“Good afternoon: (…) greetings from the Trinidad Association of Community Homes. Personally, I have really enjoyed these spaces, they have allowed me to get away a little from the concerns of the situation (COVID-19), additionally enrich my practice, allowing me to grow and reaffirm many of my ideas about early childhood”. Beatriz, Santa Rosa de Cabal, Risaralda, Colombia.
Beatriz is one of the thousands of community mothers and early education teachers who participated in the Comunidades de Aprendizaje (Learning Communities), weekly online events targeted to ECD workforce implemented by the Colombian Institute of Family Welfare (ICBF in Spanish) during the pandemic.
As in-person services shut down across the continent, Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) systems across Latin America have been under tremendous pressure to find solutions to provide nutrition, quality care, education and protection to the youngest children and their families. A body of literature has emerged on the consequences of COVID-19 on children and their families. However, less is known about the impact the pandemic has had on ECCE systems. By ECCE system, I refer to the setting —other than the family— in which children spend most of their early childhood in the care of teachers or community members, as part of a public or a private service that may or may not be linked to a local or national network. Whilst ECCE systems have also been massively disrupted, these unprecedented circumstances have also offered opportunities for innovation in service provision.
Here are 3 important lessons from My Hands Teach You, ICBF’s ECCE remote learning strategy during the pandemic:
1. Adopting an agile approach to programming can enhance system learning
Adjusting ECCE programming in the face of ‘certain’ uncertainty, physical limitations, fiscal constraints, and pressure for results was probably the biggest challenge of 2020. In the case of My Hands Teach You, using an agile approach to programming served to navigate these constraints whilst maturing the strategy throughout the year, using several short design-and-implementation cycles. Like an innovation lab, the system would adjust itself on the way. An innovative new Monitoring, Evaluation & Learning (MEL) framework was put in place to actively listen to children’s and families’ experiences. Data on children’s health and nutritional status; access to water and sanitation; use of pedagogical practices at home; and socioeconomic and socioemotional alerts were collected monthly. Moreover, through case studies and periodic surveys feedback from the field was routinely collected. In each iteration cycle, technical teams analyzed these data to identify trends and issues, adjust processes and contents, and create new tools and content for the next cycle. Some of the innovations introduced throughout the cycles included delivery of pedagogical kits; on-demand socioemotional services; a guide to operate offline; a semi-structured curriculum; and specific strategies to approach children with disabilities, pregnant women, indigenous communities, and male caretakers. Overall, three agile cycles were implemented, creating unique ways for children, families, and ECD workers to engage with the strategy and promote early childhood development at home.
2. When using technology, just meet people where they are
For many ECCE systems, the pandemic opened the door for broader use of technology to support Early Childhood Education. The ICBF’s ECCE system in Colombia was no different. Back in March 2020, ICBF’s internal data showed that although 80% of teachers and community mothers lived in urban contexts, less than half had permanent internet service at home. Instead, they accessed the internet mostly through mobile data. Qualitative data also suggested limited digital skills among community mothers and heavy use of social media apps. These implied that a high-tech solution that required a computer at home, large data consumption, and sophisticated digital skills was not a feasible option for remote service delivery. Hence, My Hands Teach You opted for a simpler and readily available technology: phone calls (or video calls) and WhatsApp. In 2020, the strategy reached almost 1,7 million children, achieving high take-up and appropriation rates among parents, teachers, and community mothers. This shows how the right technology can help programs reach far and beyond.
3. Time to engage ECCE actors in new ways
The final lesson relates to innovations for technical assistance provision under the physical and fiscal constraints imposed by the pandemic. In the case of My Hands Teach You, the answer was to create virtual Comunidades de aprendizaje. These consisted of live 3-hour weekly online sessions aimed at putting into practice concepts related to the remote learning strategy. Each live session had three segments: a practical workshop led by an ECD expert; a regional ‘best practice’; and a weekly update. To foster engagement, the moderator would answer live questions and read comments from an audience. Moreover, to enhance access, audio capsules would be distributed through a weekly WhatsApp newsletter. By December 2020, the strategy had aired for 35 straights weeks engaging about 7,000 participants on average – and 12,067 on the most successful week. Its popularity prompted reflections among technical teams about how to best approach the learning and training of adults in charge of children. The communities also became a powerful tool to connect actors across geographies and foster a practice of collective learning.
As the region experiences a new phase of the pandemic with massive vaccination underway, these lessons remain relevant to help practitioners like Beatriz approach a safe and flexible return to in-person ECCE services.
They are also an invitation to reflect on how we can develop capacities in the ECCE systems to innovate and respond to external stressors with the purpose of helping children, especially those from difficult backgrounds, to develop their full potential.
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