Responding to COVID-19 in India

Supporting young children, families and pre-schools during the pandemic

Background: AKF's ECD work in India

ECD has been an AKDN priority for several decades based on evidence that investing in young children reaps major dividends, not just for the children themselves, but for families, for communities and for society as a whole. Guided by the Nurturing Care Framework, AKF’s ECD programme in India focuses on an inclusive and pluralistic approach that encompasses support for the child and caregivers from pregnancy to age six and as the child transitions to primary education.

AKF in India works with communities, civil society actors, government health and education services and businesses to design, adapt, test and implement evidence-based ECD solutions across three Indian states (Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Telangana). AKF focuses on improving the quality of Anganwadi centres (government-led early learning centres) so they provide holistic and quality services, integrating the play and responsive caregiving frameworks into existing health and child development structures, and increasing the knowledge and skills of parents, caregivers and the ECD workforce on holistic child development.

Challenge: 28million children impacted by pre-primary and primary school closures

In recent years, rising levels of prosperity and economic growth produced significant health, education and other advances for young children in this part of the world, including huge improvements in antenatal and new born care. Besides endangering this progress, COVID-19 is exposing the region’s deeper social and economic frailties.

Even before the pandemic struck, India was home to some of the world’s most marginalised children, who felt the side-effects of COVID-19 from the moment nationwide lockdowns were put in place to control the spread of the disease. Markets, workshops, farms and factories closed, leaving children and families stranded. The lockdowns of course included the closure of all Anganwadis and primary schools.

A UNICEF report released in June 2020 revealed that 28 million children in India were impacted by the closure of these early learning centres.  AKF India, alongside other AKDN agencies, worked swiftly to ensure that families in its supported geographies maintained consistent access to ECD resources to support their children’s growth and development.

Early Childhood Development in India

Pre-pandemic images from a selection of AKDN’s Early Childhood programmes in India, including Reading for Children, WASH and Anganwadi support work

Response: developing resources and adapting programmes to support learning from home

With support from Porticus, Bainum Family Foundation and the Bernard van Leer Foundation, AKF developed resource materials and adapted existing programming to support educators, families, and children during these particularly difficult times. These innovations build on a suite of resources that the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) has developed to help educators and families support children’s learning at home during the COVID-19 crisis.


Conduct Rapid Assessment Surveys

As schools and Anganwadis shut down, AKF had to quickly figure out how to support its staff and families from a distance. In April 2020, AKF conducted surveys with 341 households in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Telangana to better understand the lockdown’s impact on community access to health, education and ECD resources. Findings indicated concerns around reduced learning opportunities and feelings of uncertainty around how parents can support their children with limited learning materials.


Responsive Caregiving and Early Learning Programme

Prior to COVID-19, AKF India implemented a pilot project on Responsive Caregiving and Early Learning in September 2019 in 60 villages in the Bahraich district of Uttar Pradesh. The programme aims to develop a deeper understanding of responsive care among caregivers and frontline workers. It emphasises the importance of play and stimulation, a reduction in harsh disciplinary practices, and engages with different segments of caregivers – mothers, fathers and grandparents.

Before the onset of the pandemic, AKF worked with Anganwadi workers to facilitate 12 sessions with caregivers. The focus of the sessions was to create a space for young parents to support one another. During the sessions, they discussed their own experiences from childhood, expressed how they feel as a caregiver, and learned new ways to support the needs of their young children – creating daily routines, ways to make a more responsive and stimulating environment, the importance of storytelling, and how to create low-cost toys and picture books.

Due to the pandemic, AKF had to suspend all in-person sessions. However, AKF worked to assure the crisis did not further reduce access to services critical for child development. Building off of the momentum from the in-person sessions, AKF adapted key messages from the Responsive Caregiving and Early Learning Programme into 30 posters with images that offer parenting tips and ideas for in-home activities parents can do to help their child reach important developmental milestones, particularly while schools and Anganwadi centres are closed.

Each week, Anganwadi workers circulate the information by sharing one parenting tip and two activities with caregivers on various platforms – as audio, images and text messages over WhatsApp, using Interactive Voice Recording Support (IVRS) and in-person during home visits. Through this collective effort, the posters reached over 17,000 parents and caregivers.

In August 2020, caregiving sessions and home visits resumed, following COVID-19 safety protocols. A two-day workshop with 58 Anganwadi workers in Bahraich, Uttar Pradesh, focused on topics like brain development during early years, creating at home learning activities, and ways that fathers can more fully engage in early learning. A one-day orientation on responsive caregiving and early learning was conducted for government functionaries including 360 Anganwadi workers, 78 Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHAs), 11 ICDS supervisors and 2 Child Development Project Officers from three blocks in Bahraich, Uttar Pradesh.

Maximising Outreach

Following the Responsive Caregiving and Early Learning pilot program in Uttar Pradesh, AKF conducted the training in Bihar. They trained 808 Anganwadi workers, 520 Anganwadi helpers and 293 supervisors through different platforms. The frontline workers shared the modules with 14,000 caregivers over WhatsApp groups and through home visits.

The team trained 293 supervisors for three days on reflective and supportive supervision, in addition to the responsive caregiving content. AKF conducted an orientation over Zoom to orient Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) — the government department responsible for ECD services — with the ECD posters and resources. ICDS distributed the posters over its internal WhatsApp group, reaching programme officers across all 38 districts of Bihar.

Additionally, AKF has connected with national and global platforms, including Saving Brains, Frontiers of Innovations (FOI) Learning Community to further distribute information and best practices. AKF has shared these posters with other agencies including UNICEF India, UNICEF Maharashtra and CARE India.

Lessons learned from these initiatives have also enabled the AKF India team , in partnership with the Bernard van Leer Foundation and Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, to develop a parenting programme for the first 1000 days (from conception to 2 years) with Accredited Social Health Activists or ASHAs (frontline health workers).

The Aga Khan Foundation is committed to making our resources free and open-sourced, so that we can share knowledge and learning not – just throughout our communities, but with peers, development professionals and partner organisations.

Please visit AKF’s Learning Hub to access a wide variety of resources, including the resources discussed here.

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