5 takeaways from supporting refugee parents to help children learn and thrive during COVID-19

To mark World Refugee Day and Global Parenting Month, the partners behind two major early childhood interventions in humanitarian response – Play to Learn and Ahlan Simsim – share five takeaways from their work to support refugee parents during the COVID-19 pandemic. In this blog, they reflect on how these takeaways can inform approaches to providing parents everywhere with the tools and strategies they need to help young children learn, play and thrive during the pandemic and beyond.

June 24, 2021 by Ahlan Simsim, and Play to Learn
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8 minutes read
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Sesame Muppet Tuktuki visits a family in the Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar as part of the Play to Learn humanitarian program in Bangladesh. Credit: Ryan Donnell/Sesame Workshop/2018
Sesame Muppet Tuktuki visits a family in the Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar as part of the Play to Learn humanitarian program in Bangladesh.
Ryan Donnell/Sesame Workshop/2018

This blog was co-authored by:

  • Anita Anastacio, Initiative Lead at the LEGO Foundation
  • Talat Mahmud, Program Director, Sesame Workshop
  • Erum Mariam, Executive Director, BRAC Institute of Educational Development
  • Manar Shukri, Early Childhood Development Technical Lead, International Rescue Committee
  • Hirokazu Yoshikawa, Co-Director of the Global TIES for Children Center at New York University

Parents play a pivotal role in fostering their children’s learning and well-being, especially when crisis strikes.

Since 2018, the MacArthur Foundation, the LEGO Foundation, Sesame Workshop, BRAC, the International Rescue Committee and NYU Global TIES for Children have been working to bring playful learning to children affected by the Rohingya and Syrian refugee crises through the Play to Learn and Ahlan Simsim (“Welcome Sesame” in Arabic) programs. Support for parents has always been at the heart of our approach.

We know parents are the first and most important teachers and playmates in their children’s lives, and engagement with a caring adult is one of the best ways to support children in managing stress and building resilience in times of crisis.

We also know that other adults often step up as caregivers in these situations. But parents and those other caregivers are also impacted by crisis, and they need dedicated support to meet their own needs while caring for their children.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, while many in-person direct services were suspended, we’ve had to adapt quickly and rethink our approach to supporting caregivers facing the dual crisis of displacement and the pandemic.

As we mark World Refugee Day and Global Parenting Month, we reflect on five key takeaways from our recent work to support refugee parents. We also explore how these takeaways can inform future efforts to provide caregivers with the tools and strategies they need to help children learn, play and thrive, wherever they may be.

Basma, a Muppet character from Ahlan Simsim, helps a young child and caregiver in their garden in Azraq Camp, Jordan. Credit: Ryan Donnell/Sesame Workshop/2019
Basma, a Muppet character from Ahlan Simsim, helps a young child and caregiver in their garden in Azraq Camp, Jordan.
Ryan Donnell/Sesame Workshop/2019

1. Consult the experts: Engaging with parents directly to understand and respond to their needs

Ahlan Simsim and Play to Learn began with extensive formative research and consultation with caregivers to inform our program design. From the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we knew we needed to continue engaging with caregivers directly to understand and respond to changing needs and priorities.

As many in-person services were suspended, our frontline workers used phone calls to ask caregivers about the challenges they were facing and what resources they had to promote their children’s learning and well-being at home.

IRC found that many caregivers across the Middle East asked for strategies to support their children’s literacy, numeracy and social-emotional learning, which became a core focus of our remote programming.

In the Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, input from caregivers informed the development of BRAC’s telecommunications model, Pashe Achhi (“Beside You” in Bangla), focusing on providing psychosocial support, promoting self-care, and engaging children in playful learning.

A Play Leader calls caregivers in the Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar as part of the Pashe Achhi telecommunications model. Credit: BRAC
A Play Leader calls caregivers in the Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar as part of the Pashe Achhi telecommunications model. Caregivers report they were relieved to hear from Play Leaders and felt valued and respected to be given the opportunity to ask questions, address fears brought on by the pandemic, and share their concerns without facing any judgement.
BRAC

2. Design innovative solutions that build on caregiver needs and existing practices

The suspension of many in-person direct services required us all to find innovative ways to stay connected and deliver services remotely. The key was to identify behaviors and platforms that were readily accessible and familiar to caregivers and to adapt our work accordingly.

In the Middle East, needs assessment data found that caregivers prefer to engage via WhatsApp, while mobile phone calls proved to be the most effective way to reach caregivers in Cox’s Bazar. Each of these adaptations was an important reminder of what we should always be doing by design: developing human-centered, context-appropriate solutions alongside the communities we support.

These adaptations also underscored the importance of considering remote programming for the future, even when in-person services resume. Initial anecdotal feedback from caregivers indicates a preference for phone-based programming, in which they could share sensitive information privately with the facilitator or more easily attend sessions that fit their schedule.

We also see the opportunity for remote modalities, particularly phone-based interventions, to become scalable, cost-effective models with high potential to expand reach in ultra-poor and difficult-to-access communities.

3. Caring for the caregiver: Promoting parents’ mental health and well-being

We know the best way to reach young children during an emergency is through their caregivers. But before caregivers can provide for their children, we must ensure that caregivers’ basic needs are addressed, particularly for mental health support.

Our research on caregivers’ mental health indicates quite severe impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic, including overall increases in depression and anxiety. An Ahlan Simsim study found that 4 out of 5 caregivers surveyed reported feeling overwhelmed by daily tasks, and more than two-thirds reported feeling no patience with their children.

Without support, these stressors could lead to serious long-term consequences for caregivers and children alike. In response, we designed our remote program adaptations with an emphasis on providing caregivers with psychosocial support to address the heightened issues of anxiety, stress and isolation during the pandemic.

As we integrated caregiver well-being to ensure connectedness and support from the outset of COVID-19, we also devoted significant attention to developing facilitators’ skills in building rapport with caregivers to promote more open, meaningful conversations about their needs and challenges. Together, we developed a system of care in which all children and caregivers have access to psychosocial support.

Our data suggest that this emphasis on caregiver mental health and well-being improves the quality of phone-based models focusing on parent-child interaction. In addition, caregivers report that they look forward to calls with our facilitators, and they appreciate the opportunity to ask questions, share their concerns, and gain tips for positive engagement with their children.

A caregiver engages in a phone call through the Pashe Achhi telecommunications model. Credit: BRAC
A caregiver engages in a phone call through the Pashe Achhi telecommunications model. Early feedback on this rapidly developed model suggests it has been well received by both children and their caregivers – with children feeling excited to receive the calls and caregivers feeling valued and supported during this period of unprecedented disruption.
BRAC

4. Engaging fathers and mothers in promoting children’s development

Father engagement in their children’s learning and development has been given little attention and support in humanitarian settings. However, our recent data from both Bangladesh and the Middle East indicate fathers’ strong interest in their children’s education, child development and protection.

Fathers express pride in their children’s participation in Ahlan Simsim and Play to Learn programming, and they have strong aspirations for their children’s futures, equally for girls and boys.

In addition, during consultations with fathers to inform the development of a new Play to Learn engagement model, we found that fathers expressed a desire to learn how to foster communicative, peaceful relationships between parents to create more nurturing home environments for their children.

Ahlan Simsim research also found that fathers confirmed their interest in attending parenting programs that work within their busy schedules. These findings indicate the need for increased investment in early childhood development and parenting support for fathers as well as mothers.

Play to Learn partners are developing content for a new father engagement program model for male caregivers with children ages 0-2.
Play to Learn partners are developing content for a new father engagement program model for male caregivers with children ages 0-2. The flipcharts pictured above are designed for facilitated sessions with caregivers to promote playful engagement with their children. This content can also be printed in booklet form as a take-home resource.

5. The power of play as a vehicle not only for learning, but also for mental health and psychosocial support

Play is an essential part of childhood and one of the most important ways in which children learn. But for families affected by crisis, we know play can also serve as a tool for healing. Research shows that play is not only essential to healthy child development, but playful experiences also help both children and their caregivers cope during times of crisis by reducing stress, offering an outlet for anxiety, and building their social-emotional skills and resilience.

Play also offers opportunities for caregivers to engage with and respond to young children – which research shows is the best way to mitigate the impacts of stress and trauma in a child’s early years. Our experience indicates that the integration of play and well-being have been fundamental for positive family engagement and for children and caregivers to feel valued.

Our programs have always focused on promoting playful parenting, but the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the importance of this approach and amplified the need to provide caregivers with play-based resources and strategies to support children’s learning and well-being while at home.

During the pandemic, we’ve been designing and testing new ways to provide playful parenting support, and we are committed to generating and sharing evidence of what works and what can be most effective to expand support for families affected by crisis, wherever they may be.

Looking ahead

Ultimately, support for play-based early childhood development must be a core component of humanitarian response for all children and caregivers affected by crisis. Making that goal a reality will require that public and private donors, humanitarian actors and governments the world over commit to:

  • Creating meaningful pathways to support caregiver and community leadership in program design and adaptation
  • Maintaining programmatic flexibility to account for evolving conditions and needs
  • Recognizing and responding to the unique mental health needs of parents and caregivers in crisis settings
  • Finding contextually appropriate ways to engage both fathers and mothers in early learning and development
  • Embracing the power of play as a cornerstone for providing children with a healthy, happy start in life.
Ma’zooza, a Muppet character from Ahlan Simsim, reads along with a child and caregiver in Mafraq, Jordan. Credit: Ryan Donnell/Sesame Workshop/2019
Ma’zooza, a Muppet character from Ahlan Simsim, reads along with a child and caregiver in Mafraq, Jordan.
Ryan Donnell/Sesame Workshop/2019

Sesame Workshop is the nonprofit organization behind Sesame Street with a mission to help children everywhere grow smarter, stronger, and kinder. Sesame Workshop delivers high-quality early childhood programming in more than 150 countries.

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) helps people whose lives and livelihoods are shattered by conflict and disaster to survive, recover, and regain control of their future.

BRAC works to empower children and communities in situations of poverty, illiteracy, disease, and social injustice, seeking positive changes that enable individuals to meet their full potential.

The LEGO Foundation, which is funding the Play to Learn project, aims to build a future in which learning through play empowers children to become creative, engaged, lifelong learners. The LEGO Foundation shares its overall mission with the LEGO Group – to inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow.

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which funds the Ahlan Simsim project, supports creative people and effective institutions committed to building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world.

Independent Evaluator:

Global TIES for Children, an international research center, aims to contribute to a robust and culturally-grounded science for program and policy action that promotes children’s holistic learning and development in low-income and conflict-affected countries.

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