All together now: Steps forward in integrated preschool education for children with special needs
By Sarah Marcus for UNICEF Georgia
It’s lunchtime at Tbilisi’s kindergarten number 3. Little children run towards the bathroom to wash their hands before the meal. Among them is five-year-old Irakli, who has special needs and is led to the bathroom by his teacher. As all the children settle down to eat, Irakli sits happily among them.
At twenty kindergartens across Georgia’s capital city children with special mental needs like Irakli have been integrated into the mainstream preschool system as part of a UNICEF-funded project in partnership with the Georgian Portage Association, Tbilisi Municipality and the Ministry of Education and Science.
The project started in 2009, focusing on training preschool teachers, assisting and monitoring integrated preschool groups and devising legislative recommendations for Tbilisi municipality and guidelines for teachers in order to guarantee the sustainability of the project.
Inclusion of children with special needs in the mainstream education system represents an important step forward in Georgia and is an important part of preschool reform. UNICEF actively supports preschool reform in Georgia, with a focus on the development of preschool policy and strategy, methodology and curriculum and inclusive education. A key challenge is expanding preschool access for children in the lowest income quintile and for other excluded children including those from minorities and those with disabilities.
‘Before we started operating here, children with disabilities were mainly sent to special boarding schools,’ said Nino Tsintsadze, mother of Irakli and founder and director of the Georgian Portage Assocation, which through its programmes supports 53 children with special needs.
But progress is being made, largely through this project which, as Tsintsadze pointed out, gives options to parents of children with special needs.
Now these parents find that their children are welcomed at the twenty kindergartens included in the project. 57 children with special needs have been integrated into preschools so far, with more to join this year.
‘Before we could not take these children. We were afraid that we didn’t know how to deal with them. But now it’s normal for us, we know how to help them and how to talk to their parents,’ explained Irma Grigolia, director of kindergarten number 46 in Tbilisi which is attended by six children with special needs.
All 100 teachers involved in the project underwent a two-part training course comprising of theory and practice for working with children with special needs based on modules designed by psychologists and experts.
Back at Tbilisi kindergarten number 3, where four teachers were specially trained to work with children with special needs. Nata Gelovani, who provides such training discussed how important this aspect of the project is.
‘At the beginning the teachers needed a lot of help and support to understand how to work with and help these children,’ she said.
‘I have seen real progress in all the teachers,’ she added.
Nino Sikharulidze, mother of 6-year-old Kato, one of eight children with special needs who attends kindergarten number 3, said she has seen positive changes in her daughter which she attributed to a combination of mixing with other children and benefiting from the teachers’ special skills.
‘Last year she was stubborn and quite reserved, this year she is more open, she has more friends and she shares in all their activities ’ said Nino, watching her daughter draw a picture of a house and a tree, just like all the little children in her group.
Integrated education benefits children with and without special needs and helps to build a more equal, accepting society. Other children have responded very well to integrating with and helping to look after children with special needs.
‘The children like the process of care very much, they do it very happily,’ said Nata Gelovani.
Future sustainability of the integration of preschool children with special needs is to be assured via initiatives undertaken by the Tbilisi Municipality. It will adopt guidelines developed within the framework of the project, expand inclusive education to more kindergartens and train more teachers. The initiative is also being introduced outside Tbilisi.
It is to be hoped that in Georgia very soon all children with special needs will be fully integrated members of society, their rights fully realised, their potential fulfilled.