Early learning unlocks potential for children with disabilities and developmental delays

By: Joy Nafungo,Godfrey Ejuu Posted: 01 December 2022
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Credit: GPE/Ingomag

Isaac*, an 8-year-old boy, began attending a home-based early learning centre in Buikwe district of Uganda when he could barely sit or walk. He needed physical prompts to eat, drink or swallow food and spent his days laying down. After three days at the centre, caregivers noticed that Isaac began to smile at other children. Two weeks later, he was sitting, taking steps towards walking, and mumbling sounds to communicate with other children. He also started smiling regularly. After one year of regular participation in the centre, he now plays freely, engages in other learning activities, and communicates with children and adults. Isaac’s parents are now the biggest supporters of the newly established home-based early learning centre, that Isaac regularly attends. Before the establishment of the centre, Isaac had been home with no access to an early childhood education (ECE) centre.

The Inclusive Homebased Early Learning Project (IHELP) has helped Isaac and many children with development delays, disabilities or from low resource settings access early learning. This is one of the Global Partnership for Education, Knowledge and Innovation Exchange initiatives that seek to contribute to the growing body of evidence on home-based early learning programs for all children, including children with disabilities and children from rural communities in Uganda, Kenya and Zimbabwe. The objective of the research is to generate knowledge on how to adapt and scale inclusive early learning initiatives; build capacity of parents, caregivers and communities to provide early learning; and work closely with education stakeholders in mobilizing knowledge for policy uptake in support of early learning, particularly in contexts that have inadequate early childhood education opportunities. 

IHELP is a collaborative model

The IHELP project engages parents, communities, trained and untrained teachers and governments to respond to children’s needs, particularly children with special needs. The home-based model requires that families volunteer to provide space within their homes for children who do not have access to formal ECE centers due to various reasons. The learning schedule revolves around a five-day weekly routine that involves parents and teachers engaging children in play and learning activities, as well as provision of meals. Among other outputs, this research project, in its first year, has supported the establishment of over 30 home based early learning centers in Uganda, Kenya and Zimbabwe, increasing access to early learning activities for children. This opportunity is not only important for children’s holistic development but also ensures that they are visible to the local governments and the ministry of education’s data systems. The project also works closely with ministry of education officials at district level to conduct trainings for parents and caregivers, support the establishment of the centers and work with officials from the special needs departments, under Uganda’s local government to conduct assessments and further referrals for children with disabilities and developmental delays. At national level, the project is engaging the ministry of education to review and institutionalize play-based learning into Uganda’s ECE curriculum. 

Why including all children in early learning is important

Globally, millions of children with developmental risks, difficulties and disabilities do not reach their full potential. ECE provides opportunities for a stimulating involvement, aimed at preventing developmental delays and promoting acquisition of competencies. However, children with early disabilities or developmental delays, such as Isaac, are at risk of missing out, yet these are the children for whom early childhood education has some of the greatest benefits. It is important to acknowledge that this group of children have high support needs and this dependency, in addition to other social and economic barriers, can place considerable stress on caregivers. Responding to the needs of children with disabilities requires a comprehensive approach that includes early identification; assessment and early intervention planning; provision of services; and follow ups. In Uganda, Kenya and Zimbabwe, as is the case in many countries in Africa, investment in early learning for children with disabilities and children from rural and marginalized communities is low. Growing evidence is showing that home-based approaches are well-positioned to meet the needs of children who face the greatest barriers to accessing early learning opportunities, including those with disabilities and developmental delays. Home-based ECE approaches are adapted to the needs of the most vulnerable or socially marginalized families and offer parents and children a safe environment to learn and play together without having to leave their home or go far out of their neighbourhoods.

What we are learning

The case of Isaac and many other children reaffirms that all children need a stimulating environment in the early years to help unlock potentials and disabilities that they may face in the early years. We know that early learning must be approached in a systemic way to fully leverage all the various government and community initiatives and resources. Through this project, we are understanding how inclusive home-based early learning can empower children and their families when communities, governments and other institutions are part of the process. We acknowledge the importance of caregivers and community training and equipping the centres with play and learning resources. We continue to collaborate with the ministry of education and local governments to establish more home-based ECE centres as part of a mixed delivery system for early childhood education. Lastly, an equity lens, with a sharp focus on inclusion is integral to successful home-based approaches and other forms of early learning.

*Name changed for privacy