Tihun Ashenafi, a six-year-old girl living in the peripheries of Chelelektu, a small rural town in the SNNP region of Ethiopia, runs five days a week to her new favorite place - her school. Tihun doesn’t fully understand how school will change her future for the better and neither does her community but she runs to her school.
Since September, Save the Children’s ‘O’ Class program has been supporting the cognitive and emotional development of children like Tihun. The program also protects them from corporal and psychological punishment by unknowing parents. Without the ‘O’ Class program, Tihun and her classmates would have to either directly join primary school or be enrolled in a private kindergarten. The latter one, however, is usually unaffordable and inaccessible for most parents.
Students of the new school, especially set up for six year olds, attend classes from 8:00 to 11:30. They get a 15- minute break at the playground where they play on the swings, slides, merry-go-round, and balances which every child here enjoys except for Tihun, whose favorite pastime includes none of these.
Tihun’s favorite activity is running. She runs to school and she runs around during her brief break. “I have no friends in my class. All my friends are in the other shift because they are in higher grades than I am,” says Tihun who appears to be too serious for a child of her age. Running for her seems to be not a mere attempt at shortening the time to reach a certain distance, rather it seems an unconscious symbol for her impatience to reach the academic level where her older friends are.
Tihun’s exceptional development is witnessed by someone who has high hopes for her – her teacher Abeba Gezahegn who has now taught for three years at Tihun’s school. “I always had great students who would have performed even better had they been enrolled in the ‘O’ Class program,” says Abeba. “Tihun is a bright student who has ranked first in the current semester. She does very well in Amharic. It makes me glad that each day there is improvement in her reading skills. I can also proudly say that she is improving her comprehension and analytical skills” she adds.
Had it not been for the ‘O’ Class program, which caters to children of age 6 to enable them with a smooth transition to grade 1, Tihun would have ended up like one of the millions of underprivileged children around the world who lag behind their more advantaged peers in physical, language, cognitive, and socio-emotional development. And the trouble will follow them to adulthood when the gaps would widen and make them earn less, not to mention the high risks of engaging in risky social behaviors.
In this locality, early childhood care suffers from twofold obstacles: poverty and lack of awareness. That is the reason why the ‘O’ Class program includes representatives of parents and provides them with trainings on how to support children by feeding and keeping them clean. They are taught the importance of feeding infants at least ten times a day as well as the benefits of breastfeeding to infants who would otherwise be prone to malnutrition. Parents are also taught how to help the psychosocial development of children like interpersonal skills development and expressing themselves by sparing the rod. They also teach the rest of the community and eventually improve family welfare.
“When I grow up, I would like to become a teacher,” says Tihun who does well in Amharic, an official language for the nation but a second language for her. “And I like the text on the cardboards” she adds, pointing to the sand paper Amharic letters. It is not only sand paper letters that are available at the school. Tihun’s school takes pride in surpassing all the other schools, even private ones, in its collection of teaching materials. Besides the tools, each classroom contains five different themed corners to foster emergent literacy and math. The materials are made available by Save the Children with the aim to increase children’s chances of obtaining quality education at their early childhood which is a critical period that requires attention and a great deal of investment.
“The usual teaching aid materials which were mainly composed of books that are filled with bulky text would not give much chance for little children to support their early cognitive, physical, social and emotional development,” says Abeba. These new materials on the other hand let my students learn at early age which of course is a remarkable time of brain development and it lays the foundation for later learning. The kids themselves tend to enjoy the new method. And I can see its advantages over the traditional teaching method which uses mere chalks and blackboards and never entertains,” Abeba reiterates.
After observing how other children are benefitting from the new scheme, more parents have started to send their 6-year-old children to school. The O Class program at this school currently has 80 students and it expects more children to come in the next academic year which is starting in September.
Tihun holding up the first letter of her name in Amharic, her favorite subject.
Though the classroom is fully equipped with materials Abeba insists there is still a room for improvement. “Some of our students come to schools with nothing to eat and that negatively impacts their enthusiasm and energy. Hence, we need school feeding mechanisms. They also sit on chairs bigger than their size; they need chairs their own size”, says Abeba.
Pre-school education in Ethiopia is slowly spreading but still scarce with 33.6% of school-age children at primary and secondary schools being out of school. The ‘O’ Class program is now part of Ethiopia’s national Early Childhood Care and Education policy - a holistic and comprehensive approach to policies and programs for children from prenatal to six years of age. The ECCE supports children’s survival, growth, development and learning from birth to entry into primary school. Through the use of Montessori, a teaching method dominated by age-appropriate educational activities and collaborative play, children in the ‘O’ Class program are taught to improve their use of language and social skills.