Opening up a world of learning for children with disabilities

In Cambodia many children with disabilities don’t receive enough support when it comes to education. New training is empowering teachers to provide expert assistance, transforming these young lives.

Jaime Gill
©UNICEF Cambodia/2020/Antoine Raab
UNICEF Cambodia/2020/Antoine Raab
02 December 2020

Ratanakiri, November  - “Little children are very different from each other. They have their own abilities and learn and play differently from each other. That’s one of the first things you realise when you become a teacher,” explains Morn Sambo, a 27-year-old teacher working in Barkeo State Preschool, Ratanakiri. “When you understand each student as an individual, you can teach them well. But when I started as a teacher, I didn’t understand how to work with children with disabilities, which meant I couldn’t help them as much as they needed. The training changed all that.”

The training Ms. Morn refers to is the Inclusive Education for Pre-School Training funded by Australia Nat Com, and which Ms. Morn attended in 2018. Before she undertook it, Ms. Morn knew how to identify children with visible physical disabilities but didn’t have the right skills to detect less apparent challenges such as visual or hearing impairments, or intellectual disabilities. The training equipped her with these skills, and the knowledge necessary to adjust her teaching techniques and the learning environment to fit each child.

“It can be so simple,” she reflects. “If I think someone might be struggling to read the whiteboard, I get them to move to the front and see if that improves the situation. That will also work for children who are finding it difficult to hear. For other children with more serious needs, I might need to provide more one-on-one support.”

©UNICEF Cambodia/2020/Antoine Raab
UNICEF Cambodia/2020/Antoine Raab
Ms. Morn provides extra one-on-one support to Chhin Sievchhing

One such child is six-year-old Chhin Sievchhing. “She was always a student who stayed at the back of the class and didn’t like to speak,” Ms. Morn remembers. “I didn’t really explore why until the training, but afterwards I started to realise that she had difficulties with speech and memory. She couldn’t recite any long phrases I taught, and she struggled to sing along with songs. And, of course, all of that started to affect her confidence, so it became a complicated situation for her. I began to provide a lot more one on one support, was more patient. It really worked.”

Sievchhing agrees. Before she began to get the extra support, she didn’t engage in class and rarely spoke. “I like to come to school now,” she says, solemnly and proudly. “I really like my teacher because she listens to me.”

Ms. Morn felt she could see the changes as Sievchhing began to speak and learn more in class, but it wasn’t until the young girl’s grandmother dropped by the school that she realized just how far she had progressed. “Her grandmother came just to say thank you,” Ms. Morn remembers, still visibly touched. “She said she had seen such big changes in Sievchhing’s personality and abilities.”

Sievchhing isn’t the only child living with disabilities to benefit from the skills Ms. Morn learnt through the training. Thea Pai Ing is another six year-old living locally. After suffering from a massive brain haemmorhage when she was an infant, Pai Ing has extremely limited mobility and finds it difficult to speak.

UNICEF Cambodia/2020/Antoine Raab
UNICEF Cambodia/2020/Antoine Raab
Thea Pai Ing and her mother Lang Ing outside the family business in Ratanakiri.

“For a long time she didn’t have an active life at all,” her mother, Thea Ing Lang, remembers. With little information to help her understand Pai Ing’s complex disabilities, her mother was concerned about her future and wasn’t aware that she could still benefit from going to school. Mostly Pai sat in a chair at home or her parent’s shop, not moving or speaking for hours at a time. “Then the school reached out to us. The teacher said Pai Ing should go and she would make sure she got special support.”

Fortunately, the family lives close to the school, so the task of taking her there and bringing her home was simpler than it is for the many families of children with disabilities who live far from the nearest school. Nonetheless, Pai Ing struggled to learn and results were difficult to see for a long time. “The first year was very bad actually, very difficult. And then, suddenly, things got much better in the second year. She really started to learn, thanks to her teacher.”

Ms. Morn supports Pai in several ways, physically and mentally. “Sometimes she just holds her hand to help her write something simple, because Pai Ing’s hand and arm muscles are weak,” Mrs. Thea says. “And she spends time just speaking with her, slowly and patiently. Pai Ing really doesn’t like to speak much but this has helped her a lot.”

Seeing how this active support has transformed her school life has motivated Mrs. Thea to change Pai Ing’s home life, too. “Now I encourage her to help me with chores. Sometimes I’m helping her as much as she’s helping me, but the point is that she is active and that is good for her.”

Pai Ing’s life is now unrecognizable from what it was just two years before, and Mrs. Thea gives credit to the skilled support offered by Ms. Morn and the school. “Now I see her come home and she actually wants to study. Maths is her favourite, she really likes doing sums. I’m just so proud of her when I see her learning.”

©UNICEF Cambodia/2020/Antoine Raab
UNICEF Cambodia/2020/Antoine Raab
Morn Sambo says her teaching was transformed by training in how to support children with different needs.