Globally, around 250 million children under the age of five do not meet key development milestones, which reduces their ability to reach their full potential. A large body of scientific evidence has shown that parenting is one of the strongest influences on early child development. The first three years of a child’s life are crucial for their long-term development and until the age of three, the child's entire world is typically restricted to their house, where the majority of their interactions are with their family.
In recognition of this, there has been a recent push in international policy towards the implementation of parent training programmes across the world. However, gaps remain in understanding what works to promote positive parenting practices, particularly in vulnerable contexts.
Introducing First Steps
With support from the British Academy, the Institute of Development Studies and Save the Children Rwanda (SC Rwanda) embarked on a partnership in 2019 to evaluate and scale-up a holistic programme called First Steps (FS), which supports the families of children aged 0-3 in the district of Ngororero in Rwanda.
A 'First Steps' session in Rwanda. © Save the Children Rwanda.
The objective of FS is to enhance knowledge, attitudes and practice of parents to support the cognitive, physical and socio-emotional development of their children. It is offered in one of Rwanda’s poorest districts, through weekly community meetings guided by local facilitators that support peer learning, aided by a radio programme. Over 17 weeks, it focused on promoting simple activities such as playing and speaking with the child, singing songs or telling stories, providing love and attention, naming objects and counting, matching things, and preparing healthy meals.
To avoid spreading these messages without resorting to what can be perceived as patronising lecturing on how to be a good parent, a maximum of 20 parents in each village were organised into discussion groups and listened to a radio programme exploring child development and parenting practices, developed by SC. Discussions also involved games between parents and children and reading posters which highlighted key parenting practices.
Poster used during parenting sessions. © Save the Children Rwanda
Understanding the project’s effect
We analysed the effect of the radio programme across three dimensions: the children’s development, measured by assessing their communication, fine motor, problem solving and personal social skills; time the parents spent with the child; and parental confidence. In order to analyse the causal impact of FS, the five-month intervention, was randomly assigned at the sector level to three groups, composed of 27 villages each. Data was collected before the intervention, six months after the intervention, and two and half years after. The trial involved three groups. A ‘light touch’ group listened to a weekly radio session and received support from a local facilitator who had received training and a basic package of training materials. In the ‘full intervention’ group, the weekly meetings were paired with a local facilitator who received additionally a full package of materials, a children’s book gifted to each family, and the support of a salaried facilitator, who conducted home visits. The third group was a control group.
Six months after the trial, we found that in both intervention groups, the programme had had a positive impact on the three outcomes under analysis: child development, the time parents invested in spending with their children and parental confidence in supporting their children’s development. Measuring again two and a half years after the trial, there was a smaller but still significant difference between the results from the ‘full intervention’ group and the control group.
Scaling it up
Is the project scalable nationally, in terms of value-for-money and effect over time?
The cost of the intervention was modest as it uses an accessible technology in Ngororero: the radio. It also takes advantage of economies of scale by gathering together parents of the same village.
In terms of effect over time, changes in parents’ behaviour and practices are one of the longest lasting. Moreover, the positive contribution to a child’s development until age three has been well documented to have impressive positive consequences in the long-term, in relation to health, education and professional career of the child.
While this is no magic cost-effective pill to solve children development problems, as there are more structural poverty-related problems, it does show how a radio and meetings with parents can improve children’s lives for the better.
Patricia Justino, Marinella Leone and Pierfrancesco Rolla, based at the Institute of Development Studies and the University of Sussex, are researching a project focused on Scaling Up Early Child Development Interventions in Rwanda. This project is part of the British Academy’s Early Childhood Development Programme.