Extending inclusive approaches at Gradinita Rasarit

Since its inception in 1995, Gradinita Rasarit “Sunrise Kindergarten” in Bucharest has been pioneering inclusive education – setting up classrooms that go beyond simply “integrating” children with special needs, but rather designing curriculum, methodology and communication in such a way that all of the children, especially those with special needs, feel valued, visible and included. The kindergarten years (age 2 1/2-7 in Romania) cover a critical period in human development, forming the templates for later experiences in life. When young children are not able to participate in a social setting with a variety of peers at this age, when they are segregated and socialize only with others with special needs – or when they are integrated, but they feel invisible and simply expected to adapt to the “norm” – the stage is then set for a pattern of marginalization, and ultimately, social exclusion. Positive social skills and patterns are also set at this formative stage. Thus, when children are in a loving, accepting and encouraging atmosphere – their social confidence and relationships can bloom. Much of human satisfaction in life comes from being able to develop a healthy, supportive social network, and yet if children are not exposed to such relationships from their early childhood, it becomes increasingly difficult to develop socially appropriate behavior and skills. This in turn, then increases their isolation.

Not only children at risk of exclusion benefit from an inclusive setting – social marginalization only happens when the mainstream of people who are not exposed to diversity in positive ways come to fear and experience discomfort when faced with differences. They then wish for the apparent cause of the discomfort – the person that is outside of their norm – to conveniently disappear, so their comfort zone is no longer challenged. Children that grow up in an inclusive setting that addresses differences rather than masks them or hides them, learn important life lessons in empathy, respect, and friendship. One of the best remedies to prejudice is authentic friendship.

The kindergartens have long been promoting inclusive education – embracing diversity in its many forms, and specializing in the inclusion of children with physical disabilities. Last year, we also began experimenting with including children with mental disabilities, and this year we have 3 such children – two of which have autism. These children come to the kindergarten accompanied by individual helpers who coordinate with our special education specialist to create an individualized educational plan. (IEP) We also include the helpers in our weekly meetings, focusing on one of the children every week. It has been a new challenge – but has brought a lot of growth to our team and it has been rewarding to witness small signs of progress in the children.

IMG_2770This year, we will be taking inclusive education one step further, and extending the possibility to a few children with social disadvantages to attend our smaller kindergarten in the northern part of Bucharest. The kindergarten is situated in a relatively more economically depressed zone, and enrollments have remained low, as a result of the economic crisis impacting the country. Many families are so severely affected that they are unable even to afford the costs of sending their children to public kindergartens. A few weeks ago, AMURTEL signed a partnership with the Department of Social Services to receive 2 beneficiaries free of charge. Already we have one child that attends without charge – her father died very suddenly when she was only one year old, leaving her mother with 4 children to raise on her own and no social support.

The food costs for one child come to less than one euro per day – or 20 euros per month, for an annual sponsorship of 240 euros per year – similar to what we ask our sponsors for the “Fountain of Hope” project that is also offering free hot meals and homework support for socially disadvantaged children.

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