The Sixth National Conference on Early Development and Parenting

Parents support their children's development

14 December 2022
ECI conference
Zoran Jovanović

Belgrade, 13 December, 2022 - Investing in family support during early childhood is necessary for a fair, accessible and high-quality support system that enables the optimal development and inclusion of each child, and we have a road ahead of us to create the conditions for quality services for the early development of children provided by visiting nurses, pediatricians and development counseling centers, in cooperation with preschool and social institutions in the community, to reach every parent in Serbia. That is the conclusion of the sixth National Conference on early development and parenting entitled "We are rooting for parents" , organized by UNICEF Serbia through a cooperation program with the Government of the Republic of Serbia.

In the previous period, the Government of the Republic of Serbia and UNICEF introduced and tested innovative parenting support practices in the first, and most important years of a child's life, through the models of Playful parenting for all families and Family-Oriented Early Intervention (PORI) for families of children with developmental disabilities.

"By joining forces, we achieved significant progress in improving the quality of services for the youngest children and their families. Through cooperation with relevant ministries, we supported 50 percent of districts in Serbia to provide innovative, intersectoral and family-oriented early intervention services for children with disabilities and developmental disabilities. Moreover, in one fifth of the municipalities in Serbia, we have strengthened primary health care services, as well as preschools, and social services, so that every new mother and father is reached with play and learning support. This shows that Serbia is as an example of good practice regionally and globally! However, the time has come to move away from piloting new services in selected localities toward improved standards of all services that can reach young children and their parents in every town and village across Serbia. This requires significant commitments to embed good practices into systems – from amendments in legislation to equitable allocation of financial resources and  investing in professionals," said Deyana Kostadinova, UNICEF Representative in Serbia.

Through UNICEF's regional program "Mitigating the impact of COVID-19 on children and families in the Western Balkans and Turkey", the European Union has invested 660,000 US dollars to mitigate the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic on the lives of children and families in Serbia.

"The pandemic tested all of our children and their parents, as learning and playing opportunities were confined to the home. However, to vulnerable children and families, the challenge of the pandemic was far bigger, where accessing support systems became more difficult. The EU joined forces with UNICEF in order to assure the continual provision of core services to vulnerable children and their families in the recovery response to COVID-19, including public health, education, early childhood development, and child protection systems. The EU has contributed €6 million to inprove the resilience of institutions which support children and caregivers in the region and supports children widely through many edcuation programmes.," said Emanuele Giaufret , Ambassador and Head of the Delegation of the European Union to the Republic of Serbia.

Research shows that in Serbia 17 percent of children under the age of five are exposed to risks to their optimal development, and that they have difficulties or disabilities in development, and therefore need additional support. That is why, in the previous year, the Family-Oriented Early Intervention (PORI) model was expanded from five test locations to 13 new ones, 40 new institutions were included in the program and more than 500 professionals were trained, 120 of whom worked directly with families. Since January of this year, more than 2,400 children have been included, 200 of them with intensive support.

"The Ministry of Family Care and Demography, in partnership with UNICEF, is committed to strengthening support for parents in the period of early childhood, through improving the availability and quality of services for parents," said Minister Kisić. As she added, organized and systemic parenting support contributes to good mental health and well-being of both children and their parents, prevention of violence and neglect in childhood, optimal realization of each child's potential and reduction of risky behaviors throughout life.

According to her, the Ministry will, in the coming period, emphasize policies and measures that contribute to and promote gender equality in parenting and empowering fathers, and through the organization of parenting schools for dads.

In partnership with the Government of the Republic of Serbia, UNICEF continues to strengthen the capacities of health care, education and social care systems to support the early development of children and provide quality services to parents that help them in this important role. The "Playful Parenting" program has been operating in 34 cities and municipalities since 2022 and brings together over 100 institutions and 1,000 practitioners in the field of children's health and early development. The innovative polyvalent patronage services have so far reached more than 20,000 parents, of which 30 percent are fathers. Also, training packages were developed and accredited, which trained more than 400 visiting nurses.

The State Secretary of the Ministry of Health, Assistant Professor Aleksandar Stefoski , PhD, pointed out that the Ministry of Health and UNICEF cooperate on several projects, including the strengthening of pediatric and outpatient services. "The first three years are the most important in the development of every child, so support for parents during this period is extremely important. Primary health care will be in focus in the coming period. Thus, development counseling centers will be available to every child and every parent. It is a good way to notice a delay in children's development in time," said Stefoski .

In addition to the parents' decision that the child with developmental difficulties live a dignified and quality life, it is very important for the families of these children to receive adequate support from the environment and the system as soon as possible.

"The words that came from a doctor showed me all that my child can do. She told me that I should let him live like anyone else - with human feelings and a brain, regardless of the developmental problem. The word 'developmental' means that there is a possibility for progress. With those words, the doctor spread her wings for us to develop together as a family. That's why support is crucial - it provides a good starting position for further early development, early interventions, but also an easier life path for the whole family," said Nikolina Radosavljević, mother of a child with developmental disabilities .

In order to overcome the challenges brought by the COVID-19 pandemic, the improvement of services was also aimed at the introduction of an innovative way of working - video counseling for families. In order to provide early interventions, basic digital equipment was provided for all institutions in the new 13 municipalities, and mobile phones and the Internet were provided for patrol services in 37 health centers. Materials were also created for professionals and parents about video counseling that helped them stay connected even during the intense period of the pandemic and isolation.

A significant contribution to the development of improved systemic parenting support services was provided by the European Union through the UNICEF regional program "Mitigating the impact of COVID-19 on children and families in the Western Balkans and Turkey", the LEGO Foundation through the project "Encouraging parenting through play", and the economic sector in Serbia.

The conclusions and recommendations of the Sixth National Conference on Early Development and Parenting will be included in the Cooperation Plan of UNICEF and the Ministry of Health and other ministries that care for children and families for the period from 2023 to 2025.

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