Our next phase in early childhood development: diving deeper into quality and expanding to birth-to-3


_CA27416_BESTStudies show early childhood development (ECD) is critical to a child's ability to succeed in school and has implications on achievement later in life.  This is especially true for children who have been affected by poverty, violence, and HIV and AIDS.  However, few children have access to quality early childhood services in Africa, especially in rural areas.  Today, less than 12% of African children have access to Early Childhood Care and Education Services.  Over the last few years, Firelight has been working with partners in Malawi, Tanzania, and Zambia to implement and improve early childhood development (ECD) programs and services for vulnerable children. In communities highly affected by HIV and AIDS, young children face multiple vulnerabilities. Poverty, disease, and inadequate services limit their physical, cognitive, social, and emotional development. The 2011 Lancet series on Child Development in Developing Countries showed that reversing the impact of these risk factors on children’s development is possible if interventions are: (1) introduced early in life; (2) provide high quality support and services; and (3) target children in greatest need.

Firelight is partnering with 18 grassroots organizations in Malawi, Tanzania, and Zambia that are strengthening their early childhood development programs and organizational management over the course of three years.

Read our Initiative Overview for more information on how our partners support ECD.

Background and rationale:

In 2015, the international community recognized the importance of quality ECD programs by the inclusion of goal 4.2 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs):

By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education so that they are ready for primary education

Research has shown that high-quality ECD programs can improve children’s physical, cognitive, social, and emotional development with effects that are evident well into adulthood (UNESCO, 2006). In contrast, when programs are of low quality, they are unlikely to produce the desired child and family outcomes (Britto, Yoshikawa, & Boller, 2011), and may even be detrimental if they interfere with existing family and community structures for supporting children.

Moreover, neuroscience research has demonstrated that the human brain undergoes the greatest amount of development in infancy and toddlerhood, forming synapses at a faster rate than in any other period in life and reaching 80% of its adult volume by the age of 3. This underscores the importance of empowering parents, caregivers, and other family members to support and stimulate development in children from birth to age 3.

Our conversations with our partners, our site visits, and the quantitative and qualitative feedback we have gathered have helped us to more deeply understand the strengths and challenges facing our community-based organization (CBO) partners, and the children and families in the communities they serve. We are also continuously learning from other organizations’ experiences, research findings, and best practice recommendations.

We have taken these learnings and used them to guide our plans for this next phase of our ECD initiative. We and our partners will be focusing on two key areas in the coming years: the quality of ECD centers for preschoolers, and the role of parents and caregivers for infants and toddlers. Before describing these two areas in a bit more detail, some background on ECD is helpful.

Thus, over the next two years, we are working with our partners to build on the important foundational work they have been implementing, and use this next phase to work towards greater improvements in both organizations and programs, to result in stronger community-based support for vulnerable children and families. We are piloting two major areas of program focus: improving ECD center quality in Malawi; and empowering families of children from birth to age 3 in Tanzania and Zambia.

Improving ECD center environments (Malawi):

Firelight is supporting our Lead Partner, the Namwera AIDS Coordinating Committee, and CBO partners in Malawi to improve the quality of care and education at their ECD centers. As part of this process, we are working closely with the Madrasa Early Childhood Programme – Uganda (MECP-U) – which supports the development of affordable, high quality, and culturally relevant ECD services in eastern Africa.

MECP-U conducted a comprehensive scoping visit in Malawi late last year to meet with our CBO partners and to get to know their strengths and gaps, particularly around ECD quality. They are now implementing an intensive-capacity building initiative – including Training of Trainers for CBO staff, working with the CBO staff to train ECD center caregivers, and supporting CBO staff to provide in-classroom coaching and mentoring to ECD center caregivers.

As a result of this work, we hope to see increased capacity in our partner CBOs around implementing quality ECD programs, as well as improvements in the quality of learning and care provided at the ECD centers.

Empowering families of children from birth to age 3 (Tanzania and Zambia):

Firelight is supporting our Lead Partners, the Tanzania Home Economics Association and Luapula Foundation, as well as our CBO partners, in Tanzania and Zambia to build their capacity and implement programming that empowers families and communities to provide their youngest children (birth to 3 years) with nurturing relationships and supportive environments to promote their holistic development. As part of this initiative, we are again working closely with the Madrasa Early Childhood Programme, but this time with the teams in Zanzibar (MECP-Z) and Kenya (MECP-K). The MECP teams will share their considerable expertise in empowering parents and caregivers, focusing on the Care for Child Development curriculum developed by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF).

The MECP team is working closely with our Lead Partner in Tanzania to conduct a scoping visit in the coming weeks, and then to plan and implement a Training of Trainers and mentoring program to build CBO staff capacity in working with parents/caregivers of children from birth to age 3, using the Care for Child Development curriculum. The MECP team will also work with our ECD Consultant in Zambia to implement a similar capacity-building program with our CBO partners in Zambia.

As a result of this work, we hope to see increased capacity in our CBO partners around implementing and strengthening models of ECD programming that are responsive to the identified needs of parents and families of young children, including programs engaging parents and caregivers in responsive and stimulating care with their infants and toddlers. We also hope to see parents and caregivers reporting improved capacities to respond to and support their children’s needs.

Our partners:

We are immensely grateful for funding for this initiative provided by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation and the Bainum Family Foundation, whose support has enabled us to reflect and refine our areas of focus, and invest deeply in these core areas in the coming years.

As well, we are delighted to be engaging in this new partnership with the Madrasa Early Childhood Programme in East Africa, and are very appreciative of the additional support provided by the Aga Khan Foundation, East Africa.

Here at Firelight we are eager to see how things progress in the coming months and years. Stay tuned for updates!