02 November 2016

When there is a will, there is a way: Investing in early childhood development (ECD) in Nalaikh, Ulaanbaatar

Uranbileg and her favorite Teddy bear
©UNICEFMongolia/2016/Mungunkhishig Batbaatar
“I want to be a doctor when I grow up so that I can heal others,” says 5-year-old Uranbileg, also known as Urnaa. She lives in Nalaikh, a peri-urban district in the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Her bright, intelligent smile belies the chronicle of her past pain and doubt. Having been born with bilateral orofacial clefts, her parents wondered if her little daughter would have a normal life in the future.

When Urnaa was over two years old, she had not yet learned how to speak like the other children of her age; thus, making her more and more isolated from her family, friends and the society at large. Worried about their child’s well-being, her parents enrolled Urnaa at an alternative kindergarten program because the regular one was not an option due to lack of slots and inadequate supply. This alternative form of early childhood education (ECE) service was initiated by the Education Division with support of “Sujetashand” NGO. UNICEF provided technical and financial support to arrange this alternative ECE service at grassroots level, benefiting children with disabilities (CwD).

There she enjoyed a company of other children and professional care twice a week. Gradually, she started going to the public kindergarten regularly. As luck would have it, that is where Urnaa met Ms. Dorjkhand, a kindergarten teacher who was trained to work with children with special needs.

When alternative education meets inclusive kindergarten

Settling in a new environment and trying to make friends was no easy task, especially for Urnaa who was still struggling to speak. As teacher Ms. Dorjkhand incorporated orofacial muscle exercises and special techniques with her regular curriculum, Urnaa was able to learn how to speak. Most importantly, she was becoming more sociable in the classroom, and even at home. 

Uranbileg and Ms Dorjkhand in their classroom
©UNICEF/Mongolia/2016/Mungunkhishig Batbaatar
“There are no children with disabilities if you ask me. All children are able to reach their full potential if we can provide the environment, care and love they need,” explains Ms. Dorjkhand. She is one of the 120 Early Childhood Education (ECE) professionals and kindergarten teachers who were trained on providing ECE services for the children with disabilities and implementing the national core curriculum for preschool education.

Moreover, her work with Urnaa is not bound by the classroom walls; Ms. Dorjkhand makes sure that her students get the care and exercise they need even when they go home with their parents or go on a summer vacation. Urnaa carefully explains “During the summer, my mother and I did our special exercises every day.” “So that she can maintain and add onto what we’ve achieved together so far,” adds her mother Sarantugs, highlighting the importance of continuous speech therapy.

When investment in ECD means foundation for social capital

“She is my only reason why I laugh and smile every day” says Sarantugs. Now she has the time to work as a nurse at a local hospital because her daughter is going to the public kindergarten regularly. She said “Knowing that my Urnaa is in reliable, professional care with teachers like Ms. Dorjkhand, I work without any worries which is such a big help for me and my family.”

Uranbileg and her mother Sarantugs in their yard
©UNICEF/Mongolia/2016/Mungunkhishig Batbaatar
Her family is an example of thousands of families that benefited from alternative ECE services for children with disabilities to which UNICEF has provided technical and financial support backed by the Government of Monaco.

By pulling these resources and efforts together in order to improve the lives of the next generation, the number of most disadvantaged children benefiting from ECE services has increased by 2,150 in UNICEF target areas. Some 1450 parents like Urnaa’s mother Sarantugs now have both the motivation and ECD skills to support their children’s development at home and their school readiness through a combination of regular parent’s experience sharing meetings, trainings and assisting documents on child development. Mother Sarantugs added “That’s why I feel grateful for the work done in Nalaikh by UNICEF Mongolia and the Government of Monaco.”

Since 2012, UNICEF has been continuously supporting ECD in the national and sub-national levels and ensuring that children develop to their full potential. These initiatives required interventions in programmes for child survival and development, education, child protection, and social policy and partnerships. Particularly, UNICEF supports community and family care practices that impact young children, especially the most disadvantaged children. In addition, a handbook for caring and developing children with disabilities is one of the most important practical tools for parents and teachers to support CwD in the families and institutions.

However, the work here is not done yet. There are over 30,000 children with disabilities in Mongolia and they have the same rights as other children – to an education, health care, protection and survival. Early years of life are crucial not only for individual health and physical development, but also for cognitive and social-emotional development. Simply put, ECD is the key to a full and productive life for every child.

Mungunkhishig Batbaatar
Digital Communication Consultant, UNICEF Mongolia


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