OVC Psychosocial Support

Ensures that children and caregivers have love, care, and protection by supporting the emotional, social, and spiritual aspects of a person’s life so that he or she can live with hope and dignity

OVC Psychosocial Support

Ensures that children and caregivers have love, care, and protection by supporting the emotional, social, and spiritual aspects of a person’s life so that he or she can live with hope and dignity
Sector at a Glance

Recent findings have revealed that three factors significantly influence child vulnerability: household wealth, a child’s living arrangements, and the education level of heads of households. A combination of these factors can have a debilitating effect on families by stressing caregivers, curtailing opportunities for economic and educational advancement, and placing families at a higher risk of psychosocial distress.

A recent Catholic Relief Services-conducted mental health screening of 457 new mothers in Kenya found that 65% of those mothers were depressed. Concerns about finances and health-related issues, and the grieving process for lost loved ones can weigh heavily on caregivers and manifest as depression, detachment, or different forms of abuse and neglect.

Because households must grapple with numerous issues, these concerns frequently are overlooked or misunderstood. Consequently, it is important to identify and address caregivers’ psychosocial needs to improve the overall well-being of each household.

Adverse childhood experiences can have a detrimental effect on a person’s overall quality of life. Abuse and neglect can lead to a host of problems, such as depression, early sexual initiation, drug and alcohol abuse, and heart and liver disease, among other health issues. Building resilience within a household is one way to strengthen a child’s ability to overcome stressors later in life.

Toxic stress, the result of dealing with prolonged stressful circumstances during childhood without a proper support network, disrupts the development of typical “brain architecture”; as a result, children become more vulnerable to cognitive impairment and stress-related diseases. Without that support, children who experience grief and loss, such as following a parent’s death, or who live with an illness can experience emotional shock and long-lasting negative effects. Children feel loss and change as much as adults do, although they often express or display those feelings in ways that adults may not recognize as grief.

The first few years of life are crucial to lifelong health and overall well-being. Too often, routine developmental screening looks only for signs of physical challenges and does not address a child’s social and emotional states. A child’s behaviors, though, reveal much about his or her quality of care and overall living environment. Those behaviors also can provide clues to a child’s physical conditions when no other obvious symptoms are present. Early childhood screening and assessment protocols must include indicators of behavioral functioning and emotional openness to fully address a child’s psychosocial needs.

Programming that accounts for the psychosocial needs of vulnerable children and their caregivers coupled with interventions, such as household economic strengthening and access to education, is essential to creating a comprehensive network of support for vulnerable households. Furthermore, sensitizing caregivers and communities to the needs of a grieving child allows them to identify grief behaviors and intervene appropriately so that the child will receive necessary psychosocial supports.

Tending to the psychic wounds of poverty and creating opportunities for dialogue and support helps to reduce stigma. Such actions empower participants with the psychosocial tools they need to help them understand and cope with the stresses and depression they may face. 

Psychosocial and spiritual supports are a core component of programming for vulnerable children and their caregivers. CRS aims to mitigate the long-term effects of toxic stress and depression by providing families, institutions, and communities with the tools they require to identify a support network that addresses each individual’s unique psychosocial needs. Integral to our work is a commitment to supporting early childhood development and teaching caregivers positive parenting techniques so they can more adeptly support the cognitive and emotional growth of the children in their care. We also work to improve the capacity of health, social, and volunteer community health workers so they can provide quality psychosocial assistance to families. Routine home visits are a mechanism for counseling or therapeutic play, or a means for recognizing specific symptoms that require a referral to specialized services. Because psychosocial needs vary, depending on age and developmental stage, CRS tailors programming to address the unique needs of young children, adolescents, and adult caregivers. Mentorships, vocational training, and peer support groups help teens and adults feel a sense of purpose and belonging, and help them develop new skill sets that can contribute to their financial well-being. CRS is committed to giving children a voice in their own care and development through a feedback mechanism, the Orphans and Vulnerable Children Well-Being Tool, or OWT, which is used to assess the effectiveness of programming for vulnerable children over time and identify any gaps that need addressing. In the aftermath of a natural or complex emergency, such is ongoing displacement due to conflict, CRS works to help mitigate psychosocial effects by providing child-friendly spaces where children can work through the ensuing grief and trauma.

Highlights of our work in OVC Psychosocial Support

CRS country programs
Malawi
Zimbabwe
Kenya
Tanzania
Zambia
Case studies

Stimulating Children and Supporting Caregivers in Malawi Through Early Childhood Development Programs

Photo by Sara A. Fajardo

Caregivers of young children in vulnerable households face the stress of juggling parenting demands while making ends meet. Women and girls often curtail farming or business activities to care for infants and toddlers, which consequently leads to diminished food and income for the extended family. In Malawi, volunteer-run community -based child care centers, or CBCCs, offer taxed caregivers a place to take their children for educational activities and constructive play. Caregivers are then free to work in the fields, care for sick family members, or dedicate time to income-generating activities.

CRS Malawi has a long history of supporting Early Childhood Development, or ECD, programs. More than 16,000 children attend 256 CRS-sponsored CBCCs in six Malawian districts. Working within ECD guidelines established by the Ministry of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare, CRS improves the educational quality children receive by investing in school construction and educational materials, establishing parent–teacher associations, and providing teacher training.

Recreation and playing fosters a child’s social growth, skills development, and stress relief. Vulnerable children frequently do not have the ability or time to play because of household responsibilities. Volunteer teachers learn best practices for engaging students through music, dance, and play versus more traditional rote memorization. Unconstrained by caregiving household chores, children can play, learn, and socialize in an environment that provides access to toys and tools they may not have at home. Giving children a head start in learning, ECD is a proven, solid investment that yields lifetime dividends, including better social and emotional functioning, and improved educational and overall economic success.

CBCCs also serve as information hubs on health care and other ECD support programs that caregivers can access in their communities. Meals are often provided and lead to the students’ improved nutritional status. In addition, the centers also help stimulate young minds. 

Stimulating Children and Supporting Caregivers in Malawi Through Early Childhood Development Programs

Caregivers of young children in vulnerable households face the stress of juggling parenting demands while making ends meet. Women and girls often curtail farming or business activities to care for infants and toddlers, which consequently leads to diminished food and income for the extended family. In Malawi, volunteer-run community -based child care centers, or CBCCs, offer taxed caregivers a place to take their children for educational activities and constructive play.

Read more

Offering New Perspectives on the Future for Girls in Zimbabwe Through Mentorships and Vocational Training

Photo by Sara A. Fajardo

In male-dominated societies, girls need options to the traditional paths of early marriage and motherhood. In Zimbabwe, where 18.6% of girls aged 15–19 years either are mothers or pregnant with their first child, and 21.7% are married, mentors play an increasingly vital part in providing vulnerable girls with positive choices on how to lead their lives.

From 2007 to 2009, 578 vulnerable Zimbabwean youths, including 408 at-risk girls, received vocational and life skills training as part of the Out-of-School Adolescents Support program. Placed in vocational training programs, participants were exposed to Junior Farmer Field Schools. Parents often pass down agricultural techniques to their children; however, the widespread AIDS epidemic has truncated much of this generational transmission of knowledge. Learning best farming practices in this program, though, empowered the girls—the bulk of responsibility for household nutrition falls on girls and women—to choose how to best provide for themselves and others in their care.

Exposure to positive female mentors, such as agricultural extension agents and program graduates, offered the girls new perspectives on their future. Equally important, the girls developed relationships with their peers in a supportive environment. These safe spaces allowed them to explore issues of concern, a valuable form of psychosocial support.

The combination of child rights and life skills education with vocational training empowered these girls to make informed decisions about their lives. Many girls stated that the improved knowledge about their rights, including the ability to identify abuse and where to get help in case of abuse and rape, was invaluable. Their increased crop production and income also provided additional financial security. The girls’ feelings of self-determination extended into their views of marriage: They reported feeling they had greater freedom in choosing whom and when they would marry.

Offering New Perspectives on the Future for Girls in Zimbabwe Through Mentorships and Vocational Training

In male-dominated societies, girls need options to the traditional paths of early marriage and motherhood. In Zimbabwe, where 18.6% of girls aged 15–19 years either are mothers or pregnant with their first child, and 21.7% are married, mentors play an increasingly vital part in providing vulnerable girls with positive choices on how to lead their lives.

Read more

Including Children’s Perspective on Their Well-Being Through the OVC Well-Being Tool

Photo by Sara A. Fajardo

One challenge facing orphan and vulnerable children, or OVC, programs is assessing a program’s effects on a child’s overall well-being. OVC programming addresses so many facets of child well-being that it can make its effectiveness difficult to measure. CRS responded to this challenge by developing a valid, reliable tool that is practical to administer across CRS OVC programs: the OWT. The OWT represents the outcomes and effects of holistic OVC programming.

This tool captures well-being from a child’s perspective. Children aged 13–18 years are asked to self-report on their well-being using 30 questions that cover the following areas: food/nutrition, education shelter, economic opportunities, protection, mental health, family, health, spirituality, and community cohesion. Input from the children themselves strengthens CRS efforts because it allows us to add validity and responsiveness to child-friendly programs. The OWT was validated during a five-country pilot, including Kenya, in 2006 and 2007.

The OWT’s particular strength is that it provides a child’s perspective on his or her well-being in a holistic, age-appropriate manner. In addition, the tool is a low-cost, rapid assessment measure. Children appear enthusiastic about the tool: They have reported that they are pleased to be asked their opinion. The OWT can be used as a repeated measure to assess the effects of OVC programming on child well-being. It should be used to monitor OVC programs at an aggregate level to identify patterns of change in OVC well-being over time. A program applies the results of the OWT by focusing on interventions in lowest-scored domains.

The OWT is now fully implemented into CRS vulnerable children programming and has also been adopted by the American Red Cross and Plan International.

Including Children’s Perspective on Their Well-Being Through the OVC Well-Being Tool

One challenge facing orphan and vulnerable children, or OVC, programs is assessing a program’s effects on a child’s overall well-being. OVC programming addresses so many facets of child well-being that it can make its effectiveness difficult to measure. CRS responded to this challenge by developing a valid, reliable tool that is practical to administer across CRS OVC programs: the OWT. The OWT represents the outcomes and effects of holistic OVC programming.

Read more

Using Positive Parenting to Help Children in Tanzania Thrive

Photo by Sara A. Fajardo

Play is essential to children’s physical, language, social, and emotional development. It unlocks imaginations and gives children a vehicle for processing intense emotions. Caregivers, though, may mistakenly believe that play requires costly toys, or they simply may be unfamiliar with when and how to engage children.

In Tanzania, though, caregivers are transforming scraps of cloth into toy rabbits, used bags into balls, and plastic bottles filled with pebbles into makeshift rattles for babies, thanks to the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation-funded THRIVE project. Through this program, more than 1,232 caregivers are learning positive parenting skills that include how to make their own toys with locally available materials.

Furthermore, THRIVE is helping pregnant caregivers and those caring for children through age 5 years discover how to give children the best possible start in life. During routine home visits, trained community health workers guide caregivers through a curriculum that makes the most out of the essential window of opportunity for cognitive and emotional development during a child’s formative years.

Participants learn about developmentally appropriate nutrition and health, and better ways to manage stress. They also learn positive parenting techniques that stimulate young minds through a play-based approach to learning and discipline methods that foster thought and shy away from customary corporal punishment. Lessons focus on the importance of exclusive breastfeeding, vaccines, proper nutrition, the different stages of development and how to best engage children, alternatives to spanking, the use of songs and poems to stimulate language development, and how to play with their kids.

Similar CRS positive parenting initiatives have been put into place across six African countries; the Government of Zambia adopted one such initiative as its national training curriculum. CRS also developed an eight-session training guide for positive parenting that seven African countries have adapted for use.

Using Positive Parenting to Help Children in Tanzania Thrive

Play is essential to children’s physical, language, social, and emotional development. It unlocks imaginations and gives children a vehicle for processing intense emotions. Caregivers, though, may mistakenly believe that play requires costly toys, or they simply may be unfamiliar with when and how to engage children.

Read more

Giving Children Living With HIV Psychosocial Support

Photo by Sara A. Fajardo

Without proper treatment, half of infants globally who live with HIV will die before age 2 years. Fear of stigma or discrimination often prevents caregivers from seeking testing for their children. Although an estimated 3.2 million children live with HIV, testing and counseling for pediatric HIV continues to lag far behind that for adults.

Few rural health services providers are equipped to provide the care and psychosocial support that this unique population requires. To remedy this situation, CRS, in collaboration with the Regional Center for Quality Health Care/African Network for the Care of Children Affected by AIDS and AIDSRelief, a consortium funded through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, developed the comprehensive curriculum Psychosocial Care and Counseling for HIV-Infected Children and Adolescents to train health professionals to identify and address psychosocial concerns arising in their pediatric HIV work.

Adopted as the national curriculum by the government of Zambia, this competency-based training is divided into 14 modules that cover topics ranging from natural disease progression in children to family-centered care; the differences between counseling young children and adolescents; palliative care; grief and bereavement; and stress management for health care providers. Participants are taught to identify abnormal development associated with HIV, such as wasting and failure to thrive that can lead to testing and a diagnosis. Child- and adolescent-specific approaches to therapy include using play and art to help children process their virus and techniques to help children adhere to their antiretroviral therapy regimens.

The modular format can be tailored as a complete package or as stand-alone units that are based on identified participants’ needs. By providing the necessary skill sets for appropriate assessment and basic interventions, health care providers can help turn the tide on pediatric HIV and give families the quality support services they need.


Tools and manuals

CRS Guide to Working With Volunteers

OVC Psychosocial Support

This guide helps country programs address issues surrounding volunteer engagement in programming. Access Resource

Orphans and Vulnerable Children Well-Being Tool

OVC Psychosocial Support

This self-report measure intended for 13- to 18-year-olds provides a fast, easy method of securing data about the overall well-being of children in OVC programs. Access Resource

Psychosocial Care and Counseling for HIV-Infected Children and Adolescents: A Training Curriculum

OVC Psychosocial Support

This competency-based training is designed to enable health care providers to provide safe, high-quality counseling and support services to children and adolescents living with HIV, and their families. Access Resource

Applying a Girls’ Lens to the Palette of Integrated Empowerment Interventions: A Compendium of Learning on Effective Programming to Empower Adolescent Girls

OVC Psychosocial Support

This learning module is for practitioners, donors, or government institutions engaged in girls’ programming or seeking to insert a “girl’s lens” into multisectorial programming. Access Resource

My Skills, My Money, My Brighter Future in Zimbabwe: An Assessment of Economic Strengthening Interventions for Adolescent Girls

OVC Psychosocial Support

This analysis of a program is designed to improve the economic status, food security, health, and psychosocial well-being of out-of-school—or at risk of being out-of-school—adolescents. Access Resource

Using Play for Growing Smart Children: Things You Can Do and Toys You Can Make

OVC Psychosocial Support

Using this manual, caregivers at home or at early childhood development centers can learn to understand the relationship between toys and a child’s developmental milestones. Access Resource