We do not test the children. We prefer to show them the joy of learning

We do not test the children. We prefer to show them the joy of learning

19. 4. 2016

People in Need opened its first preschool club in 2005 in the city of Bílina in the Czech Republic. It was a pilot project. The goal was to test out whether this kind of support works in practice. The organization currently runs 12 preschool clubs which are amongst the most successful programmes. Martina Francuchová, preschool clubs specialist, discusses the activities of these clubs.

Let's go back to the beginning. How did the idea to open a preschool club in Bílina emerge?

In 1999 Social Integration Programmes were created under the organization – back then they were called Outreach Programmes. The goal of the programmes was to help socially excluded people in the Czech Republic. We had been working mostly with adults back then. Eventually, we began to see that if we want to make a long-term difference, we need to start working with children. We had opened the first drop-in centres and started teaching. However, this still did not lead to the desired result. Therefore, we decided to work with an even younger age group.

And so the preschool clubs were born.

Thanks to the experience gained by teaching and providing other services, we realized that we need to start working with children before they enter the school. These children do not fail in school because they are stupid. They could easily handle the school under normal circumstances. Unfortunately, they are growing up in far worse conditions than their peers. Because of that, they stand on a different starting line. It is possible for them to catch up, but it is necessary to start working with the children sooner. Ideally at the age of three. However, exactly these children do not go to kindergartens. There are many reasons for that, but the truth is that the children who need it the most do not receive preschool education.  That is why the preschool clubs were established. After five years of testing in Bílina, we evaluated everything and decided to expand the project to other cities as well. Currently, at the beginning of 2016, we run a total of 12 preschool clubs through which 441 children passed last year.

Rough beginnings

Try to remember the time 10 years ago. What did it take to open the club in Bílína?

In the case of Bílina it depended on the person that was in the lead of the project. Karolína Ranglová had an advantage of having enormous practical experience. The families knew her and trusted her, which proved to be crucial. And it still is. If we are operational and well-known in a certain area for a longer period of time, if we are teaching in the families, or if the outreach workers go and visit the families, the preschool club shows higher visit rate and it is more successful. We must understand that these parents do not have any experience with any type of preschool education. They do not see its importance and they think of it as something useless. They are suspicious, which is understandable – it is about their children after all. They do not see the educational contribution because they – or anybody in the nearby area – did not go to kindergarten. The more the parents know the teacher, the more trustful and worry-free they are. The reason it took off so well in Bílina was because the local club has a good reputation amongst locals. There is a mutual trust that made it all possible.

Was opening other clubs as easy as opening the club in Bílina?

First of all, I wouldn't say that opening the club in Bílina was easy. We did everything for the first time, we had no experience, only a vision and a hope. We managed to get the club going thanks to incredibly hard work of locals, who built everything from scratch. But back to your question. It depends on the location. An important factor is a distance from the club to the homes of the children. The size of the club – how much work the club does with the locals – is important as well. Again, the longer we operate in the area, the easier it is for the club. As for the current situation, every club, with the exception of one, managed to start as we imagined. Children are attending the clubs, we get along with the parents – again, this is crucial.

Working with parents

How does your work with the parents in preschool clubs looks like?

It happens mainly when the parents pick their children up from the clubs. Since we take care of fewer children than regular nursery schools, we have much more opportunities to communicate with the parents. We can sum up the whole day, talk about the things children have learned, their strengths and things they need to practice. That is what distinguishes us from regular nursery schools that do not have such possibilities due to the number of children. Because the clubs are open only in the morning, during the afternoon the teachers can visit the child directly in his family and discuss the relevant issues with his parents. They can go through everything and look for solutions. Parents become a part of the story, they begin to see why the preschool education is important and they begin to participate. We call this process a pedagogization of the family environment. We are in closer touch with the parents and that allows us to reach the correct solutions. This concerns older children attending the clubs. They need to do more catching up, which makes it more difficult for the parents as well.

Is ethnicity important? Aren't the preschool clubs just places of segregation for the "unwanted"?

We don't care if a child comes from Roma minority or from a majority. I don't even know how many Roma children go to our clubs. It depends on the town as well. In any case, our goal is not to create segregated substitutes for kindergartens. We want the exact opposite. We are the first education institution these children go to. The goal is to prepare them for a school or regular kindergarten. Ideally, the child stays with us for a year, so we have enough time to prepare him and his parents for the mainstream education. After one year the child moves on. We want the clubs to be a linking place that children can go to, catch up on areas they need to improve, and move on.

So ideally the child goes to the preschool club for one year?

Yes, assuming the child joins the club at the age of three or four. But this is individual as well. Currently, we have two brothers visiting our club for the second year and they have speech problems. Unfortunately, we were unable to convince the father that they need to visit a logopedist, so the boys still are still having problems. That is why we don't try to put them into a regular kindergarten, because the barrier is too big, the boys would not understand the teacher or anybody else and they would feel isolated. What we do is based on the exact opposite – on experiencing the success that motivates the children to further work.

Grunnlaget is the basis

The joy of success – that is the motto associated with the teaching model Grunnlaget, which you use when working with the children in the clubs.  Tell me more about the method...

Let me go back to 2006. All of us were enthusiastic back then, we had enough children going to our clubs, and suddenly we found out that we are dealing with a wide-ranging group of children that we don't know how to deal with. Every child was in a different situation, there was nothing to build on. And the pedagogic panic arrived. Therefore, we started looking for a way how to work with these children as a group. Thanks to our colleagues in Variants (an educational programme of People in Need – Ed.) we have discovered a method from Norway that deals with everything. We had invited the authors of the method to Prague, where they organized a four-day training for us. Then we tested the Grunnlaget method in Bílina Club. The teacher and the children began to develop unified vocabulary and a common content.

She was only working with what she created with the children. She completely neglected the fact that children were supposed to contribute with some sort of knowledge or skills. What she created with the children on the spot was the only thing she wanted to use for teaching. First change arrived after several months and it was apparent in the behaviour of the children. They became more open, they were interested in everything and still wanted to explore new things. The teacher persisted in this method and nourished their desire for knowledge. We teach them to explore, to use long-term memory, to think analytically. We do not drown them in information. Instead, we use direct and simple approach – tools that actually work. We do not test them. We do not try to catch them off guard. Instead, we try to show them the joy of learning. And the method is bearing fruit. Our experience with Grunnlaget is more than positive. We can't say enough good things about the method. We promote the method to other teachers as well during the training.

How many teacher have you trained? And what are the responses?

We have trained about 500 teachers during the last two years. Implementing Grunnlaget is not easy at all, as we quickly realized first-hand. You have to become one with the method. It isn't just about work techniques and speaking with children. These are just tools. Occasionally, I hear about children learning colours thanks to the Grunnlaget method. But this method is not about teaching children colours. It's more about creating concepts that serve as a foundation for further development. So yes, easier learning of colours, shapes, etc. is a by-product of this method. But the basis of Grunnlaget – that is what grunnlaget means in Norwegian by the way, the basis – is gradual creation of networks and systems through which the child learns to experience the world that surrounds him. And the role of the teacher is to help him build these networks through communication and passing knowledge.

That is why this way of teaching is so much more than a simple way of teaching colours. We teach children to think in a way they can build on in the future. We teach them to associate things, discriminate, and generalize, and thanks to that they can compare things, analyse them, look for similarities and differences. Children basically learn how to learn. All of that is done in a way that is not stressful, but rather entertaining and motivating. They experience the joy of success. Some of them for the first time ever. That is why it saddens me a bit when I see that the potential of this method is not fully used. Even though I understand that it is very difficult at the beginning. I strongly hope that this method will eventually be implemented in places outside our clubs. We can already see some sings of that. I am in touch with several teachers who successfully implemented the method. They are developing learning tools, and I do believe that thanks to this method they will experience the same amount of success and joy as we did in our clubs.

Could you please use a specific example of something you achieved through the work in the clubs?

For me, a success is when the child is prepared when leaving our club. Prepared to learn, experience the world, because the child knows how much of a pleasure it can be. This cannot be taken from him. So if we have a three-year-old that grew up in terrible conditions, was abandoned by his by drug-addicted mother, and now he is going to a third grade, getting B's or C's, being socially active, capable of learning, I am more than happy. That's an example of a "success story" you asked for.

Where do you see the clubs in the next ten years?

I wish that our support would not be so necessary ten years from now. I wish that the standard kindergartens find out that our children can participate as well as the others and we would be needed only as a supportive organization for families and kindergartens. There should not be so many steps for the disadvantaged children to take. They should get the necessary support directly at the kindergarten, not outside of it. And they should be able to go to any kindergarten, not just one in the entire city.

That is a nice wish. Any final remarks?

I would like to thank all the teachers from our clubs. Their work is so hard and only a few people can see it. Any teaching job is hard, but taking care of disadvantaged children who grew up in dilapidated houses or dormitories is even harder. Each teacher has to take care of ten children and each one needs individual care; they are often traumatized. It is tiresome to fulfill all their recently discovered needs five days a week. It is great that our teachers are satisfied and stay with us for years. They do their best for the children and they have my sincere respect and appreciation.

Preschool clubs work on alleviating children´s learning handicaps before they start school and thus giving them a chance to gain a good education and develop their skills. We try to prevent them from landing in “special” schools, which are meant for children with serious learning disabilities, and are for most children a dead end. Student in these schools are not encourage to pursue further education. With only primary school education, it is almost impossible for them to find jobs as adults, especially with the “special” school diplomas, which are blacklisted by many employers. We also support the parents in developing an active and positive attitude toward education. We want them to feel motivated to help their children finish primary school and then continue to secondary or vocational schools. These young people will have a better chance of finding a job and establishing their place in society, and in this way breaking the vicious circle of dependence on social welfare.

Author: Martin Kovalčík