers (and fathers!) the right tools and knowledge, we can amplify our impacts on the next generation.
Corinne Hoogakker is pursuing her MA in International Affairs from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). She works as an intern at the Center for Education Innovations (CEI) at R4D. Before coming to R4D, she served as a primary school teacher in Palestine and worked in administration in DC public schools.