Abhisree Jaranchavanaphet has created an alternative model of pre-school education in which cultivates the potential of all children, including those with mental handicaps, and recaptures spiritual values traditionally part of Thailand's Buddhist culture.
The New Idea
Abhisree Jaranchavanaphet has created the first preschool in Thailand where "educable mentally retarded children," including very slow learners, hyperactive children and children with Down's Syndrome, are integrated into normal classrooms. She confirms that in this mainstreamed setting, the children with learning disabilities develop at a faster rate than if they remain isolated or are taught only with other slow learners, and that "normal" children also benefit. In today's rapidly modernizing Thailand, where children learn to value competition and achievement at any cost, she has managed to create an atmosphere in which pre-schoolers learn patience and understanding. Having changed the composition of pre-school classes and the atmosphere in which they are run, Abhisree is also educating the children's teachers. By creating multiplying agents who understand her philosophy of preschool education, Abhisree is guaranteeing the sustainability of her work. What distinguishes Abhisree's work from mainstreaming practices in educational systems elsewhere is how she has crafted it to succeed in the Thai context. She systematically relates her new curriculum to the Buddhist philosophy, which attends carefully to personal development and is commonly associated with Thai identity; and she introduced her idea within the Buddhist "temple schools." Despite the fact that mainstreaming is a concept alien to the culture, she has convinced parents to participate and has attracted the support of the Ministry of Education. With a team of trained monks, nuns and teachers from government schools, she is now utilizing her curriculum and ideas about early childhood education on a broader scale.
The prevailing educational system in Thailand revolves around the rote absorption of facts; examinations drive early-childhood and general education. Children are pressured from an early age to achieve and "be the best" to please their parents, and the more educated the parents, the greater the pressure on children not to let them down. This reality is particularly harsh in big cities such as Bangkok. Even private schools with well-trained and informed staffs yield to parental pressure and stress reading and math skills to younger and younger students. Other aspects of a young person's growth, such as art or physical education, are neglected, and little unstructured time remains for leisure or physical activities. Thai children often spend their weekend and after-school time in cramming programs. In the enthusiasm about Thailand's recent material progress, society as a whole has turned its attention away from the spiritual development of young children. The ethical foundations which once grounded the education system have broken down, giving way to what many consider shallow materialism. Buddhist temples, which traditionally formed the center of Thai society, are nowadays often affiliated to schools only in name: schools situated on land next to temples are called "temple schools," but they carry few of the values that were once stressed by monks and nuns. Rather, these schools, especially those in Bangkok and other cities, are filled with the same pressures mentioned above, and they, too, fail to equip children with the developmental skills and good habits they need to enter primary school. Such conditions have far-reaching effects on the Thai people, both for personal lives and for the larger society. Many workers produced by the Thai education system have low self-esteem, little creativity and an unwillingness to speak up about new ideas or problems. The shortage of people with problem-solving abilities at various levels of production and management impedes Thailand's development. The educational system harms children with disabilities even more. At a young age they are segregated and labeled as having nothing to contribute to society; people often consider these children unalterably cursed by their destiny, or even punished because of wrongs committed in a past life. Ignorance leads some to believe that they are contagious, and parents may fear that their "normal" children will begin to imitate mentally handicapped peers. Most Thais have no exposure to the benefits of mainstreaming slow learners and are therefore opposed to it. In most preschools, even if children of different capacities were taught together, the furious pace (too fast even for bright children) would leave the retarded ones far behind from the start. Parents typically put such children in special treatment programs in hospitals or private foundations. The waiting lists there are long, and there is a shortage of teachers who have the training to work with this population. As a result, many parents keep their disabled children at home or put them into regular classes where they often create behavior problems or fall far behind academically.
Before Abhisree began her work, there were no examples in Thailand of how mainstreaming retarded children might work. Her model is a pre-school in Bangkok called Anubarn Ban Rak. This school enrolls children from 22 months (in the nursery) to six years old. Children aged three to six are combined in each kindergarten class; thus, a wider range of development is present in these classes than is usually found in other schools. In a class of 30 children, five, typically, have some type of learning or physical disability. This high percentage is a result of the school's popularity among parents of disabled children, whom pediatricians and public health workers constantly refer to Anubarn Ban Rak. There is an overwhelming demand for places in the classes. Abhisree calls her approach "natural education." Classrooms at Ban Rak are structured like interesting rooms in a house. Basic life skills, such as helping one another and establishing a positive relationship with nature, are stressed over academic discipline, and swimming, music and gymnastics are taught. Abhisree encourages teachers to use natural materials and make toys and teaching materials with their own hands so children will become more adept at thinking creatively than they would with ready-made toys. The curriculum revolves around the Thai seasons, stresses art and children's natural love of learning and the outdoors and includes local culture and tradition. For example, during Thailand's long rainy season, children learn about planting rice, and how nature, man and the land are affected by the rains. Much of the learning takes place outdoors during field trips, and the children are encouraged to ask questions and express their feelings. Buddhist ethics and ideas about the balance of man with nature are presented through art and stories. Abhisree's efforts to base her school in Buddhist values appear in all facets of school life. She believes that education should reflect Buddhist teachings that encourage "seeing all things in this world as our friends;" her goal is to teach the children to become self-reliant and not harm others. Abhisree has the full support of those who do not want to see Thai culture and religion discarded at the cost of entering the "global marketplace." Much of this support has come from the community of monks and nuns, including the Sathien Thammasathan, an institution led by a group of Thai Buddhist nuns who support 100 temple schools. Abhisree close relationship with the religious community has allowed her to support and spread her philosophy through existing temple schools. This has been a very wise plan, as it has granted her access to start-up funding from the government, which designates money for temple schools. Abhisiree also has received donations that the monks received from Thai temple members. She had another reason for spreading her approach through temple schools. Many of them, though still functioning, were in a weakened state with poor attendance records. However, their budget and Abhisree initiative equipped Abhisree to improve the quality of these schools and redefine the term "temple schools," returning them to places where Buddhist values received more than lip service. With Anubarn Ban Rak as a model and the temple schools as an ally, Abhisree is positioned to spread her "natural education" approach. Thus far, one temple school named Siripong has totally followed the Ban Rak model, and its ten classrooms have been changed into ten "houses" where 350 preschoolers attend. With the support of Sathien Thammasathan, Abhisree has been creating, within existing temple schools, "annexes" using the "natural education" approach. She plans to do this in ten schools a year and train 100 volunteers for each of the next five years. In that time, the process of reform should be systematized, and 50 model schools with 500 volunteers will have been created. She also plans to lobby education officials to re-think their curriculum. Little by little she is pushing for whole-school change. Abhisree's ideas have gained acceptance, nad she has already managed to convince the government to approve her curriculum, which means that children can go directly from her kindergarten into government schools. The Thai Ministry of Education has also welcomed education specialists from Laos, Malaysia, and other parts of Thailand to observe Ban Rak. Abhisree has also acted as a consultant to Catholic schools attempting to mainstream slow learners. However, in Abhisree's words, "the problem or obstacle lies in the lack of the adequate number of teachers for such an operation... It takes a long time for teachers to practice and gain practical skills." She emphasizes comprehensive training for nuns and monks who teach in temple schools, as well as for education and special education students. Teacher trainees spend up to several weeks at Anubarn Ban Rak. In 1996 a month-long training seminar included the following activities: teachers shared their progress and challenges from the previous year, offering constructive criticism and support; teachers discussed and reviewed the philosophy behind the "natural education" method; they practiced teaching techniques such as storytelling and rhymes; and they wrote songs for the children, made teaching aids and toys and decorated their classrooms. Abhisree noticed that these efforts made a great difference in teachers' and children's attitudes. In 1997 she received funding from Japan to build a teacher training center on the campus of Ban Rak. Abhisree is also amassing a volunteer force of parents. When she began her work, parents were apprehensive about sending their kids to school with retarded children, but now they are proud that their children are learning to help slow learners. Parents of children with different capacities are forming friendships and working together to become active in school life. After spending time observing and teaching at Ban Rak, they educate teachers at other schools about "natural education". Abhisree says that the Buddhist influence creates schools which "are blessed with readiness in terms of parents' support in the community."
Abhisree was born, in 1961, into a family of teachers. For over 40 years her family ran the school which is now Anubarn Ban Rak, and during that time Abhisree was especially influenced by an aunt and a family friend, both teachers. The friend, who had been educated abroad, had absorbed the ideas of modern educators such as Piaget and Montessori, who particularly influenced Abhisree. Nevertheless, the family school dealt poorly with personnel issues and Abhisree thought about ways in which she could start another school and provide better teacher training for teachers. Abhisree traces her exposure to handicaps back to her childhood, when some of her friends were mentally retarded. While doing her practice teaching as part of an education degree at Chulalongkorn University, Abhisree taught a few students who, unbeknownst to her, had mental disabilities. The school, upon making this discovery, dismissed the students. This incident woke her up to discrimination against the mentally handicapped, and Abhisree began formulating her innovative curriculum. In 1984 Abhisree graduated from university and reopened Ban Rak, which had been closed for ten years. Ban Rak is on a large and beautiful piece of property with trees and canals running through it. Starting with eight children, two of whom were mentally retarded, she tried putting "normal" and disabled students in the same classroom for the first time in Thailand. The school has earned national attention and its graduates are known for having a love of learning that carries them through primary school and on to secondary education.