Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Early learning makes all the difference for children from ethnic minority communities

By Sam Waller

Children in the classroom of a community preschool in Ratanak Kiri province
©UNICEF Cambodia/2015/Charles Fox

All is quiet in the grounds of the community preschool in LA Ak village, Ratanak Kiri province. A hen pecks at the red earth as her seven chicks skitter anxiously behind her. A couple of pigs snuffle in the bushes, looking for a morsel. This is rural Ratanak Kiri – Cambodia’s most remote province in the far north east of the country. Many families here rely on farming, and it’s normal for children to help their parents in the fields, sometimes to the detriment of their education. Today though, preschool teacher Chey Nita has a classroom full of enthusiastic youngsters.

Early childhood is the most significant time for children’s development. That’s why preschools are so important, giving children vital learning and development opportunities in their early years. Preschool attendance also means children are more likely to start primary school at the right age and to do well once they get there. Nita, 21, has seen firsthand the difference that early education makes, both for her students and her family.

“My nephew went straight to Grade 1 and he repeated for three years. But my younger brother and sisters went to preschool and they didn’t repeat.”

This is also a ‘multilingual education’ preschool. In this area people are predominantly from the Kreung ethnic group. Therefore all of Nita’s students speak Kreung at home, not the national language of Khmer.

Preschool teacher Chey Nita writes on the board
©UNICEF Cambodia/2015/Charles Fox

Multilingual education allows children from ethnic minority communities to start their schooling in their own mother tongue, while Khmer is gradually introduced. When Nita’s pupils progress to primary school, they will continue their multilingual studies for a few years until they are ready to learn exclusively in Khmer.

During break time, Nita explains how different education was for her compared to her three-year-old daughter, who is one of the students in the class. “When I was young there was no preschool. Our primary school had no classroom, we sat in the shade under a tree.”

Chey Nita at the front of her class
©UNICEF Cambodia/2015/Charles Fox

When Nita first arrived at school as a child she couldn’t speak Khmer and struggled to understand her teacher. “When I was young I studied two years in Grade 1 and two years in Grade 2. In Grades 1 and 2, I couldn’t understand anything! Only in Grade 3 did I start learning a little.”
Nita is happy that her daughter does not have to go through the same difficulties.

“It’s better now! It’s easier – we can help children to understand their mother tongue and Khmer.”

Krun Chantrea, Commune Focal Point for Women and Children, encourages caregivers to send their children to the community preschool
©UNICEF Cambodia/2015/Charles Fox

Nita’s work as a teacher is supported by passionate community members who are playing a crucial role in making sure that children go to school to receive early childhood education.

Krun Chantrea is one of them. She talks to parents and encourages them to send their children to preschool. As the Commune Focal Point for Women and Children, she explains the importance of early education to caregivers in community meetings and house visits.

“The teacher tells me about children who are not attending. I explain to parents the importance of education. Before, parents didn’t put much importance on sending their children to school. They thought going to the rice field or farm was more important, so took them there. Now I see a change of behaviour.”


  1. Each and everyone must understand that children should be loved and taken care of. They must not be abused.

  2. Thumbs up, UNICEF. You are raising the foundation of better societies

  3. Thumbs up, UNICEF. You are raising the foundations of better societies.