Maria Lucia Gulassa has developed and is setting out to spread simple, effective new approaches to caring for infants and children in the daycare centers, nurseries, and institutions of Sao Paulo, especially those serving its poor majority.
The New Idea
Over the years of observation and experimentation, Maria Lucia gradually proved that those who came to rest in the government's biggest institution for abandoned infants were not genetically damaged or inferior. Instead the orderly, cautious ways of the institution were the chief causes of both physical and mental damage.She made this clear with results, including a sharp reduction in the death rate. These results in turn reflected her success in developing a wide array of techniques that even the overloaded staff of her institution could welcome. Almost as much of her invention, in fact, is in the appropriateness of her prescriptions to the needs of those working in these institutions as it is in the forms of care.
Having developed this successful set of techniques, Maria Lucia is now opening a new phase in her work -- getting her approach into the hands of thousands of those caring for poor children in institutions. Typically, she's poured herself into finding the most effective ways of doing so. These include teaching techniques on the one hand and substantive concern for such issues as the caregiver's role as educator and stress management as well as specific technical coverage. After several year's development and increasing, measured impact, she's ready to spread her work on a bigger scale.
Although the last two decades have witnessed a spectacular growth in the number of women entering the labor force in Brazil, preschool education and infant care for the poorest sector of the population is either non-existent or of very low quality. The number of daycare centers and nurseries where working mothers can leave their children has grown, but they are often overcrowded and, for a variety of reasons, commonly attend only the most basic nutritional, hygiene and physical safety needs of their charges.In daycare centers, nurseries, and institutions for abandoned children or children whose parents don't have the economic resources to care for them, the emotional and cognitive aspects of child development are often ignored. Children are forced to be quiet, obedient and passive; they are only rarely stimulated, held and played with. In the institution where she had been working, Maria Lucia initially found babies left lying in hygienic little table top cribs row on row. Order was more important than the children's curiosity and even motor development. Irritability, depression, and in extreme cases, even death followed quite predictably.
The women who work in low-budget daycare centers, nurseries and other institutions usually have no formal training. They are likely to be hired for the simple fact that they like children. Many of the women received little affection or stimulation when they were young, and were forced to go to work at a very early age. Overwhelmed by the number of children they must care for on the job, their work sometimes takes on a mechanical, repressive and even punitive style. Alternatively, or even simultaneously they may think of themselves as a better alternative mother, sowing yet other problems. Although they are extremely significant in the lives of the children they care for, they know little or nothing about early childhood development and the educator's critical role in shaping it.
Compounding the problem is the fact that the directors of daycare centers and institutions for abandoned children -- burdened by bureaucratic tasks and administrative controls and under pressure to keep children "under control" -- have little time or incentive to improve the situation.
Maria Lucia will for the next several years be working on two tasks simultaneously -- (1) building her understanding of the institutions and people to whom she's reaching out and of how best to help them learn what she has, and (2) developing the means of achieving a significant scale impact first in the city and then the state of Sao Paulo. Since her temperament leads her to go at whatever task is before her in a very empirical, fresh way, her first strategy will only emerge over time.For now, however, she responds selectively to requests from directors of institutions, educators and social workers, and government officials for help. After a site visit and an opportunity to talk with the teachers, she'll typically start with her 16 to 20 hour weekly or bi-weekly training course. She then follows up on a custom basis, learning and teaching institution by institution.
Maria Lucia earned her bachelor's degree in education in the early 1960's and has been an educator who notices and asks questions determinedly ever since. She knows the Sao Paulo school system intimately having taught in it for many years. From 1977 to 1988 she worked with infants at a state-run (FEBEM) home for children whose parents are unable to care for them.She's twice introduced significant changes to help Brazil's young people. In the 1970's she went from toy manufacturer to toy manufacturer until she finally persuaded them that producing educational toys made business as well as social sense.
Now she's setting out to get Brazil's childcare educators to take up an even more important charge, one that grows out of her own experimenting at FEBEM over the 1980's.
Maria Lucia has also been raising her own children over these two decades.