Four ways policymakers can support the early childhood workforce

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By: Vidya Putcha

Child care workers, preschool teachers, teacher assistants, social workers, community health workers, nurses — these are just a sampling of the many women and men who work with our youngest children to ensure their healthy development. Through their day to day work and interactions, these individuals have the opportunity to transform a child’s developmental trajectory, but often do not receive adequate pay, training, support, or incentives in order to maximize impact.

We know that these individuals, collectively comprising the early childhood workforce, need to be better supported, but how?

As part of the Early Childhood Workforce Initiative, Results for Development and the International Step by Step Association helped to answer this question by carrying out landscape analyses on two critical themes relating to the workforce: competences and standards, and training and professional development. We studied these themes to not only understand the size and scope of relevant challenges but to surface promising approaches to addressing them.

Based on our research, we found that policymakers can undertake several actions to better support this workforce. Here are four such actions:


1. Develop job descriptions and competences for roles within the early childhood workforce.

Competences, which lay out what an individual should know and be able to do, can help guide training, recruitment and monitoring and mentoring. With more clearly defined competences, training curricula can be designed to help learners focus on specific areas based on their individual needs and the knowledge and skills important for their job performance. Competences can also guide recruitment processes and help staff and supervisors assess performance on a continuous basis. In particular, tools based on established competences can help supervisors assess performance, provide follow-up support and track progress over time

Policymakers looking to develop competences for a role for the first time should develop job descriptions which clarify the scope of a particular role if they do not already exist and also look to examples of competences from global or regional efforts to guide their process, such as the Global Social Service Workforce Alliance’s competences for para professional social service workers or ISSA’s Competent Educators of the 21st Century.


2. Ensure that all members of the workforce, regardless of their role, have opportunities to learn and grow — both prior to entry and while in their roles.

Although some countries are prioritizing training and professional development for members of the early childhood workforce, opportunities remain limited for people who work with the very youngest children, auxiliary staff such as teacher assistants, and remote populations. In order to be effective in their roles, these individuals, often volunteers or staff without formal education, need a core set of knowledge and skills.

To ensure opportunities are available more widely, policymakers may consider using distance learning to reach remote and underserved populations or offering subsidies for training courses. Under the ECD component of South Africa’s Expanded Public Works Programme, which aims to upgrade the quality of existing ECD services and also support the expansion of the sector overall, government funding is available to support training fees and stipends for prospective and current practitioners working with children ages 0 to 4 and in Grade R (pre-primary).


3. Offer sufficient opportunities for practical skill-building in initial preparation and in-service training programs.

Prior to entering into the workforce, professionals and paraprofessionals need a better understanding of what they will do on a day-to-day basis and how best to approach their work. During field education or internships, they may be able to observe professionals and paraprofessionals in their jobs, apply theories and principles learned in the classroom to real life situations, and experience the issues inherent in working with different communities. Once they enter into their roles, members of the workforce can benefit from opportunities to receive feedback and discuss challenges in their day-to-day work through coaching and peer learning.

For example, the Madrasa Resource Centers in East Africa offers weekly reflection groups led by mentors which provide the space for early childhood development teachers to reflect on day-to-day practice. Such peer learning initiatives can be more effective than training and professional development imparted through lectures or presentations.


4. Ensure that training curricula and materials are relevant to local contexts.

Training and professional development curricula are often not tailored to local contexts and as a result, may not prepare early childhood workforce members to address issues that are relevant to the communities and populations they serve. For example, research from the social and child protection sector in West and Central Africa indicates that training materials and curricula are often imported from other countries such as the U.S. and the U.K., and not adapted to the needs of specific countries. 

However, there are some promising approaches that have been utilized. In supporting community health workers to integrate early childhood screening and counseling in their work in Mozambique, PATH utilized resources from the Care for Child Development (CCD) package as a starting point for developing training materials, which were then adapted to the Mozambican context. Due to the linguistic diversity in Mozambique and low literacy levels, PATH made the decision to use pictures in the training and counseling materials as much as possible. These visual tools are used as a basis for generating discussion and facilitating interactive exercises, and have been well-received by health workers.

Developing the next generation of the early childhood workforce will require a number of actions, including policy reforms which address difficult topics such as remuneration and incentives. And while the recommendations above will not, on their own, address the entirety of challenges facing this workforce, they may offer examples for how policymakers can better support these individuals through the establishment of sound competences and standards and investment in effective training and professional development.

Our work supporting the early childhood workforce continues. To stay engaged with new evidence and resources from the Early Childhood Workforce Initiative, sign up for the ECWI Newsletter today!


Vidya Putcha is a Senior Program Officer on the Global Education team at Results for Development (R4D), where she focuses on early childhood development.