In low- and middle-income countries, approximately 250 million children fail to reach their developmental potential. One way to help these children thrive is by supporting their parents and caregivers to engage in responsive caregiving, an important component of Nurturing Care, and a practice that has been proven to support children’s socioemotional and cognitive development.
What are responsive interactions for learning?
A responsive caregiver is someone who regularly engages children in Responsive Interactions for Learning (RIFL)—interactions that are characterized by two key elements: sensitivity and stimulation. Sensitivity means being aware of how children feel (e.g., tired, upset, or hungry) and responding in an empathetic way that supports them to get their needs met. Stimulation, on the other hand, is about recognizing what children are interested in and capable of at any given moment and responding with the right level of support and challenge to help them learn new words, concepts, skills, etc. When caregivers are sensitive and stimulating, children feel safe, secure, and interested in what is going on around them, which in turn maximizes their learning.
How to measure responsive caregiving efficiently
Responsive caregiving cannot be measured accurately using self-reports because caregivers can only report on responses to signals that they notice and not those they miss or misinterpret. Caregivers desire to appear to be good caregivers is another reason that self-reports are not a good source of information in this area. As a result, to identify how responsive any caregiver is, they have to be observed interacting with their child (observational assessment). While many observational assessments are time and labor-intensive, a recently developed instrument—the Responsive Interactions for Learning (RIFL) measure —condenses this process into just eight minutes for efficient use at a population level.
Very few resources are required to administer this measure. Caregivers play a challenging cooperative game with their child for five-minutes. This might include sorting shapes, or building a Lego structure, as developmentally appropriate. Raters watch video-recordings of these interactions and score caregivers on 11 items using a five-point Likert scale (scoring requires approximately three minutes per video). The 11 items assess the extent to which a caregiver identifies and responds to the feelings and thoughts of the child with whom they are interacting. This includes providing meaningful verbal/nonverbal inputs to the child, thinking about what the child knows and understands, and promoting reciprocity. A mean of the 11 items is calculated, yielding a composite score of responsivity that can range from 1 to 5.
The RIFL measure was originally validated for use with Canadian samples of mothers, fathers, older siblings, and early childhood educators interacting with young children. Recently, the RIFL parenting measure has been successfully adapted and tested in LMICs, including Brazil and Peru, with additional ongoing work in China. Training on how to use this measure is available for free in English, Portuguese, and Spanish through a password-protected, open-source online asynchronous course offered at the University of Toronto. This training can be completed in less than eight hours. An educator version of this measure is also available.
The RIFL evidence-based online professional development course
Although responsive caregiving is one important component of Nurturing Care, many early childhood professionals do not know how to coach it. To address this gap, with support from the Bernard van Leer Foundation, we designed an online professional development course that focuses on responsive interactions.
The RIFL course aims to develop practitioners´ understanding of responsive interactions and increase their ability to coach these interactions with caregivers. The course uses (i) online lectures, (ii) observation of videos of responsive interactions, (iii) peer discussion, and (iv) real-life practice to support adult learning.
To evaluate the effectiveness of this course, we conducted a randomized controlled trial in Brazil with 181 staff in the Criança Feliz Program. All staff who took the course were very satisfied with the content and mode of delivery and there was no dropout from the program. Compared to participants in the control group, they were also more knowledgeable about responsivity and its importance for children’s socioemotional and cognitive development, better able to identify responsive parental behaviors in videotaped interactions, and suggested more effective strategies for coaching parents on responsivity and monitoring their progress.
From this trial we can conclude that online professional development programs provide a low-cost, scalable option for strengthening home-visitors’ knowledge and intended coaching practices, which could maximize the impact of home-visiting programs, particularly regarding parental responsivity, and in turn, child outcomes.
The Responsive Interactions for Learning online course is available in Portuguese, Spanish, and English. If you want to learn more, or are interested in using this course or the RIFL instruments, please contact us: Responsive_Interactions@utoronto.ca