Community-led early childhood care and education

[Individual articles from the Summer 2019 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Samuel, four years old, initially struggled upon entering preschool. His mother, Christina, a refugee in Cairo, Egypt, had been stripped of her family support network when she fled Sudan and therefore was forced to leave him at home while she worked long hours to support the family. Samuel thus spent his first years largely isolated from human interaction, and feared people, light and the bustling streets. Despite her long hours of work, Christina could not afford childcare for Samuel—the preschools in the area were too expensive and the few free preschools were full. Community-led, holistic and sustainable programming is essential for refugee children like Samuel to access the benefits of quality early childhood care, which include cognitive, psychosocial and health effects that extend for a lifetime.

Refugee parents in Egypt must cope with disruption to family life, extreme poverty, trauma, no or insecure employment and lack of social support. Many thus struggle to provide their children with the support they need for early childhood development. Some neighborhoods in which refugees live have created affordable initiatives run by community-based organizations, with local community members as teachers, where refugee parents are comfortable leaving their children. These preschools within a community have many benefits: the preschool staff are familiar with the parents, they can conduct home visits and the parents do not have to travel long distances to drop off and pick up their children. However, the ongoing challenge of maintaining enough resources, space and trained teachers often puts these community preschools at risk of shutting down.

St. Andrew’s Refugee Services (StARS), a refugee-led and run organization in Cairo that partners with MCC, was well-equipped to support communities in facing these challenges. StARS had well-established relationships in the most vulnerable neighborhoods, experience and knowledge of best practices from running two preschools of its own and a strong dedication to refugee-led work which meant that community ownership would be central to the project. From this background, StARS developed an innovative early childhood wellbeing project, founded on the three principles identified above: community at the center of programming; holistic care; and sustainable growth.

Community-led programming: In October 2017, StARS’ early childhood development team worked with the StARS community outreach program, which had already conducted extensive community mapping, to identify communities most likely to benefit from its early childhood wellbeing project. StARS then conducted focus groups with community members to understand the existing community structures for early childhood care and elicit suggestions on what might be done to strengthen them. A common concern was how to increase financial resources, as the schools could not sustain themselves through community contributions or school fees alone without making the preschools unaffordable to the communities they sought to serve.

Building upon these focus group discussions, StARS collaborated with the community-based organizations in each neighborhood to elect a management team and design a response model. Caregivers voted on the priorities to be addressed, and a tailored training package was developed. For example, unlike most preschools, some of the preschools needed to care for very young babies, and thus required appropriate space and trainings.

Later in the project, the preschools also received a small budget to invest as they saw fit. StARS’ commitment to community-led programming enabled them to provide relevant, specialized advice to teachers. So, for example, when a student drew a picture of a gun during class, StARS’ teachers, who are themselves refugees, were able to provide an intensive two-week training for teachers and caregivers in the community on how to support young learners in building positive behaviors and coping with trauma. The community teachers later reported that the students no longer exhibited aggression and that the atmosphere of the class had improved. Altogether, this community-led approach means that plans are tailored to the particularities of the communities, thus building community trust and ownership of the project while reducing cost.

Holistic care: StARS’ community-led approach provides those caring for preschool-age children with a nuanced understanding of the underlying reasons for neglected early childhood development. In addition to training teachers on best practices, such as how to welcome students and create play activities, the early childhood wellbeing staff participate in weekly meetings with caregivers. This has created referral pathways to other departments within StARS (facilitating, for example, access to counseling, legal advice, education and medical micro-grants) for the parents and students. When StARS noticed that parents of children with disabilities needed assistance, they established a peer support group for the parents and created referral channels to a provider of education grants for special needs children. With this holistic approach, StARS does what it can to remove the many barriers to the children’s development.

Sustainable growth: It is not enough to train community teachers and to provide them with resources to offer early childhood education for refugee children. If these schools were to close because of lack of resources or, in order to sustain their operations, they were to increase school fees and thereby exclude the very families the project was meant to help, the schools’ founding goals would not be achieved. StARS therefore entered the project with a sustainable strategy. In the short term, work with the preschool management teams to establish alternate income streams, such as providing adult language classes in the center during the hours that the preschool is closed. In the long term, connect the preschool management team with other potential funders.

By training community members as teachers and by equipping parents with positive parenting skills, the project hopes to increase the recognition of early childhood wellbeing as an essential aspect of family life, and thus increase opportunities for children more widely than the parameters of the project. Ultimately, StARS seeks to have a wide impact on community life, including improved communication between family members and strengthened community relations. Sustainable, daily childcare programming for refugee children allows refugee households, especially single parent households like Christina’s, to engage in wage-earning activities while knowing that their children are being cared for in safe, development-focused, community-based spaces.

Daniel Davies is Policy and Advocacy Officer for St. Andrew’s Refugee Services (StARS) in Cairo, Egypt. Other staff running the Supporting Early Childhood Wellbeing Project also contributed to this article.

Learn more

Manning-Morton, Julia. “Well-Being in the Early Years.” Teach Early Years website. Available at

National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. “The Science of Neglect: The Persistent Absence of Responsive Care Disrupts the Developing Brain.” Working Paper No. 12. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Center on the Developing Child, 2012. Available at

St. Andrew’s Refugee Services website.

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