Photo courtesy of UNICEF Sierra Leone / Twitter

Dr. Sarah Jensen and Child Development in Rwanda

On October 6, 2021, Dr. Sarah Jensen was invited to present about her psychology study done on child development in various impoverished communities in Rwanda, as well as the intervention program currently in place to support these families.

Jensen began her presentation by giving background on what is needed for a child to have a healthy mental and physical development in the earliest stages of life. 

“Children are influenced both by their proximal environment, which is often referred to as the home environment or their caregiver, who they depend on not just to meet their critical basic needs like nutrition and warmth, but also stimulation, care, stability, and a safe environment in which they can explore the world,” Jensen explained.

When children do not receive these basic needs, it is reflected in both their physical and mental health. 

Lacking a stable environment from a young age can cause cognitive, linguistic, and physical stunting. These then lead to poor educational experiences and academic abilities later in life. Malnourishment and lack of mental stimulation is the source of the poor health that too many children in impoverished countries experience.

Jensen focused on Rwanda in her talk, describing how the low-income country is at the highest risk for producing these underdeveloped children. Much of the poor parenting trends in Rwanda stem from the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, a horrific event that caused lasting trauma, displacement, and poverty for the survivors. This, in turn, affects their parenting ability for the next generation.

“The widespread hardship and undernutrition combined with this post-conflict situation, in some ways creates a double burden that makes it a much more complex environment to work in,” Jensen elaborated.

These daily hardships due to poverty and other stressors mixed with the trauma of their pasts influences parents’ mental health and causes emotional dysregulation. This results in the parents being less present as their children grow up, as well as having more violent disciplinary tendencies in the home. The poor mental and emotional health of parents is ultimately reflected in the underdevelopment of their children, where stunting and malnutrition are common.

In the sample study Jensen’s team observed in Rwanda, each family was suffering the most extreme level of poverty with a child between six and thirty-six months. Out of the caregivers that were screened, 45% were positive for internalizing symptoms of poor mental health, and 19% were positive for PTSD. 

“Daily hardships were also very common in this population… Almost the entire sample, 92%, reported not having enough money to feel like they were able to live by what they have, so they had this constant chronic stress of being able to find the money to live,” Jensen articulated. 

However, Jensen and her team have been working to implement a solution to help caregivers support developing children in the best way they can. 

The Sugira Muryango Intervention Program is based on coaching parents and actively supporting caregivers to provide the best home learning environments possible for their children. The program begins with a focus on supporting the mental health of caregivers, encouraging non-violent tendencies towards their partners and children. In turn, a more healthy mental state in parents is able to reflect greatly in short- and long-term effects on the children. 

“Immediately after the intervention, we see a steep increase in the number of stimulating activities that caregivers engage in, and we maintain this increase, or higher rate, of stimulating activities in the households that received the intervention a year after the program ended,” stated Jensen.

The intervention has clear positive results in promoting caregivers’ presence in their children’s lives, with a much higher level of parent support and engagement in creating a stimulating environment for their child’s physical and mental development.

In addition, results showed incredibly improved sensitive response care, where parents were more likely to take their child to a local hospital than treat them with at-home herbal remedies.

There are also movements in place to grow the intervention to a national and eventually global level, where every low-income country can have access to Sugiro Muryango resources for better child development. 

“This expansion program really has built up the structure and is testing the structure for delivering the program at that [government] scale,” stated Jensen. “It sets up a really nice system that the government is able to keep up.”

The Sugiro Muryango Intervention is able to help families in poverty create a stimulating environment for their children’s mental and physical growth. By supporting the caregivers’ mental health and easing financial strains, the program is able to leave a positive long-term impact on these families.

Coffee addict, aspiring world traveler, and lover of The Beatles.