articles, opinions, and research about teaching and learning

Teachers Forum
November, 2001

From Education to
Holistic Child Learning
through the CHILD Project

An interview with
George A. Attig
Institute of Nutrition
Mahidol University
The Child Project

CHILD stands for "Children’s Integrated Learning and Development," a project that actually started way back in 1996 when a headmaster at a small rural school (130 students) wrote to my institute (Institute of Nutrition, Mahidol University) asking if we had any old computers that we could donate to the school. He explained that his teachers were trained in computers, but the school didn’t have any. Also, the children were interested in computers, but they’d never actually seen one. So we donated an old IBM 486 computer to the school. Six months later, I made a "surprise" visit to the school, and when I walked in, all of the children in Grade 5 were crowded around the computer, while their teacher was using it to teach them English. I was indeed impressed, for I feared that the computer would not be used and would just gather dust. After awhile, the headmaster also started talking to me about how they could use the computer to learn more about the children and their families and maybe help with community development activities. With funding from the UNICEF Office for Thailand beginning in 1997, the CHILD project was born and it has grown and diversified in subsequent years!

Question: What kind of information is collected in the CHILD Project?

Rural children enjoying a computer class

Answer: When we first started, we concentrated on helping primary schools to organize a wide range of data about their children into what we call a "school management information system" or SMIS for child learning. This data include children’s academic performance (grades), their physical condition (health and nutritional status, disabilities, emotional well-being), absenteeism rates, dropout histories (not only of the child but his or her family members as well) and, most importantly, family background information on what factors might cause children to learn poorly. These factors include such aspects as parental education, occupation and socio-economic status; family composition and marital stability (do the children live in "broken homes"); caregiving practices; and levels of community participation. What we have developed is an early warning system for child learning that integrates educational with community indicators to help all children achieve their maximum learning potential, and particularly those with special educational needs. What schools do is to compile a child’s learning profile (ideally computerized, in spreadsheet form) containing the educational, health and nutrition and family indicators. Teachers, family and community members then use these over time to identify children whose learning is faltering, what factors may be responsible for their poor learning, and then make informed decisions and propose actions to help the children in an integrated, holistic way. In this way, poor learners are no longer relegated to the "back of the room" but become the focus for individual and school improvements. We’re actually learning from the poor learners!

Q: What are the practical uses of this system for teachers and schools?

A: Well, in the words of one provincial education officer here, "we can at last know our children." In the past, teachers focused heavily on "educating" children by simply giving them information and testing them. The children were kind of like parts on an assembly line, being passed down the line from grade to grade with little attention to their "learning quality." Now, after learning about their children’s lives through the SMIS, teachers are realizing how much the home and community environments also play a role in affecting children’s learning. Hence, they’re changing from a focus on "education" (or information dumping, as I sometimes call it) to one on understanding the total process of children’s learning and what affects it. They are paying particular attention to what factors play a role in whether or not children are able to internalize and use the information that is being taught to them.

The system also helps to build firmer partnerships between teachers, families and community members. In order to help their children, they must work together to identify, plan and undertake effective school-family and community-based interventions to alleviate, and ideally eliminate, the causes of absenteeism, dropout and poor child learning, thus creating a more child-friendly learning environment. This has led some communities to even purchase computers and color printers and donate them to their schools in order to make their work more effective.

The SMIS also aids teachers, school administrators and education policy-makers and planners to evaluate the impact of innovative teaching-learning methodologies in helping children who need them the most: the poor learners. It’s also a good monitoring and evaluation tool for planning and policy-making.

a child-friendly classroom

Although we started the CHILD project in only two schools back in 1997, we are now working with Thailand’s Office of the National Primary Education Commission to establish Child-Friendly Schools (CFS) throughout Thailand (this year there will be 300 pilot schools) but especially in Northern Thailand (which is heavily affected by the AIDS crisis) and Northeast Thailand (which is the poorest region of the country).

The major goal of the CFS initiative, which developed in part out of the CHILD project, is to promote a quality learning environment, one which brings together students, teachers, parents or guardians and community members to jointly develop a common vision, strategies and implementation plans so that they can improve the child-friendliness of their schools. These are schools that are academically effective with children, healthy for children, protective and inclusive of children, are gender-sensitive, and involved with families and communities.

Each CFS establishes an SMIS using a simple spreadsheet (computerized or non-computerized). The aim is to support individual learning by identifying individual styles, strengths, talents and abilities as well as school, family and community-based causes of learning difficulties and the potential actions that can be taken to address them. By using the SMIS, CFS can also derive individual student quality information so that attention can be focused on students who are at risk of dropping out. They can then be given flexible guidance to help them solve their problems.

I’ve heard that Thai educational authorities feel this new initiative has been able to identify and assist students who need special attention. They have also noted that the CFS approach including the SMIS has helped to prevent drug addiction, gambling, thefts and quarreling among students, because teachers now know their children!

Q: What is to be gained by linking health and nutrition data with education achievement data?

A: The answer to this question is very simple. We are trying to help our children to learn basic life skills and internalize the knowledge they will need for life-long learning. Unfortunately, however, children who are in poor health, are often too sick to come to school, while hungry children don’t learn well at all. The CHILD and CFS projects focus on assisting the "whole" child by learning about his/her health and nutrition conditions, as well as what family and community conditions might affect their right to protection by pulling them out of school early. Perhaps the most important lesson we have learned is that concentrating on "education" or "development" alone is not enough to improve children’s learning. We must pay equal attention to all dimensions — survival, development, protection and participation — and how conditions under these may change over time to affect the children’s lives and learning abilities. As I sometimes tell my nutrition and education colleagues, "you might help to make a healthy, nutritionally-sound child, and one that learns well, but this won’t stop his/her family from sending them to Bangkok to work, perhaps in socially disreputable occupations, if they need the money." Hence, schools have a responsibility towards holistically developing the child and his/her family if children’s rights are really to be fulfilled.

As a result, as the CHILD project matured, we redefined its objective as strengthening and preserving children’s rights, in line with the CRC. This holistic and practical view of child rights is enabling schools and communities to see the connections between poor learning in school and health, nutrition and other factors which may be associated more with home and community environments. This has even led some schools and communities to establish child rights protection centers and child rights volunteers to keep children safe and in school. We have also developed a very effective child rights communication program. One component is "Child Rights Comics for Children," which have won first place as the best children’s books in Thailand for three years in a row.

Q: Which other countries apart from Thailand use this system?

child rights sensitization for youth

A: With the assistance of UNICEF Headquarters in New York (and we were fortunate enough to have the Executive Director, Carol Bellamy, visit the CHILD project), the SMIS has received broad exposure. Just this year we are working with UNICEF in the Philippines and the education officials there to adapt the SMIS into what they are calling their "Student Tracking System" (STS). One of its main functions is to help identify children who are chronically absent and at risk of dropping out, as well as reaching out to those children who may not be in school, but should be. I have also heard that the Central Asian Republics and Kazakhstan are trying to merge the SMIS with their national education information system, while some countries in West Africa are considering it to help improve girls’ education as well as learn more about the family situations of children affected by HIV/AIDS. Hence, while the SMIS was begun with a focus on poor child learners in Thailand, it’s actually flexible enough to be used to address many different child rights concerns since it adopts a holistic perspective to understanding the child.

Q: Are there any specific challenges to implementing such a system?

A: Most definitely. Like any new innovation, it takes time and commitment. What must be remembered is that the SMIS is not a magic bullet and its effectiveness depends on the effectiveness of other school improvement efforts, like changing teachers’ attitudes and increasing their motivation, finding ways of reducing workload (in some schools, the children themselves help with collecting, compiling and computerizing the information), establishing privacy policies and the like. Not all schools or teachers are up to the challenge. But we’ve found that in schools that really want to help their children, and among teachers who are dedicated to child learning, the system works extremely well and decreases in child learning faltering and problem behaviors are evident. The challenge now is to work to progressively instill this new vision of child learning in all schools and among all teachers, and at all levels. As a result, and even though we are no longer supported by the UNICEF Office for Thailand, we are trying to continue what we’ve accomplished to the best of our abilities and resources. This includes working with Thailand’s Department of General Education to expand the system into Thailand’s secondary schools as well as introducing it into the curriculum of the nation’s teacher training colleges so that the next generation of teachers become more "child-friendly."

A Web page provides a summary and a Web site further describes the CHILD Project.

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Last revised November 1, 2001
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