An Open-minded Kindergarden

Integration as seen in one of the pre-school groups: how to make adaptation of special children most effective?

One of the most unusual kindergardens in Moscow, SaVa, is in its new, second, school year. SaVa is a multicultural inclusive center with children of migrants, local kids and children with special needs all in one place. You won’t be asked for a registration here and you won’t be turned away because of you lack of Russian language skills. The kindergarden’s coordinator Katia Kokorina talks about the effectiveness of classes in multinational groups.

How it all began

Katia Kokorina, the SaVa kindergarden manager, started helping children of migrants and refugees back in 2000 when she joined the Civic Assistance Commitee as a volunteer for the Center for Adaptation and Training of Refugee Children. “At first it was an idealistic adolescent desire to save the world which later transformed into something permanent and became a part of me. I stayed in the Center to help the kids” – tells us Katia.

The Center’s target group was at first children from the Chechen Republic whose parents fleed from the war. As the circumstances changed and new factors encouraged work and humanitarian migration from abroad, there appeared the need to help children of migrants from Central Asia, Africa, Afghanistan, Syria, Congo. According to Katia, it became clear then that the sooner the kids started communicating with the environment the more effectively they adapted.

Education in the Center was within a migrant environment  – the center had pre-school groups, homogenous groups for children from Afghanistan or African countries, – language immersion happened only through Russian-speaking volunteers. At the same time the number of children who needed integration increased. It was then decided to form diverse groups which would include not only children with migrant and refugee background but also Russian citizens, children with special needs among them. The idea of wide inslusion is in the center of this approach where inclusion is not only an accessible environment for children with disabilities and special needs but also an open space where children with different challenges can meet. Such approach allows to decrease stigmatization of both special children and refugee children. “All kids have different difficulties and thus we are focused on the feeling of community, it doesn’t matter that you cannot walk, don’t know the language or don’t speak well, we are all together and that’s what matters” – underlines Katia Kokorina.

The kindergarden today

This year the kindergarden celebrated its first year. These days nine kids are attending, three of whom have development pecularities, three are children of refugees from Afghanistan and Congo, and the other three are local children. According to Katia, this number is preferable and allows to tend to the needs, states and moods of each child. The kids are always looked after by a psychologist, an educator and one or two volunteers.

The main goal of this project is to provide common interaction space. “We want the kids to learn to communicate in a most mild environment since they all have their own challenges. For example, one of the kids is in a difficult situation; she was born in Moscow, her parents came here from Congo. They speak French and Lingala but the girl somehow speaks neither of two languages. Her mother speaks Lingala with her and thinks the baby answers in Russian but it is in fact no Russian but an inexplicit mixture with Russian words. It created complicated, potentially conflictual situations since it was difficult for the other children to interact with a kid with no language knowledge. But the level of agression quickly lowered, the chidren turned out to be very flexible” – says Katia. Teaching migrant children the language, guiding in motivation and interests are all parallel tasks.

The SaVa kindergarden manages to reach its goals through the environmental approach aimed at adapting the children to different situations and through the rich integrational program which includes joint games, workshops, walks and individual therapy. This comprehensive system allowed to decrease the kids’ agression level, developed their abilities and desire to collaborate with each other. The refugee children acquired the motivation to learn the Russian language. “Sensitivity, wisdom, love and kindness shared by the tutors in the kindergarden changed Valya within a year. He became more sociable, learned the mechanisms of inner control, he saw the people around him. It’s now easier for us to appear in other communities after a year in this kindergarden” – says Lida, Valya’s mother.

It’s very important that this project is both a charity and a social enterprise; each child receives some kind of bonus here, they all enrich each other. “You see stories of different people, see how these stories leave marks on them, – says Lida, – Valya is becoming a deeper and more beautiful person as he is interacting with people unlike him.”

Difficulties and plans for the future

Despite the fact that the situation in municipal kindergardens is slowly but steadily adjusting to the inclusive education approach, there is still a demand for small groups where educated and attentive tutors help the children acquire the experince of life in society. It’s especially essential in complicated circumstances. That’s why Katia believes that such initiatives should spread around:” I would like to form a common space, exchange experiences, assist people in launching new projects and create more possibilities for special children”. This year the kidergarden wants to run a small cultural workshop which will help the kids to dive into other cultural systems.

Besides working up the kindergarden Katia is also plannng to fight for the access to free public pre-school education for children of migrants and refugees. Municipal educational institutions are more open to children with disabilities and special needs than to migrant children. As migration into Russia increased, the number of children also went up but the tendency in education is still rather negative, ingerational groups and language schools are starting to work on a paying basis. “We are turning a blind eye and pretending that these people don’t exist, these kids don’t exists. It’s not the best solution” – says Katia.

Children of refugees and migrants of pre-school age are one of the most vulnerable groups. If they aren’t accepted into public institutions and the parents don’t have the money to take them to educational courses, the kids grow up isolated and find it difficult to adapt to the new language and sociocultural environment. Meanwhile, the project’s psychologist Lena Kulikova believes that refugee children who attend kindergardens are no different from the other kids. “Children of refugees showed a lot of interest in communicating with other children and adults but they see no boundaries, they don’t feel other people. On one hand, this could lead to conflicts but on the other, their persistence is an important resource for integration”.  Lena stresses that most communicational difficulties appear if the child is not understood. “At this age the children easily compensate and they need to feel safe and understood by their closest people. If the situation in the family is normal the child will be calm whatever the situations they have to deal with and whatever their life circumstances are”.

Besides the institutional discrimination, children of refugees and migrants face unfavourable attitude towards them by the host society. Quite often local parents prefer the classic segregation scheme when children of a different language, religion or culture study in a separate group. They explain the rationality of this scheme through the education quality of their own children. Katia Kokorina thinks that such situations usually change once the local people start communicating with migrants:”The first reaction is negative, as a rule, but then  people start processing everything internally and finally realize that the world is diverse. Everyone needs to make an effort since human relations are very comlicated and sometimes it’s even more difficult to find common grounds with our dearest than with people of a different cultural and language environment”.

By Anastasia Gaeva, Civic Assistance Commitee