A steep learning curve

Despite school closures owing to COVID-19, a little boy in western Nepal was able to learn at home with help from his aunt and an innovative telephone-learning modality piloted by UNICEF  

22 December 2021

Surkhet, Nepal: At the Budha household in Birendranagar in Surkhet District in western Nepal, it’s now become a common sight to see little Mobin sitting in a corner, scribbling in his workbook, or engrossed in the words and images on the pages.

Just a year ago, father Nar Bahadur, who has been confined to a wheelchair for the past five years and already struggling to keep the family afloat, had been at his wit’s end about how to engage the four-year-old at home. When schools closed because of the pandemic, the little boy had very little structure to his day and was constantly restless and frustrated – as were his guardians.  

In May 2021, however, the family had the opportunity to be part of the piloting of an innovative learning approach, introduced under the UNICEF and Finland Government partnership to improve the overall education and water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) situation of children and families in Nepal. This was the tele-learning initiative and Birendrangar was among the four municipalities where the project was rolled out.

This image shows Sipa Budha with four-year-old nephew Mobin doing learning exercises on the porch of their home in Birendranagar, Surkhet.
UNICEF Nepal/2021/PPanth
Sipa Budha with four-year-old nephew Mobin doing learning exercises on the porch of their home in Birendranagar, Surkhet.

As part of the initiative, caregivers of young children of four years of age were provided mobile data to take part in closed user groups. They would then receive text messages on a daily basis guiding them on learning activities to carry out with their children. Following this, early childhood development (ECD) teachers would follow up with the caregivers via phone for further guidance.

Nar’s sister and Mobin’s aunt Sipa eagerly stepped up to take on the responsibility of Mobin’s learning. “We spent about three hours a day doing the exercises,” Sipa says. “It was very productive for both him and me.”

Sipa admits that it did take time to get used to the approach. “It was all new to us at the beginning – we would see the messages but would often be confused about how to relay them to the child,” she says.

this image shows Sipa Budha with four-year-old Mobin at their home in Birendranagar, Surkhet, with father Nar Bahadur behind them.
UNICEF Nepal/2021/PPanth
Sipa Budha teaching four-year-old Mobin, with father Nar Bahadur behind them.
This image shows Nar Bahadur Budha with son Mobin
UNICEF Nepal/2021/PPanth
Nar Bahadur Budha with son Mobin

In this, however, she credits the patience and support of the local ECD teacher, Nirmala Subedi, who helped the family through this learning curve, even making frequent home visits to get them acquainted with the methods.

In the months after starting tele-learning, Mobin made improvements in a number of areas. He became familiar with the Nepali and English alphabets, and learned to write numbers up to 20. Although he has since returned to school, his aunt says that the tele-learning experience taught them both some very valuable lessons.  

“I discovered teaching young children is not an easy task,” his aunt says. “It has a lot to do with understanding their psychology and interests, and working accordingly.”

Telephone-based learning is among a range of alternative education modalities that were developed as part of the Learning Continuity Campaign by the Government of Nepal and education partners to help children continue to learn through prolonged school closures brought about by COVID-19. UNICEF supported the piloting of the tele-learning modality in four municipalities in Rautahat, Kapilvastu, Surkhet and Achham Districts, and was able to reach over 3,400 caregivers and children within a five-month run.

Continuous assessments have revealed that the telephone-based approach contributed to significant increase in child development and learning – including by strengthening parent-teacher interaction – and reduction in parental stress. It has also been recognized as a crucial tool to ensure learning continuity in case of future lockdowns or other emergencies.