Supported parents help children thrive

UNICEF, together with partners, and thanks to the support of the LEGO Foundation, is testing a new Caring for the Caregiver training package in Serbia

Jelena Terzić
01 June 2021

Serbia - Aleksandra Ignjatovic from Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, is the mother of three-year-old Kan. He’s a curious boy with long, brown curls and big eyes. Aleksandra is also a preschool teacher. At work, she takes care of dozens of boys and girls every day. But at home, she often felt guilty and tired.

“I was always stressed. I would get irritated about the smallest things. I thought I had to do everything by myself and I was trying to do so. I would find time for my child, but even then, I was thinking about all the [other] things I had to do. I could never relax,” recalls Aleksandra.

Kanova porodica, uz podršku praktičara, provodi kvalitetnije vreme zajedno.
UNICEF Srbija/2021/Pančić

Often exhausted, stressed, and lacking support, parents struggle to provide a nurturing and stimulating environment for their children. And the COVID-19 pandemic has put additional pressure on families. 

UNICEF, together with partners, and thanks to the support of the LEGO Foundation, is testing a new Caring for the Caregiver training package in Serbia as part of the broader UNICEF-LEGO Foundation Scaling Up Playful Parenting programme, which has helped parents like Aleksandra realize that they’re not alone and that parenting is a learning process.

The Caring for the Caregiver package equips frontline workers with tools to help parents and caregivers manage stress, focus on self-care, engage in conflict resolution, organize daily routines, and share parental responsibilities. When their mental health and emotional well-being are supported, parents are better placed to provide nurturing care, engage in playful interactions with their young children, and help their children develop and learn through daily activities filled with love, connection, and joy. By supporting parents, the Caring for the Caregiver package also helps them better connect with and support their children and strengthens the parent-child relationship. In Serbia, this new package is being tested with pre-school teachers, visiting nurses and social workers to support parents and their families.

 “I realized that I wasn’t a bad mother just because I couldn’t handle everything on my own. I learned to make lists and go through them [and delegate jobs] dad can do this, grandma can do that,” explains Aleksandra. “This helped me to visualize what I can and can’t do, and what someone else can do.”

Kanovo zajedničko vreme sa mamom je vreme za slikanje
UNICEF Srbija/2021/Pančić

Aleksandra and her husband Petrit were supported by the staff in the preschool their son attends in Belgrade. The preschool staff used Daily Routine Cards from the Caring for the Caregiver package to help this couple to identify the challenges they were facing. A simple presentation of daily activities through pictures helps parents to plan their daily routines and to carve out time for themselves.

“They asked me if I had any hobbies before I had my son. I told them I used to paint,” says Aleksandra. “With the help of the [Daily Routine] cards, I realized that if Kan’s dad takes him out for an afternoon walk, I could have half an hour to one hour to paint. And when they come back from their walk, we can paint together.

“I try to be with him as much as possible. I try to be with Aleksandra as much as possible, to help her in any way I can,explains Petrit.

“It’s a great benefit for their relationship. She’s more focused on playing with her child, has patience, and is more satisfied with herself,” believes Zorica Cmolic, a preschool expert associate, who worked with Aleksandra and Petrit.

Experts working with families now realize that if they take care of parents, they are also taking care of the children. They’re trained to provide support to parents on their parenting journey from the very beginning - from the maternity ward to home visits, during paediatrician appointments, and also when children start attending preschool and other community services.

“Through this programme, I provide parents with tools that aren’t universal solutions, but rather help them find their own strengths, rely on them, find people they trust in their immediate surroundings, and then in their local community. This all helps them to overcome potentially stressful situations, explains Ana Kojic, a teacher in Kan’s preschool.

After the birth of her second child, Milana Medojevic, from Novi Sad in northern Serbia, realized that she had to learn how to be a mom of two. Bojana Jokic, who works at the preschool Milana’s son attends, noticed just how stressed Milana was.

Bojana suggested that I find more time for myself and spend more time only with  Makarije [my older child]. She told me to begin by [first spending] 15 minutes [together]. It's already different now, I walk our dog with my older son, we read stories, and make lunch,” explains Milana, while Makarije and Petra, his best friend from preschool, are making little houses for their snails.

UNICEF Serbia/2021

Petra’s parents also faced challenges. They couldn’t understand why Petra was always saying – No, I wont, I cant, says Petra's mom Olja Prodanovic.

“After talking to Bojana, we could see [Petra’s] progress even after a couple of days.”   

With the support provided by Bojana, Petra's parents were able to find new ways to connect with and support Petra through play.

Play helps parents and children learn to jointly plan daily activities. Olja and Petra, following Bojana’s advice, make daily schedules together. “She especially liked that we worked together to make schedules, since it was in the form of pictures. She liked to draw, to cut paper. We spent this time together in a creative way. It also meant that I had some free time as well,” explains Olja. 

Petra i Makarije su najbolji drugari iz vrtića.
UNICEF Srbija/2021/Pančić

My time with Petra is all the time, says proud dad Bojan Petkovic: “I think our play comes down to following. She leads, I follow. That way a child can create their own sense of good, bad, dangerous.”

Thanks to the Caring for the Caregiver package, frontline workers in the field of Early Childhood Development are now focusing on the well-being of not just children, but parents as well. Preschool teacher Bojana Jokic is convinced that it’s crucial for parents to be supported and empowered since they are the first and most important teachers for their children's lifelong learning. This support should start even when parents are expecting.

Svetlana Vuckovic, a visiting nurse from Novi Sad, met Magdalena, when she was pregnant with now eight-month-old Helena. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, their first contact was through remote video counselling. Meeting before Helena’s birth helped them build a relationship of trust. Now, Magdalena and her husband Nikola are confident parents.

Helenina sa roditeljima, kroz igru upoznaje svet oko sebe.
UNICEF Srbija/2021/Pančić

“Their joint alliance should be an example to everyone. The mom should have time for herself, the dad should have time for himself, and they should also have time together with their child,” believes Svetlana. When parents are supported to engage in self-care and manage stressors, they are then better able to connect with and support their children through nurturing and playful interactions, which is key to help their children thrive.

We never know where play will take us, sometimes [we just use] an ordinary spoon. When I fold laundry, she is always around me, Helena's mom says with a smile and adds, “we go through everything together and we want to teach her everything together!”

Every parent has strengths and talents. The Caring for the Caregiver package focuses on building on these strengths and identifying unique solutions and opportunities to overcome challenges. By empowering parents, we are also creating the best start for every child!