Children with disabilities find support from UNICEF and partners
Iryna and her nine-year-old son Hryhorii, who lives with a disability, fled the war in Ukraine and found support in a new city, thanks to UNICEF and partners
Before the full-scale war broke out in Ukraine, Iryna and her nine-year-old son Hryhorii lived a happy life in Kharkiv. Little Hryhorii, who has functional education needs, found friends and stability at school, and attended sessions with a speech therapist and a neuropsychologist. Then the war came to their city.
"It was really loud and terrifying in Kharkiv,” recalls Iryna. “I couldn't stay in the city with a child – this is why in early March 2022, we fled to Poltava by truck.”
But the move to central Ukraine was full of challenges for the family.
"Hryhorii has a strong reaction to loud sounds, he gets nervous,” says Iryna. “There were no sirens in our neighborhood in Kharkiv, but in Poltava, he heard them for the first time and was very scared, especially when outside.”
During air raid alarms, when school children took to the shelter, Hryhorii began throwing tantrums that his teachers could not handle. The move also added other problems – Iryna lost her job and had to look for new specialists for her son.
"The boy was anxious, overly mobile, and emotionally unbalanced," says Alisa Lokhmachova, a psychologist at the Confidence Psychological Assistance Center, a non-governmental organization that provides psychological support to children with disabilities connected to education in the Poltavska and Sumska regions, with the assistance of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
The specialist offered Iryna a free-of-charge course of 10 stabilization and developmental sessions for Hryhorii, which were conducted online.
"I conducted diagnostic tests in neuropsychology, talked to him, and saw how he responded to my requests and what activities he liked,” says Lokhmachova.
During the online meetings, Hryhorii performed exercises in concentration and self-regulation, learning to express different emotions with different intensities. Lokhmachova explained to him how other people feel and helped to develop his emotional intelligence.
"We started each lesson with movements and breathing exercises,” she says. “Then we did an exercise to develop emotional intelligence, then attention and memory. And finally, we did another exercise for relaxation.”
Lokhmachova also provided recommendations to Iryna on how to work with her son at home and which exercises to perform.
"Hryhorii liked the sessions with Alisa – he was always looking forward to them," says Iryna. "In particular, they worked on changing his behavior at school, reducing aggression and learning not to interrupt a speaker. I am very grateful."
Lokhmachova also realized that Iryna needed support too, since the emotional state of parents can affect their children.
"When a child with any kind of disability is born, no one gives parents instructions on how to communicate and raise them,” says Iryna. “It's tough as you're always tense and tired. My emotional state was already difficult before, and it worsened during the war.”
Iryna was referred to another psychologist, who helped her to cope.
"Mothers really need this psychological support on a regular basis," says the mother. "We have a lot of new problems in our lives – stress, moving, losing our jobs, a new school. And we can't afford to pay for the sessions."
Currently, the Confidence Psychological Assistance Center, with support from UNICEF, provides psychological assistance to children with disabilities and their parents in the Poltavska and Sumska regions of Ukraine. Meanwhile, mobile teams of psychologists also visit rural communities that have a lack of specialists. Specialists help to identify the risks of developmental disorders in children and refer families to organizations and institutions that provide the services they need. Psychologists also conduct stabilization and developmental classes for children and parents, both in person and online.
UNICEF, together with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance, provides funding for the project, as well as training and materials for specialists. As of November 2023, around 1,200 children and caregivers have already received personalized counseling through this programme to support their psycho-emotional state.