Children affected by the Syrian refugee crisis are effectively learning numbers, letters, and 'emotional ABCs' through the Ahlan Simsim initiative

July 02, 2023

You can imagine that remote preschool is extremely challenging—picture a bunch of four-year-olds all going off mute on Zoom! Another extraordinary finding from this evaluation is that the positive effects on children's learning occurred regardless of the caregivers’ education or literacy levels. The Lebanon remote early learning program also provided learning kits of materials brought to homes, and those were received with incredible enthusiasm. We conveyed our results back to caregivers, teachers, principals, and other stakeholders and got a lot of important information. What can caregivers, teachers, and government leaders in crisis-affected areas take away from these findings?

What impacts were found in terms of children’s literacy and numeracy?

That was addressed in one of the other studies, in Lebanon, that evaluated an innovative remote early learning model in response to the COVID pandemic. You can imagine that remote preschool is extremely challenging—picture a bunch of four-year-olds all going off mute on Zoom! So the innovation here was to actually put the power of preschool teaching and pedagogy in the hands of caregivers—in this case Syrian refugee caregivers—in remote and rural areas of Lebanon, where it hasn't been possible to construct preschools. Preschool teachers worked with caregivers three times a week in half-hour sessions to have them carry out the play-based curriculum the IRC had been implementing in person for years—all the kinds of preschool activities that support language and numeracy, and social-emotional development and motor development. 

They don't have a lot of access to early education in these parts of Lebanon, particularly for the Syrian refugee families, and so caregivers experience this as important contact with preschool teachers and schools and education. They referred to these sessions, even though they were on WhatsApp, as “school,” which is really significant. And the effects on children’s language, numeracy, and social-emotional development that we saw from the 11-week program were large—on par with what we usually expect as effects of a full year of preschool.

So these are pretty extraordinary findings. We also think this program model is relevant for the fact that globally, we're very, very far from universal access to high-quality preschool education. And this shows that caregivers can play an important role, and may be relevant for not just humanitarian contexts, where families are mobile, but also in rural and remote areas which are usually the most challenging areas of countries to expand preschool into. So we think this will raise a lot of interest, not just from NGOs that work in the humanitarian sector, but also from ministries of education that are working to expand quality preschool to all young kids.

Another extraordinary finding from this evaluation is that the positive effects on children's learning occurred regardless of the caregivers’ education or literacy levels. This really challenges the stereotype that says that caregivers and parents with low levels of education won't be able to support learning at home. We found exactly the opposite—that they can be very highly engaged and have a great impact on their children's learning with the support from teachers.

Were there any findings that surprised you during the evaluation?

The Lebanon remote early learning program also provided learning kits of materials brought to homes, and those were received with incredible enthusiasm. It was so meaningful to both kids and parents to receive this physical aspect of schooling—kids were jumping up and down when materials were being delivered. Despite the fact that teachers weren't actually coming to homes, and the contact was through WhatsApp, the learning materials, which included a lot of the Ahlan Simsim content from the TV show plus IRC-developed preschool materials, were extremely meaningful to families. Siblings were using them too, not just the focal children, and that was surprising.

Teachers were also surprised. Some told us they were initially skeptical about whether caregivers could implement these kinds of activities, but they grew to have really close relationships with the caregivers. They also had one-on-one calls with them, in addition to these group calls, and the caregivers also reported supporting each other on WhatsApp. These kinds of peer friendships and supports were also critical in motivating caregivers to stay engaged in a program like this.

This kind of community building is especially important for these more isolated rural and remote families that are living far away from each other.

What actions regarding early childhood education in crisis-affected areas do you hope to see in the next few years?

With the greater attention to early childhood development in these kinds of migration and displacement contexts, I would love to see refugee voices centered even more in this critical area of early childhood development. And it would be great to see the partnerships that have come out of this initiative—for example, with ministries of education and health in multiple countries—be sustained and strengthened as well. The materials developed from this partnership are in high demand in ministries across the region. That shows that this focus on developing ECD programming in this part of the Middle East was successful in garnering the kind of interest that can lead to even larger scale impact.

What are the limitations of these studies?

Although refugees gave input to develop these program models, more could be done to involve them meaningfully in all the implementation and governance and leadership, and then the next phase of improvement of these programs. We conveyed our results back to caregivers, teachers, principals, and other stakeholders and got a lot of important information. I hope that kind of two-way dialogue can continue so that we generate even more advances in the field that are led by refugees.

What can caregivers, teachers, and government leaders in crisis-affected areas take away from these findings?

One project we evaluated was a COVID pivot—a caregiving program for parents of 0- to 3-year-olds in Jordan. It was provided entirely on the phone, and, unlike with the WhatsApp program in Lebanon, there was no video involved. While it didn’t improve parenting, according to our measurements, it did reduce the caregivers’ depressive symptoms. That came from the fact that the callers were trained to do a general check-in and to engage in active listening techniques that were really critical to this improvement in caregivers’ wellbeing. When we spoke with the caregivers, they spoke about how helpful it was for someone to be generally checking in on their wellbeing, whether it was about their economic stresses or relationship stresses. They came back to these topics week after week, and they looked forward to these calls. 

For the teachers in Lebanon, working with caregivers to implement a preschool curriculum was new, and so they reported getting to know families in a way that they never had before. This goes way beyond traditional approaches to family engagement. 

For the teachers in Jordan who showed and saw Ahlan Simsim alongside the kids in their classrooms, they not only got 55-inch televisions, but they were watching the episodes every day. They were really enthusiastic about the program. Some of them would pause it and explain what the kids just saw, or do an activity. We didn't provide guidelines for teachers in this case, for how they should use the show. We were simply interested in whether the exposure to the TV show would have an impact on children's emotional development. But the teachers, it turned out, were creative, and did a variety of things on their own because they saw that the content of the program was nutritious for the kids’ development and learning. 

I think it would be an important next step to develop formal materials to link the Jordanian kindergarten curriculum with the Ahlan Simsim TV program. 

Finally, for policymakers, I think the partnerships with the ministries have been really important. They're a critical part of the Ahlan Simsim initiative because the intent was not to just have IRC and Sesame provide these materials and programs, but to then provide them as a kind of public good to other NGOs, to ministries, and to really have a full-time policy liaison to partner with ministries and NGOs in the region and reach scale with these programs. The materials, curricula and models are in fact currently being adopted by ministries and NGOs across the region—the kind of impact at scale that was central to the vision of Ahlan Simsim. 

The source of this news is from New York University