All work and low pay: Why we need to pay more attention to the early childhood workforce

All work and low pay: Why we need to pay more attention to the early childhood workforce


During a weekly visit through Cuna Más, a facilitator guides a mother and her child through stimulating activities, like singing, storytelling, and playtime. Photo credit: Programa Nacional Cuna Más


By Kimberly Josephson and Gabriela Guerrero

Lucía walks 30 minutes to the first home. When she arrives, she greets a mother and her son. She is a facilitator, or volunteer home visitor with Cuna Más, a public early childhood development (ECD) program in Peru that runs daycare centers in urban areas and a home visiting service in rural communities, like this one. She asks how things are going and asks about the mother’s daily routine — feeding, bathing, washing her son’s hands — providing guidance and feedback from time to time. Next is playtime, and she takes out a toy for the mother and child. While the child explores, she encourages the mother to talk to the child and ask questions about what he is doing. After, they sing a song together, or tell a story. When the hour is over, Lucía says goodbye to the family and walks to the next home. 

This sequence of activities is common for the 9,000 facilitators, mostly women, who deliver the Cuna Más home visiting service in poor, rural districts across Peru. They have been nominated by their communities to work with families to strengthen parenting practices and support the holistic (cognitive, language, physical, and socioemotional) development of children under 3. In exchange for volunteering about 10 hours per week, facilitators receive a small monthly stipend of about US $115 (a little less than half the minimum monthly wage for a full-time employee).

We know that children who have access to high quality early childhood programs lead healthier and more productive lives; in fact, interventions during the early years are among the most impactful and cost-effective for reducing inequalities, particularly for children living in poverty. Home visitors, along with child care workers, preschool teachers, community health workers, nurses and many others, are on the frontlines of ECD programs, but they’re also at the center of many challenges being faced as programs look to reach more children and improve the quality of their services. The Early Childhood Workforce Initiative (ECWI), led by Results for Development (R4D) and the International Step by Step Association (ISSA), is a global effort to bring these practitioners to the forefront of the conversation around ensuring access to quality services. Through new analysis, knowledge sharing, and collaborative learning, ECWI aims to provide country decision makers with the resources they need to build, support, and grow a strong early childhood workforce.

To increase the ECD community’s knowledge of workforce issues, R4D and the Group for the Analysis of Development (GRADE) decided to study Cuna Más, a program other low- and middle-income countries increasingly look to because of its success in reaching thousands of the poorest families in Peru and demonstrating promising effects on child development.

But the program has faced difficulties recruiting and retaining qualified members of the workforce and this presents a threat to sustaining program quality and expanding it to reach all vulnerable families. Our study identifies some of the main challenges and successes this workforce experiences in their day-to-day work. Unsurprisingly, many of these findings came from conversations we had with facilitators directly.

In these conversations, we discovered that facilitators love their work and feel their role is making a difference in the lives of children and families in their communities. They are eager to learn and value working closely with their supervisors who continually encourage and support them. But facilitators work twice the number of hours they have committed to (despite their volunteer status), earn just two-thirds of what their counterparts in non-formal preschools make, and have little room for professional growth. Much of their daily frustration surrounds a chronic lack of materials (puzzles, picture books, dolls and other toys), thus the very resources meant to embolden their work become an added source of stress.

“We give all of ourselves to be able to be part of the program, to be able to dedicate ourselves to young children… but the stipend they give us is very little.” — Cuna Más facilitator

To address some of these issues, we provide concrete recommendations for Cuna Más to consider, which may resonate more broadly with other ECD programs and policymakers. These include:

  • Gradually increase stipends to match those of facilitators’ peers in non-formal preschools, to better reward them for their work and make Cuna Más a competitive employment opportunity.
  • Offer scholarships for 50 facilitators to study ECD (or a related field), creating a path for outstanding individuals to advance professionally within the program and allowing Cuna Más to retain and leverage their experience.
  • Improve the process for purchasing and distributing program materials to make sure facilitators have the educational resources they need, when they need them, to feel prepared and confident in their work.

Feeling overburdened and underpaid isn’t unique to Cuna Más, Peru or to ECD programs at all for that matter. Yet we continue to overlook or minimize the challenges facing the early childhood workforce, when in fact they may be our biggest bottleneck and greatest opportunity for improving the lives of young children and families. How much do we, as a global community, know about what these practitioners experience every day and what they need to be more motivated and effective in their work?

We’ve come a long way in proving that early childhood policies and programs can lead to long-term health, education and social benefits. But we often fall short in trying to understand and support the very people who are key to delivering services to children and families. Whether designing a policy to expand access to preschool, evaluating the impact of a child care program, or launching a campaign to encourage parents to read to their children, we won’t see the progress we’re looking for until we put the workforce first.

Under the Early Childhood Workforce Initiative, a series of country studies will examine ways to strengthen and scale up a quality workforce. The first of these studies, Supporting the early childhood workforce at scale: The Cuna Más home visiting program in Peru, focuses on Cuna Más.

Kimberly Josephson is a senior program associate at R4D on the Global Education team where she focuses on early childhood development and secondary education, particularly in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Gabriela Guerrero is a senior researcher at GRADE in the areas of education and learning, poverty and equality, and methodologies for research and evaluation of policy and programs. Her research interests are ECD, educational transitions, intercultural bilingual education, and school effectiveness.