Learning and Leading: Brazilian Policymakers Chart a New Course with the Science of Child Development

The mood was buoyant and collegial, but the stakes were high—planning a better future for children in a country experiencing rapid economic growth and wide societal disparities. This group of nearly 50 Brazilian politicians, policymakers, public managers and civil-society leaders had come together for the first time just five days earlier. What united them—both physically and philosophically—was an executive leadership course on early childhood development (ECD), which was hosted by the Center on the Developing Child.

They came to Harvard in March 2012 to engage in a week of dialogue on the science of ECD and how effective public leaders can apply this science to some of Brazil’s most complex social problems. A concluding course session occurs in Brazil in June, yet the students seemed already to have mastered its intent: a shared understanding of ECD and its importance to policy and practice.

Drawing on the latest research in the biological, behavioral, and social sciences as well as institutional and leadership development strategies, the program provided attendees with the knowledge and tools to design and implement more effective public policies and social programs. The program culminates with participants developing science-based action plans to strengthen early childhood policies or programs in their jurisdictions.

Translating Knowledge into Practice

“We have now a convergence of science, of economics, of social science on the importance of [a child’s] early years,” Mary E. Young, the course director and a senior advisor to the Center on the Developing Child, said in an interview. “However, our challenge is to communicate the importance of the early years to a whole range of stakeholders—starting from parents to community leaders to policymakers to heads of state,” said Young, a pediatrician who was formerly the World Bank’s senior technical expert for young children’s well-being and development. The executive leadership course, she said, aimed to help policymakers “to acquire a common knowledge on the importance of the early years, so that they will be able to translate that knowledge into practice to close the gap between what we know and what we do.”


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That point was clearly resonating with the program’s attendees. “The biggest or most important outcome is to analyze the policy in a different way, based on what we’ve learned here,” said Eduardo de Pádua Nazar, who is managing the early childhood education programs for the city of Rio de Janeiro, during a break between sessions. “It helps a lot,” he said, “when you think about it with the science.”


The executive leadership program is part of the Center on the Developing Child’s first major programmatic effort outside the United States, a collaborative initiative focused on using the science of child health and development to guide stronger policies and larger investments to benefit young children and their families in Brazil. Joining the Center in the initiative, known as the Núcleo Ciência Pela Infância, are the following collaborators: the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard University, Fundação Maria Cecília Souto Vidigal (a family foundation in São Paulo), the Faculty of Medicine at the University of São Paulo, and Insper (a private Brazilian university). The initiative was launched in Brazil last October, and the executive leadership program is its first major endeavor. For the development and implementation of this course, the Center on the Developing Child is also collaborating with the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio Grande do Sul, which will host the course’s concluding workshop in June.

In Cambridge, the Center welcomed participants from more than 15 Brazilian states, including more than 20 attendees from the executive branches of government at the federal, state, and municipal levels; 12 deputies from the federal parliament, who are members of the parliamentary caucus on early childhood and who represent 8 different political parties; and 15 leaders from child-focused foundations and non-governmental organizations in Brazil.

Because the Brazilian government is in the process of preparing a national plan for early child development, Paulo Bonilha Almeida, a pediatrician who is the coordinator of child health in the national health ministry, said he could not pass up “an opportunity like that of coming here to Harvard to learn a little bit more about the scientific evidence about [early childhood development], and even to learn about the other experiences, the international experiences.” 

Indeed, this is a crucial time for Brazil as a country, said Eduardo Queiroz, the executive director of Fundação Maria Cecília Souto Vidigal, in an interview. “It’s probably the first time that Brazil is really considered, internationally, a country that is moving to an important position not only economically but as a country in Latin America…and can be one of the leaders” globally, he said. “If Brazil wants to be more developed, without inequalities—or less inequalities than we have nowadays—we have to invest in our children,” he added. “We have to invest in the future of the country.” 

A Common Challenge: Coordination Among Agencies

During the course, the students heard presentations from more than a dozen experts, who covered topics as diverse as how early experiences set the foundation for lifelong health, learning, and behavior; development economics; innovation in the social sector; leadership strategies; and how to scale up programs in developing countries. The students also made site visits in Boston to see early childhood policy and practice organizations up close.

The former head of the department of social and health services in Washington state gave a lecture that was part tale-from-the-trenches and part pep talk. Susan Dreyfus, who is now president and CEO of Families International, described breaking down organizational barriers in her own department and working across agencies to align policy and practice with the science of early childhood development taught by the Center. As a result, Washington has already seen better outcomes for children and families, she said.

Trying to coordinate the work of the various ministries—education, health, and social services—that intersect with the lives of children and families is a challenge that holds true in Brazil also, according to interviews with attendees. Said Rosane Mendonça, who is the director of strategic affairs for the federal government in Brazil:  “To put all of the sectors on the same page—that’s the challenge.” 

—Millicent Lawton
Photos by Sergio Poldi

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