Nursery school teachers have a tough job. They are responsible for making sure their students know their numbers, the alphabet, how to share, tell time, play well with others -- all in preparation for a lifetime of classroom learning. This is no easy task considering the attention span and energy level of the average four-year-old. Now imagine asking teachers to also monitor the growth and development of all their students for signs of malnutrition.
You don't need to look any further than the farming region of Kathonzweni District in Kenya's Eastern Province for that image to become reality. Francisca Kivuva, a teacher at the Kanyonga nursery school knows that one of the best ways to ensure her students are absorbing the knowledge and lessons she imparts is to make sure they are properly nourished. On top of teaching her students the alphabet, numbers and simple writing skills, this Early Childhood Development teacher has been trained to monitor the growth and development of each of her 40 students to help combat malnutrition.
Malnutrition is one of the leading causes of death for children under five years old in the developing world, a statistic made all the more disturbing given that it's 100 percent preventable. Malnutrition is hard to detect in some children and can result in stunting, a form of long-term reduced growth rate in children linked to poor cognitive development, learning problems and behavior issues.
Knowing how severe the consequences of malnutrition can be, an innovative new partnership between educators, health providers and nongovernmental organizations, led by Jhpiego, is educating teachers in Central and Eastern Provinces of Kenya on how to monitor the weight and development of all children under five to prevent malnutrition.
Traditionally, parents will take their children to the local clinic for growth monitoring, but in the Kathonzweni District, where only 28 percent of children under five were being monitored -- compared with the national rate of 85 percent -- the unusual step of integrating health care into the schools was taken.
To drastically increase the number of children being monitored, partners of the APHIAplus KAMILI Project, an integrated health service delivery project aimed at strengthening the primary health care system in the Central and Eastern Provinces of Kenya, joined with the Kenyan government and UNICEF to train early child development teachers in growth monitoring. The project is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Teachers were taught how to determine a child's nutrition status by monitoring weight-versus-height and age-versus-height ratios using middle upper arm circumference and height and weight parameters. They were also given lessons on Vitamin A supplementation, deworming, sanitation promotion, documentation and reporting, nutritional aids and how to advise parents about proper meals and snacks for their school-age children.
While the additional responsibility of keeping track of her students' health and growth may seem overwhelming for a nursery school teacher like Francisca, she is thrilled at the opportunity to help her students. She is even teaching her colleagues at the school the valuable lessons she's learned so they can do the same for their students.
The work of Francisca and her colleagues is yet another way Jhpiego and its partners are helping ensure children grow and thrive. In today's world, no child should be denied reaching their fifth birthday because of malnutrition.
Alain Dambia, MD, MPH, MBA, Senior Vice President of Technical Leadership and Global Programs, Jhpiego, a global health nonprofit operating in more than 50 countries. Visit us at Jhpiego.org or on Facebook.
Images: Serah Njenga, Jhpiego