Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Hope, belonging and learning: Community preschools provide children with disability the chance for a better future

By Mariko Yamaguchi

Roeun Chenu learns at the community preschool;
© UNICEF Cambodia/2018/Vanny Kong

Kratie province, Cambodia, July 2018: A bevy of children, most between the ages of 3 and 5, are running around a playground in Trapeang Traing village, taking turns swinging on a tire swing. The community’s only playground is located on the grounds of the local community preschool.

When playtime is over, they return to their classroom inside the wooden stilt structure that houses the preschool. Inside, their lively voices fill the preschool space as they animatedly recite animal names, which they have learned by their footprints and diets. 

One of the students is a 7-year-old boy, Roeun Chenu. Though he is older than his classmates, he must work hard to keep up with classmates. When Chenu was 4, an infection impacted his hearing and speech. He faces hearing challenges and must speak slowly word by word. His words or phrases are sometimes incomplete. At home, he is not active like most children of his age and prefers being alone, without interacting much with family or neighbours.

Chenu’s caregiver, Toun Sokhy, is busy with her daily work, for which she brings home about 15,000 to 25,000 Cambodian riels (US$3.60-6.16) per day. Her husband is away from home most of the time, working in another province. Since Sokhy can’t be home during the day, she has limited access to information about public services available for Chenu’s disability. Hoping Chenu would interact more with friends, learn from them and get the chance to speak with them, she decided to send him to the community preschool. For the first two weeks after enrolling, Chenu could not go to school alone; he needed his grandmother’s company during class and refused to enter classroom. He preferred to watch the class from the outside.

Chenu’s preschool teacher, Sang Nara, 33 years old, has been teaching since 2015. She started as a volunteer teacher because nobody wanted to be a community preschool teacher in her community due to the low monthly salary of about 150,000 Cambodian riels (US$37).

Chenu in CPS class (sitting on the far right)
© UNICEF Cambodia/2018/Vanny Kong

Not only did Nara face the challenge of convincing parents to send their children to school in this poor, rural community, but she also had to learn to manage children in classroom. And without training on disability, she did not know how to integrate children with disability like Chenu into the classroom. In Trapeang Traing village, there are two children with disability: Chenu and a child with intellectual disability. Chenu now attends regularly, but the other child does not.

The Changkrang commune has been supporting Chenu’s school with teacher salary, drinking water and facility repairs.

Research shows that learning in community preschools like this one results in the highest return on investment in education. Early childhood education enhances children’s learning abilities over a lifetime and can help children become more productive adults. This is even more the case for disadvantaged and vulnerable children like Chenu; early childhood education offers them an opportunity to break the cycle of poverty for themselves and future generations.

Recognizing the importance of early childhood education, UNICEF has been supporting and promoting the community preschool in Trapeang Traing. This work includes supporting the Government to develop plans for decentralized preschool teacher training based on approved standards for state preschool teachers and community preschool training.

In 2018, UNICEF plans to develop a commune/sangkat community preschool management manual to meet the minimum standards of community preschool management in collaboration with Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport. More and more UNICEF support has been put in inclusive education at preschools, including for children with disabilities.

Nara participated in a 35-day teacher training that meets the Ministry of Education standards. Applying what she learned during the training, Nara has been teaching Khmer literature, basics of numbers, and social norms such as greetings and respect for others. As she has been gaining experience as a teacher for three years now, Nara can now support Chenu’s learning by reading fairy tales with pictures focusing on his favourite shapes. He loves triangles. The commune has doubled her salary to 300,000 Cambodian riels per month.

The positive change in Chenu’s attitude and life is obvious after 18 months of school.

Thanks to Nara’s warm encouragement and inclusive consideration in the classroom, Chenu now stops by the teacher’s home every morning and goes to school without his grandmother. He is no longer afraid of getting into classroom.

These positive changes have triggered community support as well: one of the pagodas in the community recently donated a shelter to the community preschool for better learning environment for children.

Chenu’s caregiver, Sokhy, says with a smile, “Every morning, Chenu is very well prepared to go to school and looks forward to meeting with friends and learning new things”. Chenu enjoys drawing pictures and showing them to his classmates. He especially likes learning names of months because the pronunciation of December in Khmer (Thanu) sounds similar to that of his own name. “Chenu laughs a lot and gets satisfied when repeating ‘Thanu’ from time to time”, his teacher Nara notes. 

Chenu likes football and school games, but also likes time alone; he can usually be found sitting alone in the classroom watching his friends fighting or playing. “I’m letting him do whatever he wants and be himself,” Nara says, showing her positive respect and understanding for the boy. His classmates also enjoy Chenu’s presence in the classroom.

Although most of the students have never played with Chenu due to his preference to be alone, children who have interacted with Chenu adore him because he does not like fighting and hurting anyone. “I like having Chenu in the classroom!” one classmate says.

These positive changes are proof that community preschools are a source of hope, belonging, community and learning for vulnerable children like Chenu who are burdened with the challenges of living in communities which lack understanding, recognition and support of their unique situation.

Chenu dreams of working in an office in the future.

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