Preschool is a foundation for life for every child, regardless of their abilities
Kindergarten in Suto Orizari promoting inclusive practices showcases that children with disabilities benefit from preschool in a same way as children with typical development
“I have worked for many years with children in street situations, then as a preschool teacher, and at 42 I graduated pedagogy at the State University. To me, the most important thing is learning,” says Imerzad Tochi, a pedagogue in “8 April” kindergarten in Suto Orizari, a predominantly Roma community in the capital of Skopje.
Imerzad works in a community where preschool attendance is very low compared to the national average which is itself far below the European Union target. The most vulnerable and least likely group to attend preschool are Roma children with disabilities.
She recalls Aldin, one of the first children with disabilities attending preschool in Suto Orizari Municipality. Although he was initially anxious to even pass through the kindergarten door, he is now attending first grade in a mainstream elementary school.
“My first task was to create an environment that is safe and supportive for him. He loves puzzles as many children who are on the autism spectrum do, so I made sure there were puzzles for him to play with. But my goal was not just to have him play alone - my goal was to gradually encourage him and other children to play together and interact.” Imerzad received support through the UNICEF supported “Inclusion of children with disabilities in preschool” initiative implemented by the Association for Assistive Technology “Open the Windows”. Imerzad and her colleagues received guidance to help them adapt their approach, and make minor adjustments to the environment, such as to avoid having education sets and toys scattered around because this type of environment may distract Aldin.
Dragana Dojchinovska, a speech therapist from “Open the Windows”, reflects on her approach to working with children with disabilities. “While assessing various aspects of a child’s functioning, such as cognitive, motor skills and language skills, we focus on building the child’s strengths and abilities. We also have a range of assistive technology devices that we use, such as a large touch screen, to guide and improve a child’s attention. “
What Imerzad learned from theory turned out to be true in practice. Children always find a way to interact and play together. With time, Aldin adapted to the rather vibrant environment and other children adapted to his need to sometimes focus on task calmly.
“Whenever he would appear anxious, the children would approach him and say – Hey Aldin, can you show me how to do puzzles? “
“I think he felt accepted and with time he relaxed and other children relaxed too. He begun to share toys which was not the case at the beginning,” says Imerzad.
“Going to kindergarten for Aldin was great preparation for school. He worked in a team environment, I saw him becoming more confident in his own social abilities, I saw him expressing himself. It is great achievement that our community, parents, my colleagues become more inclusive and understand children can do things when given support and love. “
Together with 156 other education professionals Imerzad participated in a series of capacity building workshops on inclusion of children with disabilities in preschool.
For her, the most valuable take-aways from the capacity building were how to spot early signs of developmental delays, how to help parents with referral to specialized services and talk to them “as a friend”, also the benefits of establishing inclusive teams in the kindergarten and tips for engaging parents in supporting their child development at home.
In the process of inclusion, the kindergartens receive support from UNICEF’s partner, the Association for Assistive Technology “Open the Windows”, who make the linkages with specialized services for early detection and intervention and advise on how to establish stimulating environment for every child in the kindergarten.
Imerzad talks about how early identification and intervention in preschool, even if it is just identifying simple developmental delays, can make great change for a child. In this process, the observation skills and creativity of the preschool teacher play a role.
For example, she suspected that one child may have vision problems and referred her parents to an ophthalmologist. When the child was supposed to wear her glasses for the first time, Imerzad sensed she was anxious. “I decided to also come to work with my glasses”, she smiles. “These are reading glasses with very low prescription, which I don’t usually wear, but I told myself let’s make a gesture of support. And it did help redirect the group curiosity towards me, leaving no room for her to feel uncomfortable, but also showing that she was not the only one and that it is perfectly fine to wear glasses.”
“The kindergarten is a foundation for life for children with disabilities in a very same way as for children with typical development. Here all of them learn about sharing, about working together, we learn basic social skills, how to manage emotions, we learn kindness, good manners and we acquire hygiene habits. Here they become used to interacting with and accepting others and build their self-confidence which is, in my opinion and my personal experience, a great ally throughout childhood and throughout adult life,” says Imerzad.
The activities in “8 April” kindergarten are part of the initiative “Inclusion of children with disabilities in preschool” which is implemented by UNICEF with financial support from the Austrian Development Agency. The aim of the initiative is to stimulate an inclusive climate for all children in the kindergartens through capacity building training of kindergarten employees and establishment of inclusive teams.