Interview: Cassie Landers

Sanchi Ravishanker
Publication Year:
  • SDG 3 - Good Health and Well-Being
  • SDG 4 - Quality Education
  • SDG 16 - Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions


Cassie Landers holds a Doctorate in Education, as well as a Master's in Public Health, both from Harvard University. Cassie Landers holds a Doctorate in Education, as well as a Master's in Public Health, both from Harvard University. Since 1985, Dr. Landers has worked with UNICEF and other international agencies to promote policies and programs in support of young children and their families. Over the past 20 years, she has provided technical assistance and support to child development programs in over 60 countries throughout Southern Africa, South Asia, East Asia, Middle East and North Africa, Central Asia and Eastern Europe. In collaboration with the Open Society Foundations, Dr. Landers has designed a Master degree program in Early Childhood Development, BRAC University, Bangladesh and was a visiting professor at the Moscow School of Social and Economic Studies. She has extensive experience in the design, implementation, and training of practitioners at all levels, developing global interventions ranging from parenting education to developmental pediatrics. Dr. Landers has participated in rapid assessment missions in areas of conflict including Haiti, Liberia, East Timor, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Romania and has designed interventions for children in conflict and post conflict situations. An early literacy initiative in collaboration with Head Start National Literacy Center brings her international expertise to young children and families throughout the US.


What has your research in child development revealed regarding areas with arising needs for better child-focused programming?

A couple of things, actually. I have had the privilege of working in this field for a very long time. There have been so many significant developments and advancements, particularly over the last decade. That is regarding what I think most families and early childhood caregivers and teachers knew for a long time – which was how these early years in life lay a platform for all later development. While we knew that intuitively, I think we had a very strong push and tipping point when we had the research from early brain development. The research talked about how the brain in the first five, six years of life is so dependent on the quality of the interactions – both human and physical – but also the capacity for the environment to provide ever more increasing areas of stimulation. For the longest time, while this was recognized as a critical period of life, it was always seen within the purview of the family. Over the years that I’ve been in the field, we’ve been able to say that while families are the first and most important teachers, there is a great deal of information that can be shared with families as the most important teachers of their children. Much of my work has tried to focus on different strategies, capacities and platforms for providing families with critical information about how they can support children’s early development. While we’ve always had such strong information channels open around health and nutrition, I think the whole area of what’s happening in language and cognitive development and social and emotional learning are all areas that while we discover new information all the time, I think it is a commitment to those of us in the field to find ways to get that information to families.  


Do you think science is playing a stronger role in informing UNICEF’s programming?

Yes, absolutely! Having been on both sides – spending much of my career out in the field designing programmes, and now the last ten years at Columbia University, I see a great friendship and partnership between academia, practitioners and policy makers. I should say though, one of the things I have been so intrigued by at Columbia is not the traditional academic research. Within public health, there is the area of implementation science in which we try to take these ideas which perhaps are stimulated and encouraged through what we’re learning from science. Taking those ideas and designing programmes are usually done initially a smaller scale and then through some of the tools of implementation science to see what we can do to understand the process by which these programmes can be scaled up, reaching more children and families that are at risk. Also finding ways to understand what is required as we take successful programmes in one setting or community and try to transfer those to other settings. Therefore, to understand through implementation science the basic core principles of what makes an effective programme. Thinking of it in that way, we need a partnership between those who are helping us understand what are the essential components from a child development/scientific point of view but recognizing what is feasible within the constraints – whether they are cultural, financial or systemic. This allows us to adapt and adjust programmes that can maintain quality but also try to move to scale. With that perspective, I think it’s all hands on deck. I am pleased to say that our capacity, whether researchers, programmers, evaluators or policy makers, is a recognition that everyone is needed in addressing and solving some of these problems.


The relationship between education and health is complex but very much important. With regards to designing relevant interventions, some practitioners have suggested more needs to be done across sectors rather than solely within sectors. What are your thoughts on this and perhaps, more specifically, with regards to the education and health sectors?

When you think about child development, it doesn’t fit neatly into one sector or another. While I suppose has been the challenge for early childhood but in a way, when we have had success, a measure of the need for integration. One of the things that I always recognized was that in order to provide what we think of as optimal conditions for the first six, seven years of life – when a child is getting ready to enter the education system – we do have a combination of those two sectors at play in the early years. Perhaps it’s a way of looking at a primary or secondary sector. In the first three years of life, when UNICEF and some of its countries are still struggling with mortality rates, the primary intervention there is often the health sector given its ability to reach families through community-based health workers. I think the goal is to equip the health workers with basic information not only on health and nutrition but also adding to their toolkit, information and strategies that focus more on the social, emotional and cognitive early learning which we know is so critical in the first three years.

What it is that a young infant, toddler or child needs to keep moving along the developmental pathway. I have to say, the education sector (and I have a hindsight with history) was a little bit slower to pick up the role of what early childhood could do in order to ensure that a child at the age of seven is equipped and ready to succeed in school by the time they enter. There I think, we have forged greater integration. By the time the child is three or four, we pick up the child by the education sector with trying to help families and communities to prepare children with early learning opportunities. That’s where the educational specialists who are focused on early learning can be the partner or the main recipient but again, the education sector needs to link vey closely in the early years to also ensure the health and nutrition of the child and the family as well. I like to think of it as a continuum where different sectors hand the child over but in a sequential fashion. We have made great progress there as well. What became very apparent to the education sector is that with the high rates of dropouts in the early years, we then needed to look backward into some of the early periods of looking at what we can do to ensure the child has the necessary cognitive, language, social, emotional and capacity for learning. As we know from nutrition, has the nutritional energy to learn. Child development has always been an integrated field. The more we realize we need partners in the different sectors rather than try to do it all ourselves, is really the successful way forward.


Professor Landers, you have extensive experience in the design and implementation of global interventions in both, education and health. Given our current global scenario and how the pandemic has interrupted in-class learning, what do you think is important for supporting children’s education right now?

This is a question all of us are asking ourselves. At whatever level of education system, I think we are all trying our best to teach online. Recognizing that far greater teaching skills are needed if this is going to be a modality we utilize more in the future. There is no real substitute for face-to-face learning so I think that finding ways to do blended types of programmes, at least in societies and cultures where we have the option to consider that. If I go back to thinking about early childhood and some of the work I have been doing in looking at what early childhood programmes can do in situations of emergencies, it’s really trying to keep the child safe and protected. In order to provide that, we needed to look at the whole family. It’s not just making sure children feel safe but also to find ways to include and support the whole family. In times of great stress, and I’m thinking now of some of the work I’ve had the pleasure of doing with children in refugee cramps. Particularly, in Bangladesh with the Rohingya group in collaboration with the Lego Foundation and Sesame Street, our goal initially has been to focus much more on children’s social and emotional sense of security and comfort. Once we can establish that, we can slowly begin to integrate the more traditional areas of language and cognitive development. Again, always recognizing what the psychosocial needs are of children that are struggling. Routines of learning are critical. Having a routine around which children spend a portion of their day as well as focused-driven activities are critical. Looking at child-centered approaches to learning, which is a bit of a jargon but it means trying to get away from didactic education to focusing more on individual children’s needs and coming up with child-friendly types of learning curriculum and trying to alleviate some of the stress of learning and testing that have been very much part of the models of the early learning periods.


Having supported over 60 countries with child development programmes, what is a memorable lesson or two that you learned from your time in the field? Perhaps more concretely, how have your experiences in the field informed your work and research as an academic?

That’s a nice question. I would say from the very beginning of my work, I have always felt that I’ve learned far more from the communities and partnerships (like programme developers or UNICEF officers) that I’ve worked with, I think there’s such a great wisdom they carry in terms of understanding what the needs are. Listening to the voices of communities has been my most important lesson. Particularly, mothers since my field has often been listening to young mothers but not the exclusion of fathers – which is a mistake our field made early on but now a greater emphasis on looking at the whole family, including fathers in the early childhood period. Some of the more recent work I’ve done is linking early child development programmes to child protection programmes, which is a really exciting and important partnership as well. Looking at violence as a whole and trying to change social norms around the acceptance of violence around young children. Peeling back the curtain of what is most important to communities, recognizing their informal solutions to a lot of problems. When we do bring in interventions, such as my most recent one – which is something called the Play Labs which we brought to Bangladesh, Tanzania and Uganda, with funding from the Lego Foundation. It’s very much this concept of children learning through Play but also recognizing at the ground level, it’s a fairly new concept for families. So it’s important to come not just with an outside intervention but to listen and see what some of their needs are and how the model can be blended to incorporate their perceptions of what children should be learning. And of course, providing information about what we learn from science on the best ways children can gain a sense of confidence, appreciation and joy and learning. That’s one key lesson I have learned. It’s been a great privilege to meet communities. I think one of the challenges I still feel we have, is that we often start programmes with a great deal of enthusiasm and a lot of outside support. The enthusiasm begins to wane as funding begins to come to an end. Often times I think the sustainability of those programmes changes. Sustainability and quality are areas I think about a lot. Despite of all the challenges we are going through now and have gone through in the past, I think the field of early childhood remains and opportunity for optimism and hope.


There is a fear the current pandemic can prove devastating for the most vulnerable children – like those in places without access to basic sanitation or health services. The impacts of COVID-19 on children’s overall wellbeing will likely not be evenly distributed. Drawing from your work in conflict areas, what are immediate actions the international community can take to protect these children and their families?

I think this is something that is overwhelming all of us, even in the best of circumstances because of what we all know about families and children living in the most marginalized communities. We are all really concerned about the virus spreading so quickly. I have to say, these last few weeks, I haven’t had the amount of time to begin to delve into what some of the leaders are thinking about early childhood response to COVID-19. I think some of the solutions we have tired to put in place, we haven’t had the fear of this rapid transmission through touch and close proximity which in early childhood is what we have always valued as what children need to be in a safe space. Often times, these safe spaces are very small so there’s not the luxury of social distancing. I think the best recourse we can have is to try to find the preventive mechanisms that have some degree of being implemented. The hand washing with soap and water is such a problem in urban slum areas, so perhaps a real strong and emergent linkages with NGOs and Governments to try and get some of those sanitation needs is one starting point. It’s really again about working more with communities to see what strategies they can put in place in order to prevent some of this transmission. More than ever, we really need to link arm and arm with communities but also with national Governments and outside donor agencies. There is such a tendency during these emergencies to forget about young children. I have a feeling there will be this recognition now since early childhood features so much in the understanding almost all of the large NGOs and certainly in UNICEF’s work. I think we’re going to have to learn rapid period of piloting and learning and seeing if we can stay on top of the curve. We are all terribly concerned until we have a better understanding of the vaccine and cure. As we all say, this virus knows no borders or economic grouping.


Do you think this pandemic will impact the future of early childhood development? If so, how?

One of the big strategies that we use in early child development and in fact, UNICEF has been a big supporter of this, is parenting education. I think it certainly will impact the knowledge that we have gained from this in terms of prevention. It will be extremely important to build into the parenting education programme. Also, in terms of children out of school for any length of time, I think there will be a role for informal programmes for early child development – things that you can do outside of school that promote early learning, stimulation and language development. It will probably put a damper on some of the more formal programmes like young children in primary schools but the role of informal and early childhood programmes and what parents and families can do to support early learning will probably be increasingly important.


What do you see as being important for the next generation and their potential to improve the state of the world’s children?

I think the ability to work in teams, across disciplines to solve the continued problems we have with the world’s children. Maintaining programmes with a focus on quality and what we need to do to understand quality and to understand programmes moving to scale with quality. The field of implementation science is a really exciting one where you’re actually combining both, quantitative and qualitative skills to understand programmes. Increasingly involve the voices of children in helping to devise national policies and programmes. Perhaps, most importantly, never losing sight of the most marginalized groups. Unfortunately, I think that is going to grow; whether it be children on the move or migrant populations internally displaced or even children suffering from climate change. I think those are going to be the big issues. Of course, that’s why it’s going to be critical for each individual to feel a certain degree of expertise that they can bring to this notion of being able to work collaboratively across disciplines with a critical way of thinking and learning. I suspect, a hopeful lens would be the emerging technology that will help disseminate information and education in ways that we probably don’t even or I may just have a glimpse of in my lifetime. The ways that technology can enhance, disseminate and have a more equitable focus on reaching the marginalized groups.



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