A new Swiss programme aims to mitigate the effect of social background on educational achievement through early intervention for the disadvantaged.
Already in place in 18 areas, the project “schritt:weise“(step-by-step) focuses upon home visits by trained lay people to very young children and their families.
swissinfo spent a day with schritt:weise in Olten, northern Switzerland, to see first-hand how it works.
Ayse Kaya rings the doorbell of the apartment building where the Tamil family Calistus lives. Happy childrens’ voices can be heard through the intercom. Then, it’s up the lift to the fifth floor.
Three-year old Edin excitedly awaits us in the corridor. His eight-year old sister, Emmie, stands at the threshold with their mother and father. Edin can hardly wait to see what Kaya has brought with her this time.
Of Turkish extraction, Kaya is one of two home visitors employed by shritt:weise in Olten, and is herself the mother of two young children. Today she is accompanied by the project coordinator Rosmarie Schär, from the charity Arkadis.
Schär, an early education specialist, is responsible for implementing the programme as well as training and supporting the home visitors, themselves mothers from targeted ethnic groups.
Trust is key
Inside, Kaya sits on the living room floor with Edin. This time she has brought a puzzle with various gradations of difficulty. While Edin concentrates on fitting the pieces in the puzzle, his sister looks amusedly on. When he is not sure how to carry on, Kaya or one of his parents lends a hand.
Schär explains that this is by design, as parental involvement is also part and parcel of the programme.
The trust between the young home visitor and the Calistus family is palpable. Edin’s parents proudly relate that Edin is in a playgroup, also arranged by schritt:weise. He has been learning how to play with other children, and his concentration has improved. The contact with other Tamil families in the playgroup has been beneficial too, they add.
It was a Tamil friend who recommended the project to them, says the father. Even so, when the home visitor came for the first time, both sides were initially somewhat nervous. But, fortunately, there were no problems with the “foreign“ – that is non-Tamil, woman.
“Quite the contrary,“ said Calistus. Not only Edin, but also Emmie, are happy about Kaya’s weekly visits, during which German is spoken.
The concept for “schritt:weise“ is based on a Dutch project, which was adopted and further developed in Germany. The Swiss charity a:primo in turn adapted it for German-speaking Switzerland, offering it to cities and other localities.
Disadvantaged families with children between one and one-half years and four-years old are the target group. Lay helpers make weekly visits to the families, bringing a book or game for play and interaction. After a period of individual home visits, regular meetings with other families begin taking place.
Erika Dähler Meyer, co-head of a:primo, told swissinfo.ch that the project is currently being implemented by 12 sponsors across German-speaking Switzerland. The Olten project involved 15 families.
“From 2012 we would like to be active in the French- and Italian-speaking parts of the country. It will be a lot of work, because in addition to being translated into those languages, the programmes have to be adapted to the different cultural environments.“
The home visit to the Calistus family comes to an end, but not before the family treat us to sweets. There is a touching scene when Kaya makes to leave, with Edin asking when she will come again.
The next stop is to see a young single mother, Deria Yildiz, and her three-year-old son Efetan. He has also been waiting impatiently for the visit. First he shows us his toys, then together with Kaya he looks at a book she has brought along.
The local government had signed Yildiz up for the home visits. Initially, Yildiz told swissinfo.ch, she was apprehensive about a “foreign“ woman coming to her home and becoming involved in her life, and about the possibility of speaking only in German.
“Then Kaya came, and I realised she was also of Turkish descent.“
schritt:weise’s work with the 15 families in Olten has now ended.
“We were able to achieve a lot,“ said Schär, the early education specialist. “Naturally we had to learn to go forward in small steps, but the balance has been very positive.“
Kaya is also pleased with what the project achieved.
“This work has been very fulfilling to me personally, too,“ she said. “I’ve also learned a lot.“
A:primo tasked the Marie Meierhofer Institut für das Kind in Zurich, experts in child development, with evaluating the project at eight locations.
“They confirmed that the programme had positive effects, “ said Dähler Meyer.
“The parent-child interaction was strengthened, the social network of the families was expanded, the social integration enhanced.“
“The children developed age-appropriately - by the time they began school, they were at exactly the right level.“
Most of the families were referred to schritt:weise by the Mother and Father Advisory Service, or by social services.
One of the first actions taken by the project was to inform the relevant institutions, as well as playgroups, of their existence, and to identify so-called key people from diverse target cultures.
A longtime Olten resident from Sri Lanka, whom Schär informed of the project, referred various Tamil families to them.
schritt:weise in Switzerland is financed by various institutions or sponsors. Canton Solothurn, in which Olten is located, has already declared itself ready to finance the first round of the project completely, and further rounds in part.end of infobox
Best Practice Award
The charity a:primo and its German counterpart were awarded SFr200,000 by the Klaus J. Jacobs Best Practice Award in 2010.
This is the second time the foundation has been honoured for their efforts.
This recognition is very helpful because it raises awareness in the relevant authorities and organisations of the importance of early child development, according to a:primo co-head Erika Dähler Meyer.end of infobox
The Dutch-conceived concept of challenging and aiding very young children from disadvantaged families through play and other support has been adopted in over 50 German and 18 Swiss localities.end of infobox
(Adapted from German by Kathleen Peters), swissinfo.ch