In a small rural community in Senegal, a young mother holds her toddler in her lap.

“Where is your nose?” she asks. Her daughter touches her nose.

“Where are your teeth?” Her daughter smiles broadly and points to her teeth.

“Where are your ears?” She laughs as her daughter reaches out for the dangling earrings she is wearing.

While this may seem like a completely normal interaction between a mother and child, in parts of Senegal and many other areas of West Africa, even the simple act of looking into a child’s eyes is considered taboo—an invitation for sickness or evil spirits to take up residence.

But ever since the community began implementing Tostan’s Reinforcement of Parental Practice program (RPP), funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, interactions like this one are becoming increasingly common as parents are learning more about the importance of early childhood development on their child’s cognitive development.

The RPP program was piloted in 32 communities in 2012. During the pilot phase, the project focused on a series of 43 class sessions covering human rights, children’s rights, brain development and the best ways to speak and interact with a baby, school monitoring mechanisms, the need and the means to create a close relationship between schools and communities, and the importance of establishing functional School Management Committees (SMCs). Taught by trained Tostan facilitators in national languages, these classes helped provide communities with the theoretical knowledge they needed to understand the major concepts behind early childhood development and the importance of promoting a child’s development during the first 6 years of the child’s life.

After the success of the pilot phase, the project expanded into 200 communities throughout Senegal in 2013. Recognizing the need for a more practical component to the program, the facilitators began experimenting with home visits, which gave them the opportunity to work more closely with the primary caregivers in the community and provide them with practical tips and advice on increasing quality interactions with their children.

This year, the RPP program has expanded into 110 new communities throughout Senegal. In addition to the class sessions and home visits that are now a part of the program, the facilitators are also reaching out to raise awareness among local community and religious leaders as well as in neighboring communities.

The RPP program continues to see stable, sustainable results.

“I used to have problems raising my daughter,” says one mother. “I used to hit her often, but when I entered Tostan’s RPP program, I came to know that hitting her is not the solution. Instead, through dialog and kind gestures, and looking her in the eyes, I have seen changes in her behavior.”

The project team is excited to be taking the RPP project to the next strategic level this year in the current 110 communities. With a strong implementation strategy and experienced field staff, these communities will soon be equipped to promote quality parent-child interactions, facilitate early childhood development, guarantee that children’s rights are respected, and help children prepare to enter school fully ready to learn and succeed. With this vision in mind, the RPP project is on its way to ensuring long-term impact and sustainable behavior change that will last for generations to come. 

Read more about Molly Melching’s surprising encounter with a grandmother and fish cleaner who spoke to her at length about brain development in early childhood one Sunday afternoon — information the older woman had picked up from attending Tostan’s RPP program.