Preparing children in Afghanistan for primary school

Early childhood education programme making a difference to school readiness

Fatima (identity protected), aged 20, leads her early childhood development (ECD) class in a converted guard hut at Bibi Hawa Girls’ School in Jalalabad eastern Afghanistan. The class, which began in 2016, has 35 pupils. © UNICEF Afghanistan/2017/Sherzad

By Lameha Sherzad and Denise Shepherd-Johnson

JALALABAD, Afghanistan, 13 April 2017 — Bibi Hawa Girls’ School in Jalalabad, eastern Afghanistan, is among the premier schools in the country. Its 6,500 students have safe water and sanitation facilities, a computer lab, a tennis club, a playground, and a reputation for high pass rates and good grades in the final Grade 12 exam. Teachers with infants can also concentrate on providing a quality education knowing that their toddlers are safely cared for in the school’s on-site crèche.

In 2016 the school took another pioneering step. It introduced an early childhood development (ECD) class for children aged 4 to 7. Principal Saifora Malakzai volunteered the school for the UNICEF-supported initiative.

“I heard about it from the Provincial Education Department,” said Ms. Malakzai. “Even though we had limited room, I welcomed the chance to participate because I know that preparing children to enter primary school can make a tremendous difference to their learning.”

Introducing ECD classes in Afghanistan’s eastern region

UNICEF has supported the Ministry of Education to establish 65 early childhood development classes within government schools in Afghanistan’s eastern region to help develop children’s physical, mental and intellectual abilities in readiness for primary school.

ECD teachers receive 10 days’ training and a monthly incentive payment based on the government salary scale. Each ECD class is provided with teaching and learning materials including a blackboard, floor mats, and school bags along with a UNICEF ECD kit with materials for learning and fun such as crayons, paper, puppets, sponge balls and puzzles. All ECD classes are regularly monitored by the Provincial Department of Education.

At Bibi Hawa School the ECD class is held in a former guard hut, converted to accommodate 35 children. In the small room home-made posters line the walls and the children jostle for their teacher’s attention to have their turn to demonstrate that they can write their names on the chalkboard.

Fatima Yasin, aged 20, has been the ECD teacher here since the class was launched. A graduate of Bibi Hawa School, Fatima was encouraged to apply for the UNICEF-supported ECD training course by her elder brother — a medical doctor — who remarked on how patiently she had assisted her siblings with their homework over the years.

“My mother is very smart but she is an uneducated woman and my father is a police officer who often has to work far from home, so I have grown up coaching my little brothers and sister in their early learning.”

Trained to prepare the children for Grade 1 of primary school, Fatima leads the children in story-telling, counting, writing, singing, playing, praying, learning the Pashto language and practising good hygiene and sanitation behaviours like handwashing.

With her family’s support, Fatima is working towards obtaining a full teaching qualification. “I love being an ECD teacher,” she says, “because I enjoy playing with, and helping children. The best thing is seeing small children who could not read or write, learn to do so.

Nadia, a language teacher at Bibi Hawa Girls’ School, plays with her 6-year-old son, Matiullah who attends the ECD class. Photo credit: © UNICEF Afghanistan/2017/Shepherd-Johnson

Swift and significant change

Each day at school Fatima sees the difference that early learning can make. And for one child in particular, the impact has been swift and significant.

Six year-old Matiulluh is the son of Nadia, one of the high school’s language teachers. When Matiulluh joined the ECD class he hardly spoke.

“My son has learning difficulties. He was always very quiet at home and would play by himself. In a busy household where my husband and I are both teaching, and trying to manage our chores and three children, I knew that I was not spending enough time interacting with Matiulluh. After bringing him to the ECD class I started to see a change within two months. Now he can hold a pen and he is learning his alphabet,” said Nadia. His teacher, Fatima, has also noticed that Matiullah’s language skills are improving and that he is playing more with other children.

“As a teacher myself, I know that early childhood development is important,” said Matiullah’s mother, Nadia. “I have seen that when children benefit from these classes they are familiar with the discipline required for primary school, and they are already interested in learning. When [these] children are dropped off at school for the first time, I can see the difference.”