It involves conducting play-oriented, group sessions in a club format with children and their parents (or other adult relatives) in Seljametya neighbourhood with a high number proportion of Roma families.
The approach involves learning through experience using the strengths of children and parents, and the diverse range of intelligence that each child possesses. Using games and a variety of subtle methods, facilitators encourage parents and children to engage with the idea of learning but in circumstances that are enjoyable and stimulating.
The skills, knowledge and experience of parents of Roma origin are developed to meet the needs of early childhood, to improve their communication with their young children (including Bulgarian language) and to motivate children to start school and to stay in the education system.
Why did we develop this practice?
American science journalist, Paul Tough, rightly claims that the “key channel through which early adversity causes damage to developing bodies and brains is stress.” All too frequently, interventions designed to improve the life chances of children from disadvantaged backgrounds actually contribute to the stress that they suffer by providing especially intensive educational programmes using activities from which they are already alienated because of their domestic circumstances or cultural priorities.
Our focus is on children of preschool age (0 to 7 years) and, when you think about it, development takes place irrespective of whether or not teachers or parents are targeting the subject. Numerous things contribute including health and nutrition, stimulation of the senses, early communication and social interaction, parental attachment and provision of a nurturing environment rich in opportunities for free play. A child’s experience during these years is key to the development of awareness of self, empathy and social intelligence, resilience and perseverance, self-regulation and emotional control and a capacity for internal motivation.
Equilibrium encourages positive, responsive parenting in a learning environment that is culturally appropriate and caters for enjoyment.
The lack of knowledge and skills of parents of Roma origin to meet the needs of early childhood is most often attributable to material poverty and the stressed preoccupation with survival that it provokes. The consequences are social neglect, isolation in ghettos (self-isolation) and deficiencies in linguistic, cognitive, emotional and psycho-motor development. Children are unprepared for entry to education system and this often includes an inability to communicate in the Bulgarian language. This leads to academic failure and dropping out of the system of education at an early stage. On this basis, the pattern of social marginalization and exclusion is repeated through the generations.
Equilibrium has been working, under different projects, in several of Ruse’s Roma neighbourhoods for many years hosting highly interactive, informal sessions that allow participants to “learn by doing”.
What activity takes place?
The Equilibrium team is mobile working in both the social services complex and in Roma communities. We work with parents and children together targeting the development of skills, knowledge and experience of parents of Roma origin to meet the needs of children during early childhood (0-4 years), through participation in play groups and keeping a “Mother and Child’s Personal Diary”. These activities take place in different settings – private function sweet, coffee shop, and the homes of our Roma mediators.
Activity is play-oriented and while traditional toys and books are used, greater emphasis is placed on the creative use of odds and ends and a variety of household objects in the context of making art, music and theatre and the celebration of traditional festivals.
Here are a few examples of the creative use of everyday objects –
- Making collages, story books and puzzles using discarded comics, magazines and the types of free catalogues distributed by large retailers;
- The artistic use of ribbons, shoe laces, coat-hangers, dish towels and strips of fabric;
- The use of beans, lentils and macaroni to create images or make musical instruments;
- A general focus on improvisation;
- The interpretation of popular stories, songs and poems for family gatherings on festival days and public holidays but allowing for a variety of musical genres.
What is the outcome?
- Improved interaction between parents and children through games and creative activities that are important for the stimulation and development of children;
- Promotion of a positive attitude to learning as a pleasant and enjoyable process that does not alienate or intimidate;
- Acceptance of the value of pre-school / school attendance.
- Better motor, social, emotional, cognitive, communicative development of children, Improvement in autonomy, independence and social aptitude;
- Improved motivation of the parents to provide their children with essential stimulation through internalization of the belief that learning is valuable and fulfilling;
- Improved dialogue between Roma families and kindergarten personnel;
- Reduced number of Roma children dropping out of the educational system.
Why is the practice successful?
- Parents benefit from a different perspective on upbringing, and children – a different way of expressing themselves;
- Parental participation in clubs can positively influence the way others think of the community;
- Improved inclusion of children in school life and, consequently, in society;
- Gentle introduction of education into the Roma value system leads to a reduction in the behaviours that discourage attendance and improves educational outcomes leading to eventual improvement in living standards and social integration;
- Creation of trust and a sense of equality (as a result of long-term collaboration);
- Presence of community mediators – people with the capacity to broker a bond between our organization and the community;
- Consistency, intensity and continuity leading to a “team spirit” (EQ, parents, educators).
What did we learn?
In order to achieve sustainable engagement from the part of the target groups (parents and children), the activities should be varied, creative and tailored to the different motives and abilities of every child and parent.
It is important to constantly encourage parents to engage in activities by reminding them of the benefits to them and their children.
The desired level of engagement is not feasible if a family is going through some form of crisis. This means that the group activities described here must be accompanied by a system of family support and counselling. This entails crisis intervention – emergency material support, assistance with accessing the appropriate healthcare or social support. It also involves building the resilience of the family by working on their strengths.
With some families it takes longer than with others but the essential idea is that focusing exclusively on “parenting skills” makes no sense because it is difficult to be fully switched on and attentive as a parent when preoccupied with making ends meet or dealing with a health crisis in the family.
Can the approach be applied elsewhere by other teams?
The practice is very easily transferable and can be used with different target groups because it does not demand a great deal of money or material resources (many activities are provided with hand-made materials, household items, natural materials).
Practice builds on approaches that are easy to apply in all contexts – play, experiential learning, and creative pursuits. Everything else is a matter of desire, creativity and understanding.
How does our practice comply with good practice standards?
The approach takes account of key considerations –
- Bulgarian language acquisition
- Acceptance of the importance of education for personal development and building a future
- Improvement of the community profile
- Enhanced collaboration
- Increased preschool attendance levels
- Reduction of school drop-out rates
- The approach is culturally sensitive and activities take place in Roma neighbourhoods.
Opportunity to achieve sustainability:
The Ministry of Education provides the opportunity for registered organizations to provide vocational training to kindergarten teachers. By attending, they enhance their credentials. This provides the opportunity to show teachers the benefits of parent-and-child (combined) activity and to improve the basis of collaborating with vulnerable families and minority groups. Equilibrium has been licensed by the Ministry of Education to deliver 3 courses – on the importance of self-directed play and on the integration of young children from vulnerable backgrounds or with special needs.
University training in Pre-school and Primary School Education should take account of parent-and-child learning strategies especially in cases of children from ethnic minorities whose mother tongue is not Bulgarian.
New partnerships and networking:
The project activity has led to solid working relationships with kindergartens (as we encourage and support parents to enrol their children after they turn 3) and Ruse municipal authority.
Strengthening Local Leadership, Participation and Empowerment of Communities:
The cooperation with Roma families was also successful thanks to the support of Roma community leaders, our educators and social workers from Roma origin. These people play a vital role in the process of social integration and in supporting the development of marginalized communities through the education and development of children and young parents.
Sourcing funding and material support from institutions, businesses and the general public:
All the young children who participated in the project benefitted from the provision of gifts (eg holiday treats and educational materials). Severely deprived families received assistance – clothing, shoes, toys and childcare equipment. All of this is fundraised by Equilibrium from the local community in Ruse.
Many activities involve the use of materials that are readily available and are carried out within existing educational facilities. The costs are related to transport, communication and remuneration of specialists.
Also, investment in very young children from Roma communities leads to a financial return in the future through savings in social protection and contributions within the labour market.
What do our children and parents tell us?
Parents share with professionals:
“I want my child to have education and have a good future, not to be illiterate.”
“Participation in the clubs is very useful to me; I recall and learn important things for the child’s upbringing.”
“Good and useful for the child, but I can’t come every time.”
“I like the way they do these things at the club. I have not been involved in such activities in the past.”
“Because I came to the club, I changed the way I think about what my child learns.”
Children say with a smile:
“Tuesday is my favourite day, because then is our club.”
“We like the games!”
How do we promote our good practice?
Through publications on our website and workshops with partners, at local, national and international level.
Be consistent, be interesting and persevere. Focus on play and learning through experience. Less talk, more interaction.