An inclusive ECCD centre nurtures the learning and development of children with disabilities

Changangkha, Thimphu: Karma’s four-year-old child had trouble speaking. Worried about his delayed speech development, she had to face the scepticism of her relatives and friends when she enrolled her child at the Model Inclusive Early Childhood Care and Development Centre (ECCD) in Changangkha. 

That was a year ago. When it wrapped up its first academic session this year, it was a heartwarming celebration. Parents like Karma had gathered to express their gratitude to the facilitators who have played a vital role in nurturing their children. 

Karma acknowledges the positive changes in her child’s speech development and praises the child-friendly infrastructure. “My child couldn’t speak, and I was worried, but now he can speak in clear sentences.”

With 19 children enrolled, the ECCD centre has witnessed a successful inaugural academic year, leaving a positive impact on both parents and children alike.

The transformation is evident in the stories of the children: a once hyperactive child is now able to stay calm, children with speech delays are expressing themselves in full and clear sentences, and initially, shy children have forged friendships, playing joyfully together.

The centre’s inclusive approach caters to children with disabilities as well as those without, fostering an environment of understanding and support.

Reflecting on the journey, facilitator Dhan Maya Rai recalls the challenges encountered in the previous year. Children cried for hours, displaying continuous hyperactivity with some even resorting to banging their heads against walls—a situation Dhan Maya Rai, with eight years of facilitation experience, found overwhelming.

“It was very challenging to handle and cope,” says Dhan Maya Rai.

Despite her training in ECCD education, inclusive ECCD training had been absent from her repertoire.

Dhan Maya Rai seized an opportunity in April to attend a training on inclusive ECCD, supported by UNICEF in partnership with the Ministry of Education and Skills Development, Bhutan Foundation and the Ability Bhutan Society. This training proved to be a turning point, equipping her with the knowledge and skills needed to effectively care for children with disabilities.

Today, the centre operates with only Dhan Maya and a fellow facilitator, Yeshey Wangmo.  While the centre has garnered praise for its positive impact on children, concerns loom regarding the shortage of facilitators. Both parents and facilitators express a shared worry about the limited human resources impeding the centre’s potential to reach even greater heights.

During the initial days, Dhan Maya cared for all the children alone. While her efforts are appreciated, additional support is deemed essential.

Sonam Yangchen, another parent, acknowledges UNICEF’s contributions to the ECCD centre’s infrastructure and the professional development support for facilitators like Dhan Maya. However, the centre, designed to accommodate up to 30 children, currently hosts only 19, with additional provisions for children with disabilities. 

The facilities are commendable, featuring a spacious outdoor playground, a calm room, a cosy nap area, and a generously sized main classroom and restroom. Each space is meticulously designed with child-friendly infrastructure, including miniature-height toilet pots and sinks to facilitate easy access. Adorable stickers adorn the floors, marking each child’s spot, alongside neatly hung hand towels. 

The journey for parents like Karma, who faced scepticism when enrolling her child at the centre, highlights prevalent misconceptions about developmental delays and emphasises the importance of accepting such delays and seeking necessary interventions, countering the societal stigma that often prevents parents from availing support. 

Research shows that early identification of developmental delays and disabilities, coupled with high-quality early childhood intervention services, can transform a child’s developmental trajectory, and improve both learning and behaviour. Health workers also use the Bhutan Child Development Screening Tool (BCDST) to screen children for the likelihood of disability from two and half months (10 weeks) in four domains – physical, cognitive, problem-solving solving and communication.

“There are many children who face developmental delays, especially in speech, but not many avail themselves of services due to stigma, social norms, and traditional views which delay action from parents to do something about such delays,” says Karma. 

Sonam Yangchen, hopeful for her child’s speech development, shares her experience of seeking blessings from lamas and the transformative impact of reducing screen time. “The intervention from the ECCD has made my child independent and able to articulate clear sentences.” 

Karma’s warning against giving phones to children resonates as a shared sentiment among parents, reinforcing the ECCD’s role in positively influencing children’s behaviour and emphasising the important role parents and caregivers play in ensuring that children are not exposed to unmonitored screen time for long durations.

Dorji Wangmo, another parent, says of her five-year-old daughter: “Her tantrums became frequent. I began to worry when she stopped giving eye contact one day and started to sneak into the corner, screaming.”

After seeking the ECCD centre’s assistance, her child’s speech delay was effectively addressed with the use of flashcards and as the child’s ability to communicate through the use of such aids the tantrums reduced. 

In its first year of operation, the ECCD welcomed children with mild disorders. Most children in the centre face speech delays and hyperactivity and have also enrolled a child with visual impairment and speech difficulties.

Dhan Maya emphasises the uniqueness of each child, requiring tailored interventions. Examples abound, such as a hyperactive child who now sits calmly for at least 30 minutes, facilitated by personalised seating adorned with stickers reflecting the child’s preferences.

Breathing exercises, physical activities, and the use of flashcards contribute to creating a settling atmosphere. Flashcards with “I want”, and illustrations of basic needs help children in expressing their feelings and requirements, and cards with emotions. Specialised flashcards with tactile indicators support a blind child, while the entire ECCD centre is marked with textures to assist her navigation. 

In the initial stages, children spent their first hours in a calm room equipped with beanbags, toys, and space for venting out emotions before class. The transformation is palpable as a once hyperactive child, who used to cry for hours, now walks into the class with enthusiasm, displaying improved behaviour not just at the ECCD centre but also at home. 

As for Karma, she is happy with the progress her child is making. “I’m glad that I took my child to the ECCD centre in time. I realise now how important it is to get timely intervention and help,” said Karma.

Since 2009, UNICEF has been partnering with the  Ministry of Education and Skills Development to support the development of ECCD services in Bhutan with a focus on access, inclusion and quality.

In partnership with UNICEF, Kuensel will publish a series of stories on children’s and young people’s issues as part of the new Country Programme Cycle and emerging priorities.