Karen Spencer

Ashoka Fellow
Fellow Since 2015


This profile was prepared when Karen Spencer was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2015.
The New Idea
Through her organization Whole Child International, Karen Spencer is working to make sure that close emotional relationships are at the heart of childcare, no matter where the child grows up. Research has shown that a close relationship with a primary caregiver and high-quality emotional attachment do more to affect a child’s growth and development than any other factor. With this in mind, Karen Spencer is addressing institutional care – orphanages and childcare centers - in low resource environments, teaching every actor involved within the system to prioritize relationships first and improve overall quality of care

Whole Child’s best practices emphasize responsive care-giving, continuous primary care, small groups, open space for play, and individuality and identity. The changes require no additional resources but result in much better outcomes for the child. By making simple changes such as prioritizing play over order and cleanliness, or writing daily journal entries that track a child’s individual growth and identity, caregivers can create environments that, while institutional by nature, are closer to a traditional home experience for the child. Instead of thinking about infrastructure and the building, Karen stresses that the most important aspect of child care should be the human relationships themselves.

To spread these best practices, Whole Child is teaching them to everyone involved with institutionalized children, from the caregivers to the highest government officials. The organization has developed a nine-month caregiver training program of classes complemented by on-site technical assistance. This program also serves to promote the dignity of care-giving as a profession, changing the way that these women and others think about their responsibilities. Whole Child has also developed a university-accredited certificate program which is offered to center directors and government personnel. Taught by a combination of by local professors and visiting experts, the program builds up local academic capacity in child-care teaching over time while reducing Whole Child’s cost in training trainers. It also makes the program highly replicable worldwide. By improving orphanages, Whole Child is challenging an international taboo against funding institutional care. Almost all major global organizations that work with children have taken a “last resort” approach to orphanages, claiming that because foster or family care has traditionally been the most desirable solution, they have decided not to fund any efforts to improve the current orphanages. Whole Child is leveraging its high quality research to lobby to bring improvements in orphanage practices back to the discussion table.
The Problem
The Strategy
The Person

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