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In early childhood programs, when is a papaya better than an apple?

Aliza Marcus's picture
More photos in a slideshow about early childhood development in Malawi  here

Today, on the Day of the African Child, we interview our World Bank colleague, Christin McConnell, about early childhood programs and her work in Malawi.

In Malawi, about half of children under the age of five are stunted and many have lost one or both parents to HIV/AIDS. Malawi runs an extensive network of Community-Based Childcare Centers – opened in the 1990s with donor assistance -- to promote children’s development. These centers now enroll about a third of the country’s children aged three to five. The quality of the centers, however, is mixed. Most caregivers are young, part-time volunteers without any formal training in early childhood development and turnover is high.

The Government of Malawi, with donor support, is testing low-cost measures for improving the quality of the childcare centers. These include training the volunteer caregivers (who operate as teachers), providing monthly cash incentives to these volunteers, and giving parents information on how to help their children’s development and prepare them for primary school. Researchers supported by the Strategic Impact Evaluation Fund, including Berk Özler, Patricia Kariger, Lia Fernald, Christin McConnell and Michelle Neuman, are nearing the end of a randomized controlled trial to measure the impact of these on children’s development and teacher quality. The results will give the government evidence it can use in deciding next steps.

McConnell was recently in Malawi training the people – known as enumerators, or surveyors -- who are collecting the last round of data for measuring the impact of the program. McConnell talks about why she’s passionate about early childhood development, what makes a good data collector, and why a papaya is sometimes better than apple.

What got you interested in this field?

My mother owns and directs a childcare center, the first to be accredited in the State of Delaware, where I’m from. It’s been operating for 35 years now and I went there as a young child, and as a teenager I helped out there. Every job I’ve had since has related in one way or another to education and young children. I guess you can say I went into the family business.

Testing little kids can’t be easy – they move around a lot, it can be hard to focus them. How do you get it right?

It’s not a job for everyone. Most enumerators have experience doing general household surveys, but it takes a certain type of person to do the surveys and the testing required for our study rounds. These enumerators have be active and comfortable with children  They need to be ready to get on the ground and sit with the kids and to get their hands dirty, literally, because some of this means playing with toys in the dirt. Doing it right takes patience, kindness, and the ability to encourage a child to answer the questions that are being asked.

Is it any easier measuring how teachers are doing?

We often do this through classroom observation, which means watching teachers at work and looking at how they interact with the kids. Classroom observation, especially in rural preschools, turns out to be a lot more challenging than it might seem. The surveys that we use to measure what teachers are doing are normally designed for early childhood development professionals in Western preschools, which is very different from what you find in countries like Malawi.
There are a lot of contextual and cultural differences you have to be aware of here and imbedded cultural norms that you have to recognize. For example, how caregivers communicate with children. We found that it took a full week of training and practice to prepare someone for just the classroom observations part of our survey.

What about tests measuring kids’ development, are there any issues across cultures?

It depends. We have “games” or puzzles testing children’s cognitive abilities in terms of their attention span, memory, and problem solving. For example, we ask children to repeat a series of hand movements and make certain shapes using plastic triangles. All of that works fairly easily across cultures, and we were able to use them in Malawi with little to no adaptations. But some tests designed for Western markets pose challenges. We were lucky that a team of researchers have already developed one test specific to Malawi, the MDAT, or Malawi Developmental Assessment Tool.

Are children that different?

Not children, but what they see around them is. The Malawi assessment tool measures children’s motor skills as well as language and hearing. In this test we give a child a ball. But it’s not a ball like you’ll see at Toys R Us. It’s made out of plastic bags and elastic bands, which is how kids make balls in rural Malawi. The testing kit is full of other locally-made play materials from Malawian craftsmen: wooden peg boards, miniature wire bicycles with clay wheels, wooden blocks for stacking. It makes it easier to do an accurate assessment if the children aren’t intimidated by the materials and if they are given local items they know. It also sends the message to caregivers and parents that there are plenty of ways to educate and evaluate children with materials in your everyday surroundings.

What do you do when a test isn’t culturally specific to Malawi?

There’s a standard assessment test called the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test that’s widely used in early childhood development research. There’s a flipchart and on each sheet there are four drawings. Our interviewers tell the child a word, and record which image the child points to in order to see if they know the vocabulary word. But not all of the vocabulary words in this test are appropriate for children in rural Malawi. For example, apples aren’t grown in Malawi, and so we had to find another word of similar difficulty to replace it with. In this case, a papaya. We replaced an image of a porcupine, which children wouldn’t see in Malawi, with one of a hedgehog. For the word “leaking” we replaced an image of a leaky pipe with one of a leaking pitcher, as children in our sample wouldn’t have much exposure to plumbing.  Any of these adaptations required full consent, and a small fee, to the publisher.

Despite this all, you’re able to measure the impact of early childhood programs on these young children?

Absolutely. While copyrights and contextual differences can cause some challenges, our team worked very hard to find a good balance between age, language, and cultural-appropriateness and comparability of results across the region and world. It wasn’t unusual for us to spend a month piloting tests and training interviewers before we were ready for the real data collection to begin. In most other education surveys I work on, this is usually a week to 10 days. In the end, though, I think we came up with a good variety of assessments and interviews that will reflect the impact of the intervention on the ground.  

What does your mother think about the study?

I think she loved it when I would call her from Malawi with questions as we were developing a survey tool. How does she assess her staff in how they deal with children’s behavior?  How long should a 4-year-old be able to stay focused on one task? It was good to get her input. I even gave her some of the toys to try out in her own childcare center.

What did the kids think about the toys from Malawi?

They loved the toys. They were the inspiration for a classroom activity on using everyday materials to make your own toys.



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