An initiative by the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport and UNICEF, with funding from the IKEA Foundation, enables preschool staff to learn about inclusive education for children with disabilities and put them into practice, writes Rachel McCarthy.
At 7:30am in Khan Sen Sok, on the urban outskirts of Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh, the main highway past the airport is already heavy with trucks, tuk-tuks and weaving motorcycles. Just off this main road and down a newly paved alley, a school bell rings. Inside Borey 100 Khnorng preschool, it’s time to begin the day.
Borey 100 Khnorng preschool is a hive of activity. Uniformed girls and boys run in circles at top speed, squealing with excitement. Others bound across a row of tyres. One child arrives crying loudly, clinging to his father’s chest. “It’s his first day,” his father explains apologetically. Teachers descend on the playground and soon all the children are in orderly rows, ready for recitation.
Among them is four-year-old Tida, who stands chewing the end of an orange balloon, her tiny frame swallowed up by an oversized grey jacket. Tida, who has Down’s Syndrome, is one of nine students with a disability at her preschool. To help identify disability, preschool director Sor Sinayary and her teaching staff use a toolkit provided through a training conducted by the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport and UNICEF, with funding from the IKEA Foundation.
This initiative enables preschool staff to spend a full week learning about inclusive education for children with disabilities, equipping them with knowledge of disability typology, skills to identify the signs of disability and ways to support children with disabilities, including referral options.
“Before we had the training, we did not identify or record disability. It was not something we could support. Understanding disability and knowing what disabilities children have helped us adapt to their needs,” Sor Sinayary said.
“For example, we had one girl who started preschool with no speech. We saw that she enjoyed storytelling and so we’ve spent extra time reading with her,” explained Sor Sun Nang, a teacher at the school.
“Through reading, we focused on helping her repeat sounds and words. Slowly, she’s been catching up and we’re very proud of her progress. Now she’s more confident and she speaks many more words.”
Chheun Sophan, another preschool teacher, added, “Tida loves to draw, so we make sure she has plenty of pens and paper and the time for drawing. We pay more attention now to what these children need to help them learn and develop.”
Of the 75 children enrolled at Borey 100 Khnorng preschool, most are children of migrant workers, many of whom relocated from outer provinces in search of a better life. They work in nearby garment factories or on construction projects in the ever-growing capital. This influx has created a swelling urban poor rim around the city centre, where poverty and population density limit access to key services, such as preschools.
This is especially the case for children with disabilities. They often remain ‘invisible’ in Cambodia, in many cases hidden from society. This means they are also hidden from social support services and even from official data and statistics. According to ministry data, 40 per cent of all three to five-year-old Cambodian children attended preschool in 2016/2017, however no children with a disability were recorded as part of these figures.
“We now have nine children with different disabilities in our preschool, but we know there are many more in our community who do not come,” Sor Sun Nang said.
To complement the inclusive education training, the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport and UNICEF have also extended training to parents in urban poor communities like Khan Sen Sok, with funding from the IKEA Foundation. The programme supports parents to learn about disability, the health and nutritional needs of children, and how best to support their child’s learning and development.
“We help to identify disability in school and then we work with the parents, letting them know how we support them in school and what they can do at home to help,” Sor Sun Nang said.
“We’ve worked hard to attract children with disabilities to our preschool through the parenting programme,” she said. “We have monthly meetings with the provincial office of education to talk about disability awareness. We ask them to help change attitudes in our community. We want parents to know that children with disabilities are welcome in our school.”
Altogether, 10,086 children (4,888 girls) across 25 targeted preschools in Phnon Penh are expected to benefit from the inclusive preschool programme, thanks to support from the IKEA Foundation. This includes at least 74 children with disabilities who have been identified and supported because of the training, and some 750 parents.
“To be honest, it was not easy at first to adapt to having children with disability in our school. But after some months, it became easier. The children are part of our school community now. And there is no sense of difference among the children. They just play with each other,” Sor Sun Nang said.
Back inside her classroom, Tida sits quietly, chewing on her orange balloon. She inhales and then with all her might, exhales. Her balloon quivers for a moment, and then grows quickly, expanding to its great round potential. Tida giggles with delight at the sight. /UNICEF Cambodia