New grants to enhance the child and adolescent portfolio of ILCHR

Amidst the current global crisis, the ILCHR team has managed to secure three new exciting grants, namely from the UK Research Initiative Medical Research Council (UKRI MRC), the Wellcome Trust and the LEGO Foundation.


These new grants offer opportunities to

  • explore new ways of virtually supporting parenting through play

  • deepen our understanding of mental health interventions

  • address the gap in sexual and reproductive health-related interventions targeting adolescent men in Southern Africa.

Engaging adolescent boys to prevent unintended pregnancy and promote sexual health (UK Medical Research Council)

Funded by the United Kingdom Research Innovation Medical Research Council (UKRI MRC).

Unequal gender norms in Southern Africa, including harmful masculinities and associated practices place adolescent men and women at risk of HIV infection and unintended pregnancy. There is a significant gap in the research and literature concerning the role of boys and men in adolescent pregnancy and parenthood, and an urgent need for programming relating to unintended pregnancy and HIV that specifically targets boys.

Through the awarded grant, the ILCHR team, together with Queens University Belfast will develop and feasibility test a co-produced intervention, If I Were Thabo, designed to prevent teenage pregnancy and promote positive sexual health in Lesotho and South Africa.

This optimisation study will build on and be directly informed by findings from formative work that took place in South Africa and Lesotho, funded by the Department for the Economy of Northern Ireland, to develop detailed plans for the adaptation of JACK into the new culturally bespoke intervention (If I Were Thabo). This will include locally developed theory of change models, evaluations and implementation plans.

‘If I Were Thabo’ will be adapted from If I Were Jack (JACK), a theory-informed, evidence-based programme developed by Queens University Belfast, designed to reduce unprotected sex and promote positive sexual health. ‘If I Were Thabo’ will capitalise on a decade of UK-funded research on the intervention and bring together a multidisciplinary team of experts from southern Africa and the UK, along with key stakeholders from health, education, and civil society.

Read more about If I Were Jack (JACK)

Exploring emotional regulation as a core component of adolescent mental health interventions (Wellcome Trust)

While interventions to improve adolescent mental health have proliferated in high-income countries for many years, there has been an emerging interest in expanding their scope to reach more adolescents worldwide.


Existing mental health interventions have drawn from a broad evidence base, testing different “active ingredients” to see what works best. However, there has been little consensus as to the most effective ingredients, or components, to promote positive mental health and prevent the development of mental disorders in this group.


A deeper understanding of how, and why, these programmes may work is needed, especially if we want to adapt and scale interventions to reach a broader adolescent audience. These lessons are important for researchers but also for national and local governments seeking to improve the quality of life and invest in mental health for generations to come.


The Wellcome Trust is committed to transform how we understand, fund, prevent and treat anxiety and depression in young people. The current call was framed around grantees identifying one “core component” and interrogating its role in adolescent interventions further. With this new grant, the ILCHR team will explore how interventions to improve emotional regulation as a means of preventing depression and anxiety are implemented and delivered to diverse populations of adolescents and how they work within these populations.



The ILCHR team and Prof Melendez-Torres from the University of Exeter will conduct a set of realist reviews to describe the mechanisms by which interventions affect outcomes, emphasising their relevance for low-resource settings. These reviews will be based on a series of systematic reviews and meta-analyses that our team recently completed, informing the WHO Guidelines on Mental Health Promotive and Preventive Interventions for Adolescents. The findings of these realist reviews will be implemented into a theory of change framework, and explored within and across populations to examine similarities or differences in design, implementation and evaluation.

Digital shared reading to enhance learning through play (LEGO Foundation)


Given the COVID-19 pandemic, families across the region can expect to spend extended periods in the coming months or year at home, with limited physical contact with extended family members, access to childcare, and opportunities to engage with peers and others (such as preschool teachers, or day carers). In countries in sub-Saharan Africa with high rates of poverty, HIV, and relatively weak and poorly resourced health systems, COVID-19 is likely to have a devastating effect on children and their families.

Parents (including all caregivers) living in these conditions are in need of specific types of support to provide their young children with the kind of responsive caregiving needed for optimal child development. In addition, caregivers will require support for their own mental health under these compounding difficult circumstances.

The LEGO Foundation’s mission is to build a future in which learning through play empowers children to become creative, engaged and lifelong learners. With this new grant the ILCHR team will explore ways to adapt existing evidence-based positive parenting programmes to be delivered through innovative digital platforms. The main aim is to reach vulnerable parents and support them virtually to engage their children in learning through play, and provide support for parental well-being.

Digital shared reading interventions have the potential to support playful interactions between children and parents, while they also align with LEGO Foundation’s five characteristics of learning through play (joyful, meaningful, iterative, actively engaging, and socially interactive) while supporting children’s agency.

In partnership with the Regional Psychosocial Support Initiative (REPSSI) and the Africa Early Childhood Network (AfECN) the ILCHR team will deliver and test a digital intervention to parents with young children to promote parental sensitivity, responsiveness and mental health, as well as child social, emotional and cognitive development in Zambia, Tanzania and Uganda.

Read more about our previous and on-going shared reading projects.

Thank you to the UK Medical Research Council, Wellcome Trust and LEGO Foundation for placing their trust in us to develop and test solutions for improved health and development across the life course.

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