Learning through kindness

The story of Baku’s inclusion school programme.

Elaine Holder
UNICEF Azerbaijan

15 August 2018

Three years ago UNICEF joined forces with the Ministry of Education in Azerbaijan to provide places in state primary schools for children with disabilities. The Inclusion Schools programme has now been implemented in 4 state primary schools in Baku. It aims to provide an inclusive learning environment, which embraces differences and supports individual needs. The students follow the national curriculum and their development is guided by an individually adapted teaching plan. The response to this programme has been overwhelmingly positive, with one school claiming it has encouraged all students to be kinder to one another. This is a programme which UNICEF has also helped to implement in other countries across the region, with similarly encouraging results.

The 138 Sayli Orta school in the Khatai district has been involved in the programme since it began. Its Director Mirfaiq Mirheydərli says he is very proud to have 12 inclusion students in the first three grades of his school and is hoping many more students will be able to join in the future. “We need more specialists working at the school. Many people keep their children with disabilities at home, we want them to be able to go to school, to get an education.”

Mr Mirheydərli was very optimistic about the programme from the start, but he never imagined the hugely positive wider impact it would have on his existing students. “The students were immediately and unexpectedly kind to each other. They shared their lunches, helped one another with their bags. The atmosphere in these classes was even better than in the classes without these students.” 

Elmira Heybatova, a first grade teacher with 47 years teaching experience, observed the same phenomena in her class. “If someone drops their pen, everyone tries to pick it up for them, to help. I observed this from day one. They even help each other to put on their coats.” Mrs Heybatova has 2 inclusion students in her class of 26 children and has been part of this programme since it began.

Ayşən Nəcefova is the correction therapist at the school, her job is to give one-to-one tuition and support the students in their studies. She uses alternative teaching methods to aid learning and development. “I am responsible for each of these students. I help them to improve their communication skills and participation in the classroom. It is my duty to take care of all aspects of their development, from education to hygiene. For example, I ask the parent if the child can put on his own shoes. If they can’t, we teach them. We teach even this, very basic but essential skill.”

 Ayşən explained how she worked with some students to overcome the effect their physical disabilities were having on their writing. She demonstrated how her student Ulvi wrote names and numbers. When he started school, he could only draw marks and scribbles, now he is able to write clearly, because Ayşən has helped him to focus.  “He is a very determined boy, so we take the approach that if he is told he cannot do something, he will try his best to prove us wrong.”

UNICEF Azerbaijan
A child writing on the board.

Ülviyyə Məmmədova, mother of 9 year old  Zəhra who attends the school, is very happy with her daughter’s progress.  “I have seen improvements with her communication skills. Her memory is better and she can understand things a lot more. She loves school. When she gets up in the morning she says ‘Let’s go to school. Let’s go to see Ayşən’.”

The 138 Sayli Orta school provides opportunities that most schools are unable to give. Aygün Albosova initially tried sending her daughter Nazla to their local school. The school was unable to offer her a place, but she was told about the Inclusion School programme. “On her first day she [Nazla] wasn’t nervous, she was just so eager to go to school. Even when she is ill, she still wants to go to school, she cries ‘Let’s go to school, I want to go to school.’ I hope in the future she will be able to attend university and have a good career.”

Camaraderie was evident in the classroom, students who were asked about having friends in the class were positive about their relationships with their peers.  One male student said “Yes I have many friends in my class and even girls are my friends.” It was also apparent that the students have a healthy social life outside of school, playing with neighbours and classmates. When asked about social activities, one parent said “We all come together for birthdays and holidays.”

UNICEF Azerbaijan
Children outside the school with their parents.

The inclusion programme implemented in this school has clearly been a success, and the school has even been honoured with an award from the Ministry of Education. Mirfaiq Mirheydərli explains, “After the first year the Ministry of Education were so impressed by what we had achieved, they gave us an award. This award is something you usually get after 20 years of good service, but our teachers received this after only one year.”

Mr Mirheydərli feels that mixed classes are having a positive impact on all students, not just those with disabilities. One parent of a child without disabilities once told him “I am happy my child is part of this programme. I want them to understand everyone is different and to be kind to others regardless of their differences. This will make them a good person”. What greater lesson can we teach our children than to be kind and respectful to one another.