First Step: Learn to Speak Burmese

Meikswe Myanmar started providing early childhood education in 2007 in Lashio, northern Shan State, with the support of Partners Asia. What began as a project involving less than 10 villages grew into the opening of Early Childhood Care and Development (ECCD) centers in 25 remote villages in Shan State and 15 in Rakhine State.

Partners Asia caught up with Annie, Meikswe Myanmar’s programs manager for early childhood development outreach based in the Rakhine State capital of Sittwe, to learn more about why this project is changing lives for children, parents, and communities.

How does your work with kids begin?

Well, our work starts by building the awareness of the parents through parental education. It’s a whole package, what we offer communities. We teach 15 topics related to child development—nutrition, child protection, child rights. Many things are included. We carry out home visits to see how the parents apply these lessons with their children. We see parents change a lot, and spend more time with their children. For early childhood education, everyone has a responsibility, but it starts with the parents. In total, we have three interventions, or services: for the parents, in running the pre-school center itself, and in training the caregivers who work there.

Why is it important to work with children when they are so young?

The child’s brain develops a lot before they are two years old. This is the period of time when they are in the hands of the parents. The most important period is from birth to age eight. After age eight, it is very hard to carry out an intervention. If we can give a good foundation to the children, it’s like we are investing in our children, and we don’t have to worry about them as they continue their schooling.

How does your work with ECCD also help the parents?

Parents know how to take care of their children of course, but we let the parents know how to support their child’s development: physically, mentally, emotionally. We also teach them about the rights of children. They might unintentionally act in ways that hurt their children. We show them how to support their children through play—it’s very effective. They are surprised to learn that development doesn’t only come from reading and writing.

Who are the target populations you are working with, and how do you contribute to their community development?

We are working with local ethnic communities, like Shan, Kaman, Mro, and Rakhine. We develop the capacity of locals to become professionals, so they can support their ethnic people. This way, we ensure that the caregivers at our ECCD centers can speak multiple languages. We provide children with language development in their native language, and help them to learn and practice Burmese, which will help them later in school.

Why is Meikswe Myanmar well positioned to be a leader in early childhood education in these areas?

We are a local organization. Even though international organizations come and go, if the community has a need, we stay and help. We are flexible in our activities, and our work is based on the needs of the community. For example, in Rakhine State, we are one of the only organizations working on ECCD. We were the organization that initiated early childhood education in the Muslim community here, by starting with parental education and moving into playgroup activities. When it comes to the communities, we are together with them as long as they have needs.

What progress have you seen since Meikswe began this work more than 10 years ago?

We have seen so many changes. There are a couple of examples that stand out to me. In northern Shan State, there was a monk who worked with children on a monastery school. He carried a big stick that he called a ‘golden stick.’ If the children did something wrong, he would beat them. He said, ‘only this stick can change the children.’ But he attended many of our trainings, and these trainings changed his life. He broke all of his sticks and said that he had acted wrongly in the past. He built a computer for the children and called in people to teach them new skills like sewing. This is the first breakthrough I experienced.

In Rakhine State, there was one ethnic Mro village that was very far from the nearest town. To get there, we have to walk two hours on foot through the mountains. A government school teacher is assigned to that village, but no one ever showed up. We initiated the ECCD center there after a father requested it. After attending parental education sessions, he began to ask if he was spending enough quality, precious time with his two children. Once he completed the parental education classes, he started telling stories to his children at night before they slept. He started drawing pictures with his children. We could see this interaction between the father and the children was good. This was a good change that I saw.