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At a glance: Timor-Leste

In Timor-Leste’s remote communities, parents and children learn together

By Gizela Moniz da Silva

Olympia Carvalho had always wanted to send her eldest children to preschool, but the classes were too far and too expensive. Now, thanks to a new alternative preschool and parenting education programme in her rural community, both she and her children will get a chance to learn.

© UNICEF Timor-Leste/2016/Moniz da Silva
Olympia Carvalho with her three children at her house in the remote village of Matahoi. She has been attending parenting education classes while her children attend the alternative preschool in their community.

MATAHOI, Timor-Leste, 23 May 2016 – At the stroke of 8 a.m., a ringing bell echoes through the remote village of Matahoi in Timor-Leste’s Viqueque municipality. As the sound fades, Olympia Carvalho, a 26-year-old mother of three, makes her way to the village centre in this small agricultural community, which is located 170 kilometres east of the country’s capital, Dili.

The bell indicates the start of another parenting education session for Ms. Carvalho, but it also signals a new beginning for her children. This is because while she attends the parenting session, her two eldest children, Atanazio, 5, and Izaias, 3, attend the newly-established alternative preschool.

A community supported alternative

The alternative preschool programme is an informal learning session for children aged 3 to 5 who have no access to formal preschool. It follows the Ministry of Education’s curriculum and is facilitated by trained community volunteers.

“I am very pleased to have the alternative preschool here,” Ms. Carvalho says. “Now my kids can go to a school in their own community. I always wanted my eldest son to attend preschool when he turned 3, but I could not afford to send him, and it is located very far, around two hours walk from our home.”

The preschool class is held three times a week, and it has been running in the community for about three months. Ms. Carvalho says that both she and her children have already learned a lot. “I make sure that they attend regularly, and most of the time I also accompany them. I've learned many good ideas from the teacher, such as learning through playing, which I apply with my children at home,” she says.

Teresa Fernandes is a housewife and a trained community volunteer who is giving her time in the interest of the children in her village. With UNICEF support, Ms. Fernandes received training on facilitation skills, classroom management and lesson planning using the new school curriculum. Each volunteer also receives essential learning materials.

© UNICEF Timor-Leste/2016/Moniz da Silva
One of the children in the community participates in the alternative preschool class. The classes are held three times a week and have been running in the community for about three months.

“This is something new for me,” says Ms. Fernandes. “Thankfully, the training has helped me to develop my skills to communicate with children effectively and to engage students in class activities. It’s not easy to manage so many students!”

Community ownership and support are critical for keeping the preschool learning programme running effectively.

One village leader, Antonio Soares, provided the space for the preschool. “I have always wanted to have a preschool in my community,” he explains. “In the past, the sub-district had only one preschool, which was located too far away and received only a limited number of children.”

Mr. Soares advocated for many years to have more preschools. He noticed that compared to children who did not go to preschool, those who did were more confident and thriving. “Now my dream is realized!” he says.

Investing in parents

Parents and caregivers whose children are going to the alternative preschool are also encouraged to attend the quarterly parenting education sessions. The sessions are implemented by the Ministry of Social Solidarity, with support from community social workers and municipal and community leaders.

In rural communities like Matahoi, children coming from poor and illiterate families do not always receive proper guidance, and sometimes lack the basic skills required to enter into primary education. Many also find it challenging to adapt to the routine of formal schooling. Research has shown that investing in parents’ capacities to provide appropriate care and protection enhances child development, especially during the early years.

© UNICEF Timor-Leste/2016/Moniz da Silva
Olympia Carvalho leads a group discussion during a parent education session. Parents and caregivers whose children are going to the alternative preschool are encouraged to attend the quarterly sessions, where they are given guidance on early childhood development for their children.

“This parenting education programme is a double blessing. We have never had such activities in our village, and now it comes for both children and parents!” says Ms. Carvalho. “There were things that participants already knew as they are parents themselves, but there were also things that they did not know, such as that a child can hear their parents’ voices when they are six months in the womb, and information about children’s brain development. I cannot wait for the next session!”

In addition to establishing alternative preschools in remote communities and involving parents in parenting education sessions at the community level, key messages are further reinforced through community radio, youth theatre and a targeted home visiting programme.

As of April 2016, the preschool programme was being implemented in 34 communities in Viqueque (reaching more than 1,000 children) with support from the H&M Conscious Foundation, and in 92 communities in Ermera and Viqueque municipalities (reaching more than 3,700 children) with support from the Government of New Zealand. The parenting programme is being implemented in 15 villages in Ermera and Viqueque municipalities with support from the H&M Conscious Foundation, and it will expand to a total of 87 villages this year – reaching some 10,000 parents.

UNICEF and partners are continuing to work with the Timor-Leste Government to help more children and their parents with parenting support and improved access to preschool learning programmes.




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