ICDP approach: sensitization, not intervention

“Start with what they know, build with what they have”

Lau Tsu 700 B.C.

New insights in child development brought to light the significance of psycho-social intervention that should be considered as one of the essential objectives of any programme of assistance aimed at children at risk. In addition to health and nutrition, the overall agenda should also include the psychosocial component, not always present in such programmes.

The ICDP approach is based on the idea that the best way to help children is by helping the children’s caregivers. Under pressures caused by poverty, migration, catastrophes, wars, as well as cultural changes due to pressures of modern life, the basic psycho-social requirements for human development may be lacking, even though the child may physically survive. At the centre of basic human psycho-social needs is the need for establishing a long-term, stable, and caring relationship with the primary caregiver, without which children cannot develop properly. This is confirmed by evidence from many research studies in early affective deprivation (Spitz 1945, Hunt 1982, Skeels 1966). The objective, therefore, must be to sensitize caregivers, in order to enhance their ability to provide good quality care and to release empathic feelings towards their children. The most feasible strategy for helping children on a large scale is to support and educate children’s network of stable caregivers, which in practice means sensitizing families and communities to enhance their own ability to sustain the social, cultural and environmental conditions necessary for the growth and development of children.


All cultures develop their own mechanisms for survival, development and care of children, and it is those ‘indigenous practices’ which need to be identified and reactivated in order to stimulate development which is truly authentic and long-lasting. The first steps in this type of intervention, which, in fact, is more like sensitising than intervening, is to identify the local child rearing practices that can serve as a basis for further extensions and development, rather than impose concepts and regulations from outside. Rejection is a protective impulse when elements from outside are introduced that cannot be assimilated. This rationale is applicable to most areas of intervention, regardless whether the intervention is material, technological or educational.


Empathy is the process of ‘putting yourself into someone else’s shoes’, of reaching beyond the self, understanding and feeling what another person is understanding and feeling. Empathy facilitates communication – communication breaks down when false presuppositions or assumptions are made about the other person’s state. Caregiver-child communication requires a sophisticated degree of empathy. In order to communicate effectively the caregiver needs to be able to understand the child’s affective and cognitive states. Caregivers’ ability to attune with, and respond to, children’s needs and initiatives constitutes the basis for good quality care. From repeated attunements an infant begins to develop a sense that other people can and will share in her feelings. This sense seems to develop around 8 months, and continues to be shaped by intimate relationships throughout life. When parents are misattuned to a child it is deeply upsetting and damaging. When a parent consistently fails to show any empathy with a range of emotions in the child – joys, tears, needing to cuddle – the child begins to avoid expressing and perhaps even feeling those same emotions. In this way an entire range of emotions can begin to be obliterated from the repertoire for intimate relations, especially if through childhood those feelings continue to be covertly or overtly discouraged.

The ICDP programme aims to bring out and sustain good quality interaction between caregivers and their children, by raising the awareness of caregivers about their children’s psycho-social needs, by increasing their sensitivity as well as ability to empathize and respond to these needs.


The above objective is best achieved through facilitative, rather than instructive guidance, which encourages active involvement and sharing among all participants in the ICDP programme. The objective is to create a warm human environment with space for self reflection and self discovery, without imposing readymade formulas from outside. Participant caregivers are invited to share their observations about their children’s behaviour and their own responses to it. The group leader (ICDP facilitator) works on promoting a positive conception or image of the child in relation to all participant caregivers and this often involves replacing negative perceptions with more positive ones. The task of the facilitator is to facilitates discussions with inquiring questions and then to stand back encouraging everyone to speak. He or she makes positive comments after the topics have been sufficiently explored by caregivers and at the end of the meeting emphasizes once more the developmentally oriented and optimistic conclusions arrived at by the group itself. New understanding results from a process of exploration in group that draws on personal practical experiences of all those present through sharing of personal stories and examples. The focus is on creating a space for the participant caregivers to hold meaningful and reciprocate dialogues, not only with each other, but to transfer this also in relation to their children, i.e. to practice listening and responding to their own children, as well as help their children learn to listen and respond to them.


Facilitative guidance presupposes certain key skills, which are practiced in the ICDP programme, such as the ability to: To establish a contract of trust and love with caregivers; To listen and empathize with the caregiver’s personal story; To lead a group discussion with constructive hints, but without imposing; To promote a positive image of the child and when required replace the negative conceptions that caregivers may have with positive ones; To make positive assessments, by seeking out and pointing out that which is already positive in the caregiver’s practice and the child’s behaviour; To interpret to the caregiver their child’s behaviour as meaningful; To give examples through stories and illustration from personal experience; To give practical demonstrations to caregivers of different aspects of good quality interaction.