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The challenges of speech development in Belarus’s orphanages

Children growing up in institutions need to be nurtured, particularly if they have been through trauma, are suffering from illness or have a disability
Children growing up in institutions need to be nurtured, particularly if they have been through trauma, are suffering from illness or have a disability

Early years' interaction is essential for child development, with parents and caregivers playing a crucial role. Belarus's childcare institutions struggle to provide play and interaction needed to encourage speech and language. Guest blogger Jennifer draws on her visit to one such institution to examine the state of care and how it is changing.

Parents and carers play a huge role in their child’s brain development; affecting a child's education, health outcomes, social and emotional development. By contrast, children growing up in baby homes and children's institutions do not always have this early experience of being played with, spoken or read to.

A children’s home in rural Belarus is made up of 11 groups of children ranging from four to 25 years old. The level of ability to communicate varies across the home. Many of the children have disabilities which, without appropriate support, further impact on their development. Just eight out of over 275 children and young people are able to read to some degree.

Disabilities and trauma hold children back

In the younger and bed-bound groups, most have no non-verbal communication and no developed speech. Often these children have been in institutional settings throughout their lives. They lack stimulation; preventing the development of non-verbal communication, as well as speech and language.

Additionally some children have been affected by experience of significant trauma. One child entered the state care system after seeing his alcoholic father kill his mother. Following this, he stopped responding, which has become ingrained and prevented any further learning since.

Institutional culture hinders speech development

Working hard on homework in Borovljany, Belarus
Language delay is common due to a lack of formal teaching as well
as a shortage of mixing and limited group interaction

Speech and language delay and comprehension difficulty are very common throughout the orphanage. There is no formal teaching or education. Groups do not mix which additionally prevents practice and learning through social interaction and, although there are some exceptions, carer’s interaction with children is limited.

Children who are deaf or hard of hearing, without access to support, have continued speech difficulties. Where there are children and young people with well-developed language, this usually stems from experience prior to institutionalisation.

What works?

Early intervention is essential to improve the development of speech, communication and language ability in the institution, which involves a culture change in working with young children. While the ratio of carers to children is at most 1:5, even an increase in simple daily interaction, talking and responding would have a significant positive impact.

Positive interactions with carers can include clear and repetitive talking. This is already experienced in the form of simple instructions. To further increase the impact of interactions with carers, children should be given time to respond and be listened to.

Volunteers work in the orphanage throughout the year; playing a vital role in increasing capacity for play and interaction, and demonstrating positive attitudes and activities.

Power of play

Play is an effective tool to encourage a child’s development and can be varied to suit the situation and context. For example, imaginative play, messy play, listening to music, repetitive books, and games all contribute to the development of speech, language and motor skills.

These children enjoy some downtime in Borovljany, Belarus
Play is an effective and flexible tool to encourage interaction and
speech development

There have been noticeable positive improvements in the attitudes towards, and treatment of, children year on year. Importantly this is due to both management changes in the home, as well as continued volunteering and monetary support from international charities. The culture change is slow, but it is achievable.

A need for family-based care

This is an example of a particularly progressive children’s home in Belarus; conditions can be much worse. From the age of 18, young people are often moved onto adult homes, which invariably are more severe than the children’s equivalents. Ultimately institutions are harmful to children’s development.

Family-based care, fostering options and alternative care based on the model of a family would best improve outcomes for these children and young people, including the development of non-verbal and verbal communication through relationships and social interaction. Additional family support would provide early intervention and prevention in the community, helping to address issues and reduce child abandonment.

This is a challenge in Belarus, where there is limited state provision, high levels of poverty and deep-rooted social issues, including alcoholism. The work of international charities – service provision, research and influencing – is hugely important to achieve any kind of impact on childcare reform in the country.

We would like to thank Jennifer for volunteering her time to share her impressions and reflections on Belarus's childcare system. If you'd like to hear more comment on the world of charity, development and childcare, why not sign up to our email newsletter to receive monthly updates?