An early focus on wellbeing pays off for a lifetime

December 13, 2021

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Childrens’ wellbeing is connected to their learning, and their ability to nurture meaningful relationships in their early years. Children’s brains are extremely active in the early years, and the connections they make become the building blocks of their future. A good foundation makes a difference through adulthood.

Many factors influence children’s development and mental health – the environments they are raised in (ie, home, school), the relationships they build and the experiences they have. Evidence suggests that play-based learning in these early years is a powerful approach to promoting healthy development and improving children’s potential for learning later in life. Happiness and wellbeing grow simultaneously with discovery, competence and mastery. Children learn naturally when they are provided with safe, stimulating spaces, where they are listened to, and valued as an individual entity.

Globally, early childhood development is a priority under Sustainable Development Goal 4.2, which aims to ensure all young children have access to quality early childhood development opportunities, care, and pre-primary education. Investment in early childhood through quality programmes can have a massive return. For one dollar, the return on investment can be as high as 17 dollars.

Despite this evidence, at least 175 million children do not have access to quality, play-based early childhood education. Children from low-income families suffer most, due to inadequate early learning, which can perpetuate cycles of intergenerational poverty and exacerbate gender inequality.

Multiple factors allow the problem to persist, including inadequate financing, technical capacity to implement quality early years education, and lack of awareness. In low-income countries in the global south, less than 2% of government expenditure on education is for early years education, despite a high return on investment, as the other education subsectors.

Making early connections
As COVID-19 disrupted lives, livelihoods and learning systems globally in 2020, it also highlighted the mental health vulnerabilities and gaps that exist in our education systems to address them. With schools closed and mobility restricted, children faced an unprecedented crisis far worse than adults – the loss of childhood.

While physical infections were a concern for them, it was also just the tip of the pandemic iceberg. The consequences were deeper and long-term, impacting childrens’ education, health and well-being.

This puts an entire generation at risk.

How do we ensure learning continues for children, in all contexts, and how can caregivers help children stay stimulated and curious?

With dual objectives of continuing learning opportunities for children, and focusing on their mental health and wellbeing, Pashe Achhi (beside you), an alternative remote learning model consisting of tele-learning and tele-counselling, was born.

Pashe Achhi was inspired by the success of BRAC’s award-winning Play Lab and Humanitarian Play Lab models, which embody low-cost, high-impact play-based learning approaches for children, in partnership with their families.

Our frontline staff engaged with families and children through 20-minute weekly conversations, based on a script developed by BRAC’s in-house curriculum team. The script emphasises active listening, as well as practising empathy. Callers listen to and address parents’ feelings, and suggest play-based stimulation strategies to engage with children within the home environment.

Illustration: Rubab Al Islam © BRAC

The play leader first speaks to the caregiver about their health and wellbeing. She then starts a conversation with the child, over the phone loudspeaker, with their caregiver present. The child shares what they have been doing over the last week – anything they feel like talking about. The play leader then recaps last week’s game and recites a rhyme for counting numbers. She instructs the child to make hand gestures along with the rhyme, helping in their linguistic and motor development. The play leader explains how the game helps with their development, and encourages them to play it over the coming week.

These tele-conversations allowed thousands of trained frontline staff to support and stay connected with over 37,000 caregivers, children and their families, every week. Children were excited to stay connected and engaged, despite physical distancing limitations, and parents and caregivers felt safe and valued.

Children engaged in storytelling session with a Play Leader, in a BRAC Play Lab © Shananuzzaman Angkan, 2021

Addressing wellbeing in communities
We have always listened and worked with communities, to ensure ownership. This is different to existing top-down models of mental health service delivery, which do not necessarily reflect the cultural needs of the global south. We focus on agile, frugal solutions that build on social capital and indigenous abilities, and are globally relevant for adaptation in low-resource situations.

BRAC’s para-counsellor model is an example that builds on this approach.

The model provides support for children, their families and frontline staff to manage day-to-day mental distress, and establish normal functioning. More complex cases are referred via structured pathways to BRAC’s dedicated psychologists.

The model’s acceptance and accessibility within communities is ensured through para-counsellors, who encompass a natural ability to be effective communicators, while being compassionate and possessing strong emotional intelligence. Para-counsellors are young, empowered women selected from the community, who act not only as representatives of the community, but also as their psychosocial support systems. This is particularly essential in areas where access to psychosocial support is not only rare, but also stigmatised.

Children engaged in storytelling session with a Play Leader, in a BRAC Play Lab © Shananuzzaman Angkan, 2021

Nurturing a future, for all
The fundamental philosophy that has allowed BRAC in the last 49 years to reach out to millions has been humble in design, yet groundbreaking in action – engage, empower, iterate and evolve.

It is imperative that we review priorities and approaches to education through this lens.

As we transition to a post-pandemic context, the need for an integrated wellbeing curriculum in all early years educational settings is more urgent now than ever. Connectedness and compassion need to be built into all aspects of our efforts.

Building a system of care for children and their families is also key to enabling communities to become self-reliant and empowered. When children engage with their caregivers and the world around them in a meaningful way, they learn how to be resilient and adaptable. Investment in children’s wellbeing brings long-term, positive effects on their futures – and the future of their communities and the world at large.

 

Read more: Amidst almost-empty classrooms in many schools, others have 90% of their students back. What’s their secret?

Read more: ‘Sisters of peace’: The women supporting mental health in Bangladesh’s Rohingya camps

 

Dr Erum Mariam is the Executive Director of BRAC Institute of Educational Development, and Sarah Tabassum is Strategic Communications Specialist at BRAC Institute of Educational Development, BRAC University.

Cover photo: Shananuzzaman Angkan © BRAC IED

BRAC Institute of Educational Development, BRAC University (BRAC IED), is an active pioneer in the development of education from a holistic perspective. Since our inception in 2004 in Dhaka, Bangladesh, we have worked in diverse areas including but not limited to – early childhood development, early learning with a particular focus on play-based learning methods, psychosocial wellbeing of stakeholders from diverse socio-economic backgrounds, primary and secondary education, and curriculum & textbook design. We design solutions for change that are culturally responsive and authentic to the needs and desires of local communities.

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