Brazil’s Happy Child program is sending trained social workers to the country’s poorest households to teach parents how to stimulate the development of their children under three. The program targets families who receive welfare, connecting them to an integrated network of public servants and providing referrals for children who need extra assistance. In its first year, social workers visited more than 78,000 children and pregnant women in 25 states.
Results & Impact
The impact of Happy Child has yet to be evaluated. Thus far, it has been rolled out in 2,615 municipalities, 79% of those eligible for support. As of mid-October 2017, one year into the initiative, 78,332 individuals had been visited, including 69,389 children and 8,943 pregnant women. The program aims to serve four million people.
Brazil’s Ministries of Social Development, Education, Health, Human Rights and Culture, Bernard van Leer Foundation, Fundação Cecilia Souto Vidigal.
The Ministry of Social Development runs central training and creates guidelines for the social workers such as how to develop activities with a family and register them with local public services. These guidelines are filtered down to the state level by coordinators and to supervisors in each municipality. The central government transfers cash to the municipalities for them to hire and train social workers. They regularly visit families which are beneficiaries of “Bolsa Familia” welfare payments – weekly, biweekly, or monthly – from pregnancy to three years, and up to six for disabled children. They give tips and propose activities that have been proven to develop motor coordination and cognitive development. If a child needs extra help, they refer them to the relevant public service – such as a speech-language pathologist for children with speech difficulties.
Parents, infants and toddlers
Cost & Value
The budget for 2017 is $100 million, and it costs around $20 per month per child
Running since October 2016
The biggest challenge has been integrating social assistance professionals into a holistic approach that includes other public services, like health and education, as they have historically considered social work as separate. Meanwhile, though the project’s impact is yet to be evaluated, there is some scientific disagreement as to the potential benefits for child development. Canadian researchers in 2012, for example, found no significant impact when analysing the home-visiting study in Brazil on which Happy Child was based. Also, the size and diversity of Brazil’s population makes it difficult to be effective in all municipalities, especially those without good public services.
Happy Child was based on the smaller-scale Better Childhood Program pilot in Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil. Other home visiting programs have garnered positive results, most famously in Jamaica.
Brazil’s Happy Child program is helping parents in the country’s poorest households boost the development of their children under three through regular visits by trained social workers.
The home-visiting program has been rolled out in 2,615 municipalities, representing 79% of those eligible for support. In just a year, the social workers had visited 78,332 individuals in 25 states, including 69,389 children and 8,943 pregnant women.
The social workers target families that are beneficiaries of “Bolsa Familia” welfare payments, visiting weekly, biweekly, or monthly from pregnancy to three years, and up to six for disabled children.
“The idea is not to play or intervene directly with the children, but to empower the child’s parents to be good parents”
They give tips and propose activities for parents to develop children’s motor coordination and cognitive development. Meanwhile, if a child needs extra help, they can refer them to the relevant public service – such as a speech-language pathologist for children with difficulties speaking.
“The idea is not to play or intervene directly with the children, but to empower the child’s parents to be good parents, to stimulate early child development, to see what’s happening in the territory, and occasionally to send families who need extra help to public services,” said Ely Harasawa, Director of the Happy Child Program, in the Ministry of Social Development.
“We have an interministerial committee at the federal level,” said Harasawa. “The Ministry of Social Development works with other ministries on a capacity-building program for the visitors, including the ministries of education, health, human rights and culture. Together they designed the permanent training program.”
This central training is filtered down to the state level by coordinators and to supervisors in each municipality. The federal government transfers cash to the municipalities for them to hire and train social workers who make the home visits.
The budget for Happy Child in 2017 is around $100 million, and it costs around $20 per month per child. Funds are spent on things like training staff, providing toys and books, and creating manuals for the visitors: such as how to approach a family, plan the visit, develop activities, register children with local public services, and how to proceed if you see violence or health problems.
Launched in October 2016, Happy Child began in Pacatuba, a poor area in the northeast of Brazil where around 58.2% of the population live on less than half the country’s minimum wage each month. The need for education and support for young families was highlighted by the Happy Child team’s experience there, when visitors saw a two-year-old eating flour with sugar because no other food was available.
An opinion poll in 2012 also showed the depth of the issue. Asking parents what they perceived to be important for child development up to three, only 12% thought receiving affection from parents was significant. Just 11% believed providing stimuli such as music and stories made a difference.
The program is being supported by a number of foundations and non-profit organisations, including Brazil’s Fundação Cecilia Souto Vidigal and the Bernard van Leer Foundation.
Arguably the program’s most significant innovation is its holistic approach, which integrates public services to improve access for poor families. However, inter-sectoral cooperation has its challenges.
“Historically, social assistance professionals have been fighting to make it a special sector like health or education. It has only become its own professional category very recently,” said Harasawa.
The project’s impact is yet to be evaluated, but there is already some scientific disagreement as to the potential benefits for child development.
Happy Child was based on a smaller-scale Better Childhood Program (PIM) pilot in Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil. Some early analyses have pointed to a whole host of health, social and educational benefits, such as improving school outcomes and reducing the risk of dropout and future criminality. Meanwhile, Canadian evaluators of PIM found no significant impact.
“We know we have to produce more information and more tools for the visitors”
Also, the size and diversity of Brazil’s population make it difficult to be effective in all municipalities, especially those without good public services. “Brazil is too big and too different. We have many traditional, indigenous communities, and very poor communities in big metropolitan areas,” said Harasawa.
The Happy Child project now aims to expand its reach and resources. “We know we have to produce more information and more tools for the visitors,” Harasawa said. They currently have the capacity to help up to 400,000 children, but are hoping to get funding to increase that capacity to one million next year.
The ultimate aim is to help four million children across Brazil. If the scheme can bring about similar results to other successful home visiting programs, most famously in Jamaica, then the program could result in a lot of happy children.
(Picture credit: Flickr/Ministério do Desenvolvimento Social)