By Dr Paul Lynch and Dr Anita Soni, Co-Investigator (with editing support from Asha Fowells).
In July, London hosted the first ever Global Disability Summit. As the Impact Initative launch their #Policies4 disabiltiy and education campaign, we ask: Can early childhood education make a difference for children with disabilities?
The short answer is yes.
In Feburary 2018, I visited Malawi with Dr. Anita Soni to gather data for the ESRC-DFID funded project ‘Let’s Grow Together’ which looks at promoting greater inclusion of children with disabilities in ECD centres in rural Malawi. The aim of the visit was to explore the day-to-day experiences of children with disabilities, their parents and staff at Community Based Childcare Centres (CBCCs).
In Malawi, the model of CBCCs has been developing for over 30 years with the main objective of creating a self-sustaining early education childcare system, initiated, managed, and owned by the communities themselves. Malawi was one of the first African countries to have a network of CBCCs for young children (3–5 years) supported by Ministry of Gender, Disability and Social Welfare.
Staff in 24 CBCCs in the study had had enhanced training on inclusion within the basic two-week early childhood development caregiver training programme that all would-be volunteer caregivers undertake, and we were fortunate to visit five of these centres during our time in Malawi. The training covered key areas of ECD curriculum, ways to manage the CBCC to ensure children with disabilities receive good quality care and teaching. Case studies were also used to reflect different types of needs and were referred to within the training to caregivers to think about how to include children with different disabilities. It’s clear that this training made a huge difference for children with disabilities and their ability to benefit from early years provision.
Although the centres are set up to cater for children aged three to five, the majority of the children with disabilities we encountered were quite a lot older, the oldest being 11 years old. The reasons for this are wide ranging and complex. For example, many children with disabilities have mobility issues and a lack of devices so physically can’t get to school. CBCCs in contrast to mainstream schools tend to be more local, so so offer children with disabilities the opportunity to participate in education that otherwise would not have been afforded to them.
A good illustration of the power of this is Precious, a nine year old girl with physical disabilities. She was carried to her local CBCC everyday by her mother, because the only way in which she could independently move was by crawling. She could feed herself and could understand a lot, but her speech was limited. What we saw was that Precious loved leading; on one occasion we observed her crawling through the mass of 70 children to show a letter of the alphabet, and on another she led the other children in singing. Even during physical activities, she was engaged and involved; during French skipping, the rope was looped around her and she gave instructions to her friends, while during races she was on the line to start the runners.
The sheer joy on Precious’s face was wonderful to see. She wasn’t just ‘there’, she was engaged and involved, just as much as anybody else. She had friends to share her biscuits with, and the others around her saw her as just another peer. This extended to copying her; during a parachute game, she crawled underneath the fabric so others did the same. Had she not been at the CBCC, there’s a high chance she would have been left at home by her parents because it wouldn’t have been safe for her to be in the fields where they worked. She would have been isolated and potentially at risk from the many dangers around her. As it was, she was participating, learning and progressing.
We did see children in the age range for whom CBCCs are intended. Mary was four-years-old, and had Down’s syndrome. What we saw was a little girl who adored being at the CBCC, particularly if there was singing and dancing. What her mum told us was that as a result of her time at the centre, she had learned to feed herself - messily and slowly, but independently - and where she had precisely not spoken at all, she had now started to verbalise, showing development in her communication skills. Her mum was hopeful she’d go to school - this was true of all parents of children with disabilities - and while we didn’t know if Mary would be able to do so, we were encouraged by the progress she had made and that her future was brighter as a result.
All parents said that the CBCCs had been open and accommodating to them and their children. This was inclusion in the most extreme of locations - Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world - but at its best. However, it only happened as a result of staff undergoing training as part of the project so they understood the rights of children with disabilities, and to develop their problem solving skills so they felt able to adapt activities so they worked for all charges in their care.
In many CBCCs where staff do not receive inclusion training, children with disabilities are missing out on important ‘windows of opportunities’ in early-years development to increase their chances of being ‘school-ready’. They are not provided with opportunities to communicate their needs and solve problems.
Does education in early childhood make a difference to children with disabilities? From our experience here and elsewhere, yes, most definitely. As reported by World Health Organisation (2012), inclusive early years experiences prior to starting school offer children with disabilities critical space to ensure optimal development by providing them with opportunities for child-focused learning, play, communication activities and peer interaction. Having a pre-primary education can have a significant impact on a child’s future prospects in education and in adult life. But crucially, the quality of early childhood development programmes depends on a number of issues including appropriate training on disability and inclusion.
The next steps for the ‘Let’s Grow Together’ project is to develop a ‘bio-ecological systems theoretical framework’ to help organise the environmental factors and understand their influences on inclusion and increase the chances of children with disabilities being ready for school through a tripartite process involving the children, the parents, and community and the school.
Engage during the Global Summit via social media
On 24th July 2018, DFID, alongside the Government of Kenya and the International Disability Alliance (IDA) hosts the first Global Disability Summit in London. With Government Ministers, high level Private Sector and UN Officials, as well as a range of Disabled People’s Organisations (DPOs) and disability rights activists in attendance, it is hoped the Summit will raise global attention on disability inclusion and mobilise new global and national commitments, ensuring the rights, freedoms, dignity and inclusion for all persons with disabilities.
The Impact Initiaitve will be hosting a stand at the Summit to promote the role for evidence in ensuring children with disabilities are not left behind. Will be promoting a number of projects funded under the ESRC-DFID Strategic Partnership focus on disability and education. These have recently published in the Impact Initiative’s ‘ESRC-DFID Research for Policy and Practice: disability and education.
The Global Disability Summit is an exciting opportunity to interact with current and future partners to share learning and explore new opportunities. Participate and engage with discussion at the Summit, or online by using the #Policies4 hashtag to promote messages about disability and education, and follow us on Twitter @The_Impact_Init