ABU DHABI // They are trailblazers who hope to revolutionise education practices for very young children.
The seven Emiratis and one Canadian woman are among the first batch of students to graduate from the Shamsa bint Mohammed Al Nahyan Fellowship in Early Child Development.
From a way to encourage children to read to finding out if foreign nannies have a detrimental effect on children’s ability to speak Arabic, to the correct way to discipline a youngster, their projects aim to change how children are raised in this country.
This 16-month professional development course, which taught them about the bond between children and parents, was part of the Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation’s collaboration with Yale University.
Ghadeer Tarazi, programme manager of education at the foundation, said the fellowship was part of the Government’s desire to give its citizens the best start in life.
The programme would mean the next generation of Emiratis would be well equipped to help establish and steer the knowledge-based economy for which the country is aiming, Ms Tarazi said.
“To focus on early childhood learning is very important as cognitive, physical, behavioural and learning development is largely defined from the ages of birth to 3 years old,” she said.
“This is a crucial period in human development cycle and is the determining factor for social and emotional stability throughout an individual’s life.”
Ms Tarazi said the goal of the fellowship was to support the professional development of leaders who would work with or on behalf of young children.
The graduates were professionals from disciplines including health, education, social sciences, child protection and communications.
Ms Tarazi believed the graduates would provide an invaluable role in teaching both children and other educators.
The course provided them with access to the latest advances in science, public policy, child development and early education theories.
“Upon completion of the programme, the fellows have greater knowledge about child development and early learning and are better prepared to engage in meaningful work and advocacy aimed at improving outcomes for children across the UAE,” Ms Tarazi said.
“Fellows also expand their network of professional colleagues and resources both within the UAE and internationally.”
Dr Salvatore LaSpada, executive director at the foundation, said the fellowship was creating a generation of specialists who would “enhance and enrich the community”.
“Our vision is to contribute to a new generation of UAE citizens who, as a result of investment in their development at the crucial birth to 3 stage of life, are equipped to take the country into the next phase of its growth and development,” Dr LaSpada said.
“Research over the past 20 years has shown that learning-based child care gives youngsters the platform on which much of their future success – intellectual, emotional and behavioural – will rest.”
To complete the course, each of the eight fellows had to design a project to assist in child early development.
Those interested in applying for the next term, which starts in September, should email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
The team behind tomorrow’s citizens, from Day 1:
Maha Al Fahim
Teaching children to read at an early age with the help of medical practitioners was the first step in Dr Maha Al Fahim’s project.
Dr Al Fahim, a consultant in family medicine at Ambulatory Health Services, said many parents admitted that they were not reading to their children.
“Arab society is frequently criticised for not being fond of reading together,” she said.
“The idea was then developed to work on a project with three main objectives – assess the knowledge, attitudes and practices of mothers in Abu Dhabi, promote early literacy and school readiness by introducing children’s books, and promote Arabic language use and literacy.”
Dr Al Fahim turned to Reach Out and Read, a US non-profit organisation that uses medical providers to encourage children to read.
Her first step was to launch the Reach Out and Read project at Al Bateen Clinic primary healthcare centre.
“Clinical staff including physicians and nurses completed an online training module on the concepts developed by Reach Out and Read and the importance of early literacy,” she said.
Dr Al Fahim said reading was central to all formal education as it helped to develop a young child’s brain.
“As parents talk and read to their children, existing links among brain cells are strengthened and new links are formed.
“Reading imparts a love of learning and satisfies curiosity.
“Finally and most important is the parent-child bonding that occurs through reading, which is the essential foundation for developing children’s security, confidence and parents’ love.”
A handbook instructing carers on how to properly discipline a child has been compiled by one of the graduates.
Alisha Nanji, 25, a Canadian, has produced a guide for parents, teachers and caregivers on how to avoid resorting to severe punishments.
“Being a teacher in Dubai for the past two and a half years, I often had parents come to me and ask me how to deal with their child who was not listening at home, or ask me for other ways of disciplining their child, as what they were doing at home was not working,” Ms Nanji said.
“I thought it would be a brilliant idea to take the questions I came across and turn it into a handbook.”
She said the book provided ways of chastising a child without resorting to corporal punishment.
“The benefits for parents would be gaining new ideas about positive discipline and guiding their child in a firm and appropriate way,” Ms Nanji said.
“Children will benefit because their parents will learn new ways of disciplining them and children love when their parents are trying their very best.”
The English version of the handbook is available and the Arabic one is a work in progress, Ms Nanji said.
Once they are ready, the Sheikha Salama bint Hamdan Foundation will distribute them.
Dr Aysha Al Kaabi and Dr Salwa Al Kaabi
Two of the fellowship’s graduates worked on a project to design a test that shows if a child has development problems.
Dr Aysha Al Kaabi, 31, and Dr Salwa Al Kaabi, 29, who are paediatric specialists in Tawam Hospital in Al Ain but are not closely related, designed a set of questions for parents and physicians to analyse young children.
“The tool will serve as screening that will guide physicians and parents in detecting early signs of developmental delay,” said Dr Salwa.
“Recognising the early signs will help to ensure early detection and early intervention by the required services.
“Our belief is that early detection will lead to better outcomes. UAE children always deserve the best.”
Dr Aysha said they had conducted a pilot study on 20 parents in their hospital’s postnatal department.
“We instructed the parents on how to apply it and advised them to bring it with them during any child visit to be reviewed by the paediatrician,” she said.
“We taught the 30 new paediatricians how to apply the tool and document it in the electronic system so it will be saved in each child’s file.
“If the pilot goes well then we’ll expand the project to involve larger group of parents and physicians.”
A family doctor designed a series of posters that explain the stages of child development in her work with the fellowship.
Dr Fayeza Saif, acting director of quality at Ambulatory Healthcare Services, said the posters could be displayed in health centre waiting rooms and on social media.
“I believe that my project will have a significant and positive impact on parents, caregivers and children. By disseminating and reinforcing information about children’s development, parents will be better informed about their children,” she said.
“By learning how to boost their children’s development, they will be more engaged in their care and will enjoy it.
“Also, by understanding both normal and abnormal development, they will be better able to keep an eye out for potential problems. This is important because the sooner a child receives help with a developmental problem, the better the outcome is likely to be.”
Dr Saif said that parents who were aware of their child’s development were “more responsive, sensitive and skilful in dealing with their children, and they help their children reach their full physical, cognitive and emotional potential”.
Huda Al Dhanhani
One graduate of the fellowship has examined how having a foreign nanny or housemaid affects Emirati children’s communications skills.
Dr Huda Al Dhanhani, a paediatrician in Tawam Hospital in Al Ain, said her project aimed to reveal whether being raised by someone from overseas was the reason some children had difficulties in speaking Arabic.
“This project is going to be the first social study that touches this area of society practice, not only in the UAE but also the Gulf,” said Dr Al Dhanhani, 32.
“The possible effect of the housemaid’s interactions with the children is a major concern, as most of the domestic workers come from different nationalities and backgrounds.”
Through two questionnaires filled in by parents, mostly mothers, Dr Al Dhanhani found 55 per cent of children receive much of their care from a domestic helper.
“Thirty-four per cent of the children were delayed in communication and language skills, and surprisingly there was no difference between the kids who are cared for by the maids, and those who are cared for by mothers,” she said.
“This may suggest that the quality of interaction with the child is more important than who is the child’s primary caregiver.”
But Dr Al Dhanhani said further studies were needed to explore the quality of interaction.
“Our next step is to compare children cared for by nurseries with the children who are cared for by the mothers and housemaids,” she said.
“We are trying to explore the effect of the new cultural practices in most Emirati houses on our children.”
Sara Al Suwaidi
An educator used her participation in the fellowship to devise a way for schools to teach emotional literacy – the ability to understand one’s feelings.
Sara Al Suwaidi is section manager of pedagogy and learning resources at the Abu Dhabi Education Council.
Ms Al Suwaidi looked at providing professional development for 65 heads of faculty in schools to interpret their knowledge of emotional intelligence.
Her aim was to develop a training protocol in teaching emotional intelligence, using Oliver Jeffers’ children’s book, The Heart and The Bottle. One of her objectives was to train practitioners into becoming more emotionally literate.
By developing awareness of emotional literacy, Ms Al Suwaidi hopes to help children manage their emotions and express them in a healthy manner.
Her next step will be developing several short video clips that teach children about different emotions.
Ms Al Suwaidi said that making sure this teaching was culturally sensitive was important in her project.
Heba Al Hashemi
Reaching out to parents to help them understand their child’s needs and behaviour is crucial for better development, says Heba Al Hashemi.
The vice principal at a public school in Abu Dhabi and one of the graduates of the Sheikha Shamsa bint Mohammed Al Nahyan fellowship, she said her project revealed how parents perceived early child development through a questionnaire distributed on social media.
After receiving feedback from 245, she said she would “take the study further in with the foundation and Yale University to decide on refining the survey, analysing the data, and disseminating the results to educators and other stakeholders”.
Ms Al Hashemi said it was crucial to target parents and any other people who were involved in the child’s life.
“Parents’ understanding of early child development is crucial, not only for them but for everyone in the community, especially those who have direct contact with the child.
“Parents have to be fully aware of how their roles are affecting their children’s future.”