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By Kimberly Josephson and Gabriela Guerrero. 

Lucía walks 30 minutes to a home in a rural community in Peru, where she is greeted by a mother and her son. She asks how things are going and asks about the mother’s daily routine — feeding, bathing, washing her son’s hands — providing guidance and feedback from time to time. Next is playtime, and she takes out a toy for the mother and child. While the child examines it, she encourages the mother to talk to the child and ask questions about what he is doing. After, they sing a song together, or tell a story. When the hour is over, Lucía says goodbye to the family and walks to the next home. 

She is one of the 9,000 facilitators or volunteer home visitors, mostly women, who deliver the Cuna Más home visiting service in poor, rural districts across Peru. Cuna Más, a public early childhood development (ECD) program in this South American nation, runs daycare centers in urban areas and a home visiting service in rural communities, like this one.

Lucía and her peers have been nominated by their communities to work with families to strengthen parenting practices and support the holistic (cognitive, language, physical, and socioemotional) development of children under 3. In exchange for volunteering about 10 hours per week, facilitators receive a small monthly stipend of about USD $115 (a little less than half the minimum monthly wage for a full-time employee).

Early childhood development workers are essential, but face several challenges

We know that children who have access to high quality early childhood programs lead healthier and more productive lives; in fact, interventions during the early years are among the most impactful and cost-effective strategies for reducing inequalities, particularly for children living in poverty. Home visitors, along with child care workers, preschool teachers, community health workers, nurses and many others, are on the frontlines of such ECD programs. They’re also at the center of many challenges being faced as programs look to reach more children and improve the quality of their services.

A deeper look into Cuna Más, a program other low and middle-income countries increasingly look to due to its success in reaching thousands of the poorest families and demonstrating promising effects on child development, reveals some of the main challenges and successes this workforce experiences in their day-to-day work.

For instance, the program has faced difficulties recruiting and retaining qualified members of the workforce, and this presents a threat to sustaining program quality and expanding it to reach all vulnerable families.

What ECD workers have to say

Talking directly with early childcare development workers in a recent study, we discovered that they love their work and feel their role is making a difference in the lives of children and families in their communities. They are eager to learn and value working closely with their supervisors who continually encourage and support them.

But they work twice the number of hours they have committed to (despite their volunteer status), earn just two-thirds of what their counterparts in non-formal preschools make, and have little room for professional growth. Much of their daily frustration surrounds a chronic lack of materials (puzzles, picture books, dolls and other toys), thus the very resources meant to embolden their work become an added source of stress.

“We give all of ourselves to be able to be part of the program, to be able to dedicate ourselves to young children… but the stipend they give us is very little.” — Cuna Más worker

ECD programs and policies must do more for their workforce

Feeling overburdened and underpaid isn’t unique to Cuna Más, Peru or ECD programs at all, for that matter. Yet we continue to overlook or minimize the challenges facing the early childhood workforce, when in fact they may be our biggest bottleneck and greatest opportunity for improving the lives of young children and families. How much do we, as a global community, know about what these practitioners experience every day and what they need to be more motivated and effective in their work?

We’ve come a long way in proving that early childhood policies and programs can lead to long-term health, education and social benefits. But we often fall short in trying to understand and support the very people who are key to delivering services to children and families.

Whether designing a policy to expand access to preschool, evaluating the impact of a child care program, or launching a campaign to encourage parents to read to their children, we won’t see the progress we’re looking for until we put the workforce first. That’s precisely what the Early Childhood Workforce Initiative (ECWI), Results for Development (R4), and the International Step by Step Association (ISSA) aim to do, partnering to provide country decision makers with the resources they need to build, support, and grow a strong early childhood workforce.

Are you part of the early childhood workforce? What is your experience? What other strategies would you recommend to address existing challenges? Tell us in the comments section or mention @BIDgente on Twitter.

Adapted from the original post, published in ECWI’s website.

Kimberly Josephson is a senior program associate at R4D on the Global Education team where she focuses on early childhood development and secondary education, particularly in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Gabriela Guerrero is a senior researcher at GRADE in the areas of education and learning, poverty and equality, and methodologies for research and evaluation of policy and programs. Her research interests are ECD, educational transitions, intercultural bilingual education, and school effectiveness.

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