João Figueiró

Ashoka Fellow
Fellow since 2015
Ashoka commemorates and celebrates the life and work of this deceased Ashoka Fellow.
This description of João Figueiró's work was prepared when João Figueiró was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2015.


João Figueiró believes in the role every person has in children’s early development. He generates awareness, connects players, and showcases success models to enable all adults to help raise an empathetic next generation.

The New Idea

João Figueiró envisions a more peaceful and empathetic society. He feels early childhood years are the most critical to influence. Age zero to six is a critical period where children form values and develop personality traits. As a neuroscientist, João deeply understands the importance of early childhood development (ECD). He believes that not only educators and parents have a role to play in it but that every informed citizen should also play a role. He created Instituto Zero a Seis or Zero to Six Institute (ZAS) to do two things. The first goal is to get every citizen to see their role in children’s early development by raising awareness about the importance of ECD and successful initiatives around it. Secondly, it is to develop new strategies, policies, and programs.

While early childhood initiatives often take the perspective of one particular field, João integrates fields and connects all aspects of development (physical, social, emotional, etc.) to create a healthy early childhood ecosystem that uses the best ECD practices. The work is based on the most cutting-edge scientific evidence and has support of professionals from many disciplines that are directly or indirectly involved with early childcare throughout the country.

João is mapping and exposing the most successful ECD initiatives throughout the country so that people can replicate them. In order to give visibility to these practices and to the importance of early childhood development for a more peaceful society, João developed MOBI. This is a communication package that promotes content through campaigns, printed materials, a multimedia platform, SMS, TV and radio. The latter three have been promoted through partnerships with Google, TV Cultura, and a Brazilian Communication Company, respectively.

In order to create new successful initiatives that can add to this map, João also supports communities, CSOs, municipalities and companies that want to build local ECD programs and strategies. This is done through using ZAS' technical expertise and by using the mapped projects as a benchmark. He is specially engaged in projects with vulnerable communities to show that ECD can be done by anyone and with little resources. By showcasing the best practices, encouraging the creation of new ones, and in partnerships with relevant media vehicles, João intends to reach millions of Brazilians and show that they have an important role in forming future generations.

The Problem

Advancements in the fields of neuroscience and behavioral sciences have identified factors in multiple areas of a child’s life that support his or her healthy development early on, or increase the risk of violence, delinquency, drug use, or school failure. Even though this information is widely known among scientists and specialists, it is not common knowledge and therefore does not result in policy or personal habit change in Brazil. For example, parents and other educators in the country often believe that babies do not learn, when in fact, children develop the biggest part of their brains and build their social and emotional skills from prenatal stages to the age of six. The bonds children create with their parents, the cognitive and affective stimuli they receive, and their early learning, are critical for their physical, cognitive, emotional, and social development as a capable adult. This lack of understanding is detrimental to both individuals and also to society.

Meanwhile, the fields of education, science, social assistance, and health are each conducting early childhood research, but the knowledge tends to remain segregated by field instead of being interdisciplinary. Similarly, the early childhood initiatives in Brazil are fragmented. Each initiative usually addresses one specific aspect of early development -- physical, emotional, or psychological, ignoring the fact that each of these elements is integral to successful development. Generally, an individual child or entire region will receive support in one particular area, which is a first step, but is not sufficient to guarantee integral development. Moreover, the existing interventions that are successful do not have relevant visibility in order to be replicated.

Brazil has 20 million children aged 0 to 6 years old. Almost half of these kids live in households unable to guarantee decent basic living conditions, therefore exposing them to factors that hinder their social, emotional, and cognitive development. These environments only perpetuate violence, corruption, and poor living conditions, transmitting them to the next generation. Brazil is the 7th most violent country in the world and this is closely linked with the exposure to risk factors in early childhood and the lack of widespread focus on children’s healthy development.

Despite the significant portion of the population that is at risk at a young age, early childhood development is not a priority for the government. The investments in this field are small. When they do exist, they are not strategic. An example of this is the tendency to go towards physical structures, such as nurseries, as opposed to the people who are implementing and managing the programs.

The Strategy

After years as a practicing neuroscientist and specifically studying infants’ cognitive development, João Figueiró knows the importance of integral development during early childhood. He believes that, to realize the full potential of not only healthy individuals but a healthy society, early childhood efforts cannot come from one particular field of work. To create an early childhood ecosystem that integrates fields and uses the best practices to touch all aspects of development, Joao created Instituto Zero a Seis (ZAS).

Instituto Zero a Seis initially had a multidisciplinary team of psychiatrists, neurologists, psychologists, educators, lawyers, and opinion leaders who believe in ZAS’ values. These people research and disseminate scientific knowledge, create networks, and help formulate public and private practices for healthy development in early childhood. The strategy was to make partnerships with organizations in different regions in Brazil, allowing better penetration and bigger influence on public policies at a national level. This was successful: Joao and ZAS are now major actors in the creation of national policies such as the National Plan for Early Childhood. Approved in 2010, this policy aims to guarantee basic rights to children under 6 in different areas including education, health, social assistance, and diversity. To make sure the policy was effective; ZAS devised a guide for implementation to support municipalities in adopting the National Plan. Besides advocacy, ZAS took its ideas in the form of courses, conferences, and seminars to thousands of educators, who then served as training multipliers. For example, the program “Taking Care of the Caretakers” has been offered to all the educators of the East area of São Paulo for three years, reaching around 3,000. The classes linked education, medicine, psychology, and neuroscience.

After achieving relatively successful incidence in public policies at a national level, João realized that the existence of legislation favorable to early childhood development does not necessarily lead to its actual application. Therefore, João is at a turning point in his initiative and is changing his focus towards all adults that interact with children (i.e., most everyone). Seeing the role that every informed citizen has in the development of children, and depending less on the goodwill of politicians to implement actions, João’s new strategy is to map and replicate the best early childhood practices in Brazil. To prepare the ground for these experiences to be successfully replicated and scaled, Joao is also working to make sure all Brazilians are aware of the importance of early childhood development so that everyone can be part of the change. The first part of this two-pronged strategy consists of involving every citizen in ECD by raising awareness about the topic and its successful solutions. This is followed by supporting the development of good strategies, programs, and policies.

For the first step of making people more aware of ECD, João has designed several tools to map and replicate the best examples of integrative early childhood programs. First he created a mapping tool in partnership with the World Bank that identifies and shares successful early childhood practices in Brazil, especially in vulnerable regions. The Bem-te-vi platform gathers the results of the mapping and showcases these practices online so that anyone willing to have an impact in early childhood can access it. The objective is to promote exchange between municipalities, to link those already doing a program with someone considering starting one, and to share information about projects, services, and programs. Ten states have already been mapped in Brazil, and others are in progress. Managers, politicians, educators, professionals in various areas, and citizens involved with the development of early childhood will have access to these references and can contribute by sharing knowledge on the program website.

The second tool to spread best practices and encourage communication across sectors is called MOBI. Joao made this to share concrete examples of success through a package of communication tools. MOBI includes support for the production of printed materials, a multimedia platform on early childhood, and campaigns. Examples of awareness campaigns created with MOBI and ZAS include one on Shaken Baby Syndrome (the main cause of brain damage in infants) and another on the prevention of violence against children. Other initiatives include: the “Infobarometer,” a tool that translates official statistics into more colloquial language and localizes the information and the “Pro-Baby”, created in partnership with Google to send a weekly SMS (text message) with personalized information to mothers about health, education, finances, security, and socio-emotional topics. The messages are sent from pregnancy until the child is 18 months old. These messages are in turn, adapted according to the stage of development of the child, and aim for habit changes that will improve conditions for the baby’s healthy development. The content of these SMS is now being taken to different formats, for example, a “One minute on early childhood” segment for TV and radio, broadcast through a partnership with TV Cultura and the Brazilian Communication Company (EBC). Additionally, João connecting to networks in other fields, such as citizenship, youth, social development, and housing. This is because he wants to ensure that everyone plays a role in early childhood development, not only organizations that work specifically with kids,

The second part of João’s strategy is about giving support to CSOs, municipalities, or companies that want to build local programs and strategies to ensure a healthy development of children. João has developed a methodology that starts with mapping what the community is already doing in terms of activities that impact children in early childhood years, and what changes the community would like to achieve with the project. Then, ZAS uses the Bem-te-vi database to decide together with the community which program should be implemented. After this is decided, ZAS supports the community in the implementation, using the Guide for Implementation of municipal plans.

Among the projects presented to the community through Bem-te-vi are those that ZAS helped get started. For example, ZAS co-created and lent technical expertise to Pupa, a new social business providing affordable tools for low-income parents and caretakers to stimulate child development through play. ZAS has also, in partnership with the University of Sao Paulo, developed the project “Vaccines for Violence,” which gathered 200 specialists in many fields that work with early childhood to identify which are the 8 most important factors in healthy development in childhood and define the main activities a program should have in order to prevent violence. ZAS is also supporting the structuring of a new project at a low-income community, Vila Nova Esperança, of working with community leaders to have an impact on early childhood using the community’s own resources, in partnership with Insper University. Its objective is to show that there are many simple but high-impact initiatives that can be taken up by the community, using its own resources to impact early childhood and to serve as a model for other communities. ZAS is also developing partnerships with universities, including Yale.

Through technical expertise and multidisciplinary efforts, working in partnerships with various stakeholders -- communities, social organizations, private companies, and the government, João intends to consolidate a roadmap for how to best raise a next generation of empathetic citizens. Through ZAS mapping and communication efforts, João intends to inform citizens, both on the importance of ECD and best practices, eventually changing national culture to one of taking responsibility for ensuring children’s healthy development. João has the long-term goal of reaching all 20 million young children in Brazil via the adults who interact with them. At a broader level, João is in contact with relevant networks in different countries. Examples include the governments of Peru and Costa Rica and the global Rotary network, which developed a task-force in 1979 to eradicate polio globally. Through João’s influence, they have decided to make early childhood their current priority.

The Person

João was born in Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil and was influenced by his parents’ backgrounds. His father was orphaned at an early age, but has always been proactive in supporting himself. He became a lawyer. He eventually became the youngest senator in Brazil and was focused on defending marginalized populations. He helped Brazil’s former president Getulio Vargas work on the country’s labor laws. His mother was a history teacher in the public sector, and played a role in rethinking education in Brazil. João and his commitment to the social sector are a result of this family culture. When he was 3, he decided to become a doctor. His father was always convinced that João would be a doctor that would have impact on a national level. Joao’s was first recognized on a national level when he was 25. He was part of a nationally televised discussion about Brazil’s first sex change surgical operation; he was invited to contribute the neurological perspective.

Because of his knack for communication, one of João’s first jobs was at the Institutional Relations department at a hospital in Sao Paulo. There, he worked with patients with chronic pain and those who were terminally ill. Faced with their suffering, as well as the lack of health infrastructure and available treatments, João started a movement in Brazil to make these issues visible. He managed to show scientifically and economically the importance of investing in these areas. Along with the Minister of Health at that time, he crafted a law that created the National Program for Attention to Pain and Palliative Care. However, he saw that such a policy requires skilled people to implement it. Therefore, in partnership with Brazil’s Medical Association, he created the national program of treatment and education with the support of TV Globo, which reached 40 million people in Brazil. A major impact of this program was changing public perception, showing that it is possible to treat chronic pain and that the terminally ill can have a dignified death without unnecessary suffering. This movement also allowed the creation of the Palliative Care Academy. Additionally, João built the health committee inside the AMCHAM (American Chamber of Commerce), which he chaired for several years. This committee invited several health experts to present important topics to the AMCHAM executives. An example of a project that resulted from this committee was “Northeast without Hunger.”

In 2001, in order to respond to the problem of growing violence in Brazil, João brought the UN Peace University to São Paulo. In promoting a culture of peace, João began to get more involved with research around early childhood. This is the phase during which the brain is formed, as well as ethical principles, values, and personality. João started to direct his efforts toward the objective of better conditions for healthy development – physical, psychological, social and spiritual – for children. He founded Copipaz – The Early Childhood Committee for a Culture of Peace, which led actions with the municipality of São Paulo (events, meetings, discussions, and publications) to create early childhood policies. From this experience, Joao went on to found Instituto Zero a Seis to focus on public policy at a national level. In the Council that manages the National Network for Early Childhood, João brought the scientific groundwork for the creation of the National Plan of Early Childhood and instigated the creation of the implementation guide for municipalities.