May 13, 2010, Updated September 14, 2012

When it comes to creating a better mental life for sick, underprivileged and gifted children everywhere, educators worldwide are turning to the expertise of one Israeli researcher.



Photo courtesy of Nati Shohat/Flash90.
Prof. Pnina Klein’s intervention program is individually tailored to each child.

Kids in Africa with HIV will probably survive. Today they get anti-virals to stop the progression of HIV into full-blown AIDS. But healthcare workers treating these kids know that it’s just as important to heal the mind as it is to heal the body. And it’s a program developed by an Israeli early childhood educator that has been chosen to prepare them for the life ahead by addressing the many aspects of their emotional development that have been neglected and impaired.

To take on the challenge of nurturing and growing the minds and potential of African kids with HIV-AIDS, the US National Institute of Mental Health, through the University of Michigan, has developed a new training program that gives healthcare workers and educators in Africa the tools to assess and promote the education of these children. Out of thousands of possible methods and models, the institute chose one developed by Prof. Pnina Klein of Israel’s Bar-Ilan University.

“The infants and children in Africa have been receiving medicine to keep them alive and it has been working quite well,” Klein tells ISRAEL21c. “But [healthcare workers] realized that it’s not enough to just deal with the physical problems, especially when we’re dealing with infants and toddlers. One’s mental health and physical health are interrelated.”

Klein’s approach, which is being used successfully to help children all over the world, is called Mediational Intervention for Sensitizing Caregivers (MISC). It is now in its second year in Africa, out of a three-year pilot program.

“Prof. Michael Boivin from the University of Michigan participated in one of my workshops for the American Psychiatric Association. That’s how he learned about the program. And when the National Institute of Mental Health was looking for a program he suggested mine,” explains Klein.

Teaching parents and educators to ‘grow’ the kids

“I couldn’t imagine that among all the thousands of programs available that promote development in children, they would choose mine, but they did,” says the modest Klein, now in her 60s, who has worked in early childhood education for about 35 years.

At first glance the range of the MISC method is surprising, as it targets children with developmental disabilities, children from low-income families and gifted children. It is an intervention program that is individually tailored to each child, based on analysis of videotaped parent-child interactions.

Research has demonstrated that enhancing the quality of parental mediation vastly improves a child’s cognitive performance, as well as social and emotional behavior.

MISC assesses the “mental diet children receive,” Klein explains, adding: “We need a good mental diet as much as a physical one – one with proteins and minerals. Through MISC, we can quantify the quality and number of interactions with young children, including the education they get, and we can measure it and come up with a profile for each child and each interaction.”

With this information, those running the MISC program can make suggestions to help improve a child’s educational diet and the quality of interactions.


Nurturing the mind as well as the body – childhood educator Prof. Pnina Klein.

“I am with you”

“We are focusing on the roots of the interaction – on feelings, which I call the ABC of love; smiles, looks, eye to eye contact, mutual engagement and three basic messages: ‘I love you,’ which conveys the message of self-worth, ‘I am with you,’ which conveys security, and a message that ‘It is worthwhile to do,’ ” Klein tells ISRAEL21c.

These reinforcements allow a child to feel his or her significance and importance in the world, and can help to regulate behavior.

In Israel, MISC is taught to staff at the Health Ministry’s infant care clinics. Requiring no special equipment and easily adapted to any culture, the program is also popular around the world. In Sri Lanka, MISC was initiated by UNICEF (to which Klein is a consultant) and continues under the aegis of Save the Children. Universities sponsor the program in Norway, Indonesia and Ethiopia.

In Sweden it is used to train staff at daycare centers, while at the University of South Florida MISC is part of a special program for minority children. In Uganda, where the program is working to enhance the mental development of young children, “it seems to be working really well,” says Klein.

“Research data has already been published in a number of countries, and [the program has also been] run in countries like Ethiopia for several years already, for very poor infants and children. And when I say poor, it’s a very different connotation from being poor in the US,” she asserts.

At the University of Southern California the method is used to teach kids with Attention Deficit Disorder. Indirectly, the program has affected the lives of millions of kids all over the world. It is widely used by music teachers in the US, has been found to be successful with gifted children to help them to reach their potential – just as it helps other children to do so – and has improved literacy in general by affecting the way that parents read to their children.

Expectations as child of Holocaust survivors

It may be partially because her parents expected a lot from her that Klein has become one of the world’s most influential early childhood educators, with her research supported by international organizations such as World Health Organization, UNICEF and Save the Children.

“I received so much love and there were so many expectations. Part of my theory and programs are an outgrowth of realizing all the privileges I received,” says Klein. “My parents were not rich but they taught me what’s important, how to define and transfer it.”

She suggests that her success in life may also be related to the Holocaust. Born in Poland, her family was decimated on both her mother’s and father’s sides. The only other survivor was one uncle who moved to the US. Klein was the first baby to be born in her family after everyone was lost. Both her parents had been in hiding during the war and “gone through hell” she says. After the war, when she was an infant, they moved to Tel Aviv.

At 15 Klein took a few courses at a high school in the US, and just a year later she enrolled at Bar-Ilan University where she studied psychology. She holds a double BSc in Psychology and Biology and a PhD in education from the University of Rochester, New York.

Married to a geneticist and the mother of three children, Klein lives in Givat Shmuel near Bar-Ilan where she heads the Early Child Development Graduate Program, School of Education and is director of the Baker Center for Research and Treatment of Children with Special Needs.

As one of the first babies to come to Israel (her family arrived in 1949, a year after the establishment of the state), Klein was honored by being invited to light a torch at the ceremony celebrating Israel’s 60th Independence Day, in recognition of her academic research.

A light unto the nations in her own right, many of the world’s children will live richer lives thanks to Klein’s profound and perceptive work.

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