Observation of Lotus Kids’ Club: an Outside Perspective

Written By:  Steve Mojica, Lotus Kids’ Club Technical Adviser
I wanted to share a writeup from my friend and long-time workmate in the US, Nell Ishee.  She has been in the field of education for 40 years.  Among many endeavors she has taught kindergarten, taught at the University level, helped set up an early childhood preschool lab at the University of Vermont and received various awards. She and I also worked with refugees from various areas in the world, including Vietnam, in Vermont for over a decade.
I was lucky enough to have her visit Siem Reap and our Lotus Kids’ Club.  Not having fellow early childhood colleagues here with me I question whether I’m doing it right and are the Khmer teachers understanding what I am trying to teach them? Especially with the challenge of culture and language.
Nell is not one to pull punches and can be brutally honest.  So when I read what she wrote up after observing LKC in action it made my eyes water.  I really needed that affirmation.

LKC staff, you are wonderful and are working with a population that would be daunting to any Director, Social Worker, Teacher and Nurse in the US.  Yet you do a fantastic job.  I am so very proud of the stellar work I see you do on a daily basis.

_____________________________________________________

Observation at Lotus Kids Club Preschool, February 10, 2014

Physical Environment

The physical environment was beautiful and interesting and offered a wide range of age-appropriate learning activities. A very partial listing of options that day includes: painting, sponge painting, water play, trains, dress up, group games, equipment for climbing, crown making, etc.

I started to categorize these options by what area of child development each supports but the outstanding quality of LKC is a deep (maybe nonverbal) understanding that children’s learning doesn’t segment like that. A child involved in a teacher facilitated group game is developing her physical body, learning concepts, developing language, and learning to cooperate. A child playing alone at the water table is developing problem solving skills, math concepts, early physics concepts, fine motor coordination, and developing concentration and focus.

The environment was spacious, areas for different types of play were clearly delineated without being rigidly adhered to. Teachers were very much on top of the large amount of housekeeping required to keep a classroom space interesting and play productive.

Excellent use was made of repurposed and home made materials (two examples are the funnel board and the  use of toothbrushes as bubble blowers.) This sort of material is great for developing problem solving and ingenuity (and, although this is less important in your setting, for fighting consumerism).

Finally, and most importantly, the children were accompanied in their day by smiling, helpful and emotionally available adults. When we smile, the body relaxes and our minds can absorb new information more easily.

 

Behavior Management

Challenging behaviors decrease when children are within an interesting and age appropriate environment. They decrease even more dramatically when teachers focus on the positive—what we focus on strongly tends to be what we get more of. The LKC teachers had both of these aspects working wonderfully. Some other aspects were also noteworthy. Teachers frequently were providing extra support to enhance participation of a child who was somewhat shy and withdrawn or  to calm and focus a child who could be overly boisterous. Nothing was done that would identify to the child and her classmates, “This is a trouble-making kid!” just a look, word, gesture, touch or invitation to sit on a lap, a willingness to join with that child in doing something. When a child was stuck on using and not sharing a particular truck, an invitation to the water table soon had him happily re-engaged. When a child threw her crown on the ground, a teacher’s gentle hand on her shoulder encouraged her to pick it up and get it to the trash. Teachers were very available to the children, frequently squatting to talk with them at eye level. Transitions were very well managed with children doing something (singing, talking, etc.) as opposed to trying to “wait quietly!” An example of this would be at tooth brushing time when one teacher helped children brushing their teeth, another led activities for children who had finished and another talked with children who were still eating.

Overall pacing of the day, as well as pacing of particular segments was a pretty perfect mix of repetition and novelty. Finally teachers simply seemed to have the knack of being in the right place at the right time: moving into a game so that more children would be included or to keep the game interesting by introducing a new element, moving out of a game to notice what the children could integrate, being available for conversation which is the real cornerstone of second (and first) language learning, keeping the environment interesting and organized, noticing and moving close to a child who might soon come undone, etc, etc.

 

Mindfulness

This leads to what in the USA we are calling mindfulness education for children—it’s the hot “new” thing here and LKC is probably doing it better than any preschool in this country. Science keeps providing evidence that a calm, happy child will learn more effectively than a fearful, worried child and that teachers can help children learn techniques to become more calm and happy. Techniques such as: being aware of your breathing, being appreciative of your food, your friends, other good things in life, focusing concentration on the sounds around you—all things I observed during one brief morning at LKC. Research also shows that doing something like singing together enhances subsequent cooperation within a group—think of how often and how joyously LKC children sing together.

 

Areas to Improve

Because I was so greatly impressed, this took a few days to emerge in my brain. An area that could be improved would be the area of early literacy. A few ideas follow…  [Nell listed a host of great suggestions]

Investing in Senhoa

So why did I choose Senhoa?

 There was a cute girl working at a booth at one of their events. I pretended to be interested in Senhoa so I could talk to her. Well, that’s how I was introduced to Senhoa, but I stuck with it for the following reasons:

1. ValueMoney spent overseas goes further. 40 percent of the population in Cambodia  earns less than $1.25 a day (UNDP; 2009). A dollar might feed you for a day in Cambodia, but may only buy you a can of soda here. $5 in Cambodia will give a kid a dental checkup and cleaning. Here you’ll get toothpaste but no toothbrush.

2. Transparency. You know where your money is going because Senhoa’s budgets are listed on its websites. For example, on one of our global giving project websites, if you click the budget link under “Additional Documentation”, you’ll find our complete budget for this program. It’s pretty amazing that at our two Lotus Kids Clubs, we employ about 20 staff for about $45,000 a year.

3. Integrity. Although you might have some idea about what happens to your money, you have to believe that there is someone at the top that will carry through with the vision for the non-profit and do it an ethical way. Lisa, the founder of Senhoa, is the type of person that instantly inspires in you a sense of confidence. There are several core virtues that Lisa always follows through on, especially when it comes to the rights of our survivors and the direction of Senhoa.

For example, I have suggested to Lisa that we exploit the suffering of our survivors, such as through pictures and thank you cards,  to produce larger donations from our donors. Lisa has remained adamant that we do not exploit the suffering of our survivors and their status as survivors. She wants Senhoa to be different from nonprofits that solicit donations through commercials that show starving children in third-world countries. Although I may disagree with her, I respect her vision and integrity.

4. Metrics. As a researcher, this is what I’m most interested, and an area we need to work on. Here’s some you’ll find in our brochure:

  • 15 graduates of our jewelry life skills program have been hired as full time artisans under the Senhoa jewelry program

  • In 2013, there were 11 beneficiaries who were accepted into the Lotus House.

Although we collect some data, I would like to take better data points, for the data to be more meaningful and organized, and to be a bit more clear about what our outcomes are. I’ll make sure we work on this.

-Kyle

Kyle Edward Chang, PhD received his doctorate in Psychology and Social Behavior from the University of California, Irvine. He is now a researcher with Children’s Services Division in Riverside County. He also volunteers with Senhoa as a Volunteer Development Officer.

Perspectives from a donor & volunteer

My greatest fear as a donor and a volunteer is that all the money and time that I donate to a nonprofit is being funneled into some rich person’s personal account. If you don’t know what’s happening to the money that you donate, how much faith can you put into a non-profit?  For this reason, and also because I’m looking for some adventure, I’ll be traveling to Cambodia mid-February for my vacation. I’ll also be guest blogging for Senhoa during that time and writing about my time there.

But first, a little about myself.

There comes a time in every other-centered person when one decides that one has to live for something bigger than oneself. This bigger-than-yourself something, can be your friends and family, your faith or religion, your community, and/or doing what you can to help other people. If you do decide to help others, there are a lot of great causes that you could spend your life fighting for – clean water, mental health, education, economic development…

For me, personally, I thought about which cause I felt most strongly about, and that was human rights. I had to make the decision to fight for human rights twice in in my life. The first time I was a caseworker for child victims of sexual abuse. The job was hard, and as a doe-eyed recent graduate straight out of college, pretty much destroyed my stamina for anything emotionally taxing. After taking a long break, I decided to come back to working for human rights, but this time at a less engaged level. I returned to working for child welfare, but this time as a researcher, and also volunteer with Senhoa in my free time.

to be continued….

-Kyle

Kyle Edward Chang, PhD received his doctorate in Psychology and Social Behavior from the University of California, Irvine. He is now a researcher with Children’s Services Division in Riverside County. He also volunteers with Senhoa as a Volunteer Development Officer.

Jamie’s Fundraiser for Senhoa

In the spirit of giving, I planned to raise money to contribute to the Lotus Kids Club program prior to Christmas with the help of JJBead. We bought scarves, pencils, and other materials to sell for our fundraisers and when people were buying items they also donated money to help run the program. In fact, one lady even donated one hundred dollars out of her own pocket. We had many people lend a helping hand and it was very good to see how people were giving into the Christmas spirit and helping the Senhoa program. We all wanted a great holiday experience for them, along with helping them build a steady establishment for their the future. By hosting these fundraisers and helping raise over $700, I was able to see everyone’s holiday spirit and how any means of kindness is important. We all love Senhoa and hope that the donations will further increase its success.

Happy Holidays and Happy New Year!

-Jamie Van

Changing Lives, Including My Own: Steve’s Journey at LKC in Cambodia

I have been with Senhoa’s  Lotus Kids’ Club for just over a year.  I have been in Siem Reap for almost 2 years.  It has been wonderful working with the dedicated folks of Senhoa, both Westerners and Khmers.  There are challenges of course, yet the success of the program due to the hard working Khmer staff far outweigh those challenges.  Watching the children grow and learn and seeing the joy on their faces as they gain knowledge and have fun is almost indescribable.  As many people coming to Cambodia my goal was to help the people in any way that was most useful.  I was lucky to eventually find a place that made the best use of my knowledge and experience, almost 25 years working with children and families.  Thank you Senhoa.

 

My initial role was to help set up the preschool space, add to the learning materials and teach the teachers about early childhood development/education in the pre-school program.  I have also been involved in the development of the Community Afternoon Program, which serves children 3-18 year olds.  I help with the decision making and general direction of LKC.  However let me state that the director, Sophy, is quite capable and is a good problem solver who has great ideas and vision.  The teachers also are amazingly fast learners and have been accepting of this ‘new’ way of teaching and working with children.  Naturally skeptical at first of implementing these ‘barang’ ideas regarding children they have come to accept and even embrace the methods after seeing positive changes in the children.

 

 

 

And of course for all of us we are doing the work to help the children and the families of this community that so desperately need support.  So let me give some examples of our work.

 

 

I’ve watched so many of the children grow and learn.  On her 1st day one girl just stood by the door and sobbed.  The next couple of days she gradually moved closer, observing the action.  By week’s end she was cautiously participating.  In the next several weeks she would mostly play alone, eventually she joined others in play.  She didn’t seem to talk or smile though.  This gradually changed after a few months and now she’s made friends, she’ll sing songs, and often will flash smiles.  She’s bloomed thanks to the patience and support of the teachers.  She’s a bright, organized kid who will attend the best primary school in the Fall.  A tough school to get into but accomplished through Sophy’s thoughtful persistence.  My guess is she’ll excel.

 

 

 

There’s one little guy who was a challenge not wanting to participate in activities, starting conflicts with other kids and generally vying for attention with negative behavior.  He seemed to have a face of anger and sadness.  It took a little time but this is the kid now who is the 1st to help clean up at program’s end.  And I love his boisterous laugh.  He’s still a bit of a wise guy though now it’s not mean spirited but joyful.  It reinforced my beliefs about young children and how they gain confidence and make appropriate choices if they are in the right environment with caring and supportive teachers.  He will also attend school in the Fall and I have no doubt he’ll be a willing learner.

 

 

 

I think about the 2 little guys who were in conflict it seemed constantly.  After weeks of appropriate support and intervention these 2 guys are the best of buddies, of course with occasional conflicts but usually easily resolved.  They are the 2 kids that are constantly on the move and together find ways to use materials and equipment creatively.  I wish I knew what they talk to each other about, they seem to be always jabbering about something as they play.  These kids have shown me once again that my ideas may be ok but they have their own agenda.  I brought in pieces of hose and funnels for the water table thinking they’d be great to pour the water through.  They used them as a telephone line talking and listening to each other through the hoses and funnels and laughing hysterically.  They both can be focused on an activity for long periods now also, one prefers building w/ legos, the other likes puzzles.  They are fun to watch.  They will continue in our pre-school program for another year.

 

 

 

These are just a few examples of the wonderful work the teachers are doing.  In the pre-school program our goals are to get the children ready to learn, ready for school.  We want them to have a thirst for knowledge, the confidence and persistence to succeed and a belief that they are competent, valued individuals.  The belief that they can make a difference in their lives and in the world is what we try to instill in them.

 

 

 

The Community Afternoon Program has become a successful and popular program.  Lately we will have up to 40 kids attending a session.  We struggled at first trying to figure out how can we make this work with such a large age span, 3-18.  After many discussions and experimenting with different ideas we have developed a program that can address the needs of the varied aged kids.  I admit I was always reluctant to work with older children but these kids have taught me how much fun and satisfying that work can be.

 

 

I am truly impressed with the older kids.  Their creativity, intelligence and talents are a wonderful surprise.  There are several kids that show real artistic abilities.  We’ve recruited a few of those kids to help lead activities for the kids.  One young girl around 12 or 13 has lead a craft project bringing in her own idea.  We are trying our best to support and encourage these children as they all live in challenging conditions and live hand to mouth with the real possibility of not having enough to eat.  Yet these kids are thoughtful, caring and still have a zest for life.  I think and hope we are providing a way to express themselves or at the very least learn about who they are and what potential they have.  I’m talking about all the kids not just the artistically talented ones but the kid who masters the hula hoop or completes a complicated puzzle.  I hope we provide experiences that boost self confidence and lead children on a path to success in whatever they endeavor to accomplish.  In any case big kids are fun.

 

 

 

 

Recently the teachers began teaching cooking one day and sewing another couple days.  The teachers started these sessions after brainstorming different ideas.  They just took off with the ideas which are popular and clearly a success, we may need another sewing machine soon.

 

 

 

After a year my role with LKC is changing.  The teachers are well equipped to run the programs without my direct support.  I will continue to teach about childhood development/education introducing more in depth concepts.  I will continue to be involved in the planning and decision making.  I have already introduced the practice of supervision for the teachers.  And I have started and will continue to teach Ratha, the Social Worker, the principles and challenges of Social Work.  I will spend more time enriching the programs including the professional and educational development of the staff.  Perhaps I will eventually work myself out of my job.  Sustainability is the mantra here and it will be a good thing.

 

 

 

Please understand the teachers have little if any formal training in teaching young children.  They are caring and willing to learn and as I said do well with the children.   Ratha, who also teaches, is the designated Social Worker, though with very little professional training.  Fortunately he seems to have a natural affinity for Social Work.  What I mean by that is that his sensibilities and demeanor seem to be in line with Social Work principles.  He seems to gain rapport easily with parents and appears non-judgemental in his manner.  He is great with the kids, caring, calm, gentle but firm.  So you may wonder how do I know this considering I do not understand Khmer.  Well communication is about 90% non-verbal.  Also I see him interact with parents and kids, the kids especially just appear to trust him.  At the monthly parent meeting/rice giveaway he always seems to get the parents laughing at the start of his talk.  You can learn some of those basic Social Work skills but it’s good to have some naturally.

 

 

 

Let me close by commending the great working relationship I have with Debra, the Country Director.  Her hard working ethic, caring and dedication to the success of LKC has made my job easier and inspired me to give my all.  Deb is so very supportive with a perspective that is most useful.  She is a bright and lovely young women with many talents.  I also have to commend Lisa and Anh, the folks who make it all possible from thousands of miles away.  I feel so very supported and welcomed in my work with Senhoa.  Their hard work and dedication to the families and too kind words regarding my work are also an inspiration and greatly appreciated.  Yes I am lucky to be a part of Senhoa, thanks.

 

 

Stephen Mojica

Senhoa LKC Project Consultant