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How Innovation and Adaptation During COVID-19 Created a New Model for Capacity Building in an Early Childhood Development Project in El Salvador

Aug 17, 2021

Pilar Fort, Whole Child International, San Salvador, El Salvador; Karen Spencer, Whole Child International, Northampton, United Kingdom; and Carolina de Guevara, Instituto Salvadoreño para el Desarrollo Integral de la Niñez y Adolescencia, San Salvador, El Salvador


Whole Child International (WCI) was running a USAID-funded project in El Salvador to build governmental capacity for quality of care and protection for vulnerable children, including educators and directors of the Instituto Salvadoreño para el Desarrollo Integral de la Niñez y Adolescencia (ISNA). When COVID-19 struck, lockdown forced in-person activities to pause. The project leaders swiftly adapted and innovated key activities, developing short-duration and high-frequency sessions, using videoconferencing, a co-creation approach, best practices, and nurturing care. Sessions were created and delivered in record time, producing positive outcomes and the prospect of using the model for the scale-up of interventions.

Whole Child International (WCI) was founded in 2004 by social entrepreneur and Ashoka fellow Karen Spencer. WCI’s mandate is to help improve quality of care in the most resource-challenged environments around the world, and to raise awareness of the importance of relationship-centered care. In 2018, USAID El Salvador signed a 5-year Cooperative Agreement with WCI entitled “Protection and Quality of Care for Salvadoran Children,” the main objective of which was to achieve “Increased capacity of the government of El Salvador to protect and care for children most at risk of being perpetrators or victims of violence.”

The Cooperative Agreement expressly mentioned that WCI would work with a main governmental partner, the Instituto Salvadoreño para el Desarrollo Integral de la Niñez y Adolescencia (Salvadoran Institute for the Holistic Development of Children and Adolescents), known as ISNA. The project was designed with children’s rights in mind (Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, 1990) and on the premise that infants and young children who establish strong relationships with their primary caregivers will have a better chance of becoming more resilient, acquire high levels of socio-emotional health, and “become productively engaged adults and citizens” (USAID, 2018).

During the first year of implementation, WCI staff carried out an extensive analysis of the early childhood and protection sector policies and services. They identified weaknesses and strengths within the government systems to ensure that subsequent training and technical assistance efforts would build on capacities in early childhood education and target the areas where improvements were still needed. In year two of the project, WCI began the caregiver training efforts with educators from 15 of ISNA’s “Centros de Desarrollo Integral” (Integral Development Centers), known as CDIs.

On September 2019, the government of El Salvador approached WCI to discuss the urgent need to build capacity among their direct service staff (“Educadoras”), directors, and community volunteers on best practices for provision of quality of care in the CDIs and the rural Centros de Bienestar Infantil (Early Childhood Well-Being Centers), known as CBIs. This effort is part of a nurturing care (“cuidado cariñoso, sensible y respetuoso”) approach (World Health Organization et al., 2018) led by the First Lady of El Salvador as part of the national policy of “Crecer Juntos” (Grow Together; Crecer Juntos, 2021).

WCI started these capacity-building efforts by delivering two training events, in October 2019 and February 2020. The components included:

  • in-person trainings (e.g., workshops);

  • preparation and hand-out of materials (e.g., hard-copy guidelines);

  • use of large meeting rooms to convene groups of people, traveling from different locations nationwide;

  • providing meals during 6-8-hour-long daily sessions for several days;

  • typical presentations delivered with projections (instructive fashion), followed by group work/activities and reconvening;

  • instruction would mostly be “one-sided”, although interactive;

  • and the audience was technical and supervisory staff who, in turn, would transfer the knowledge and skills to their direct service personnel (educators). After training, WCI would mentor ISNA staff over 9 months, followed by certification.

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