Celmira is raising a generation of children who are more empathic and inclusive, through a universal learning methodology which radically changes the way all children learn to read, write, or communicate, regardless of special needs or disabilities.
A nova ideia
Celmira has created EKUI (Equality, Knowledge, Universality, Inclusion), a disruptive, inclusive learning methodology that stimulates multiple communication channels and enables all children to learn reading and writing together equally. EKUI is generally used for children in early-stage learning and its universal design applies to everybody, including children with or without special needs, children with a disability, and children with phonetic articulation or speech difficulties, among others. It is a multi-sensorial methodology, centered around a simple idea of a deck of 26 unique playing cards that include four forms of communication: Braille both in texture and visual version, Sign Language, Portuguese spelling, and the phonetic alphabet. The same card therefore responds to different approaches of learning and communicating.
Celmira’s methodology is transforming traditional learning methods in two ways. On the one hand, she provides a solution to the exclusion of children with difficulties of hearing, seeing, or speaking, who are currently supported and accompanied individually, which often fosters division and segregation. With EKUI, those with different abilities learn in the same space and at the same rhythm as other children, thus preventing them from having to leave the classroom and be taught separately. Using the four forms of communication means that nobody is “an outsider” and makes it patently clear that there is no “correct” way for kids to communicate with each other. On the other hand, she is empowering children to practice an increased empathy for their peers, making them co-responsible for creating an equal, inclusive, and diverse school environment. In its essence, EKUI is breaking down barriers before they are even built.
Celmira is leveraging the EKUI methodology to bring effectiveness and efficiency to the education system. The methodology helps all students learn more efficiently, due to the mental stimulation of multiple channels, and, more importantly, it strengthens their active citizenship skills. EKUI leverages the role of teachers as multipliers of the methodology and the intervention costs are minimal, making EKUI a highly replicable model. Celmira envisions a world where, in every school, children can learn to read, write, and communicate as equals, without any discrimination or barrier. To turn this vision into reality she is advocating for multiple-channel learning to become an integral part of the early-stage school curriculum in Portugal and beyond, meaning that all children can learn and communicate in a more inclusive and empathic environment.
In Portugal almost two million people are at risk of social exclusion due to illiteracy either in reading or writing, including those who leave school without basic literacy skills, those who were born with a disability or incapacity, and those who could not acquire reading and writing skills due to physical or neurological diseases or accidents. These segments of the population are all overrepresented in lower income, unemployment, and institutionalization indexes.
One of the main root causes of this problem is that the primary education system is not devoting the necessary time, resources, and teacher capacity building to face learning difficulties and support inclusive education, while paternalistic, inefficient, and remedial approaches are mainstream. Traditionally, children with special needs are treated within a separate entity and they are removed from classrooms to be taught in small groups with specialized teachers, often generating low self-esteem and a feeling of exclusion and inferiority. Moreover, the time needed to teach them separately is much higher. Not only are students with special needs excluded from the mainstream classroom, but deaf or blind children are not contemplated in the national Integrated and Innovative Plan to Combat School Failure (PIICIE) nor in private initiatives such as the Centre for Research and Intervention in Reading (CIIL).
The bureaucratic burden is one of the main obstacles for the use of flexible and inclusive methodologies more adapted to diversity, even though Universal Design for Learning (UDL) has been included in Portuguese law since 2018. In addition, schools are underfunded and sourcing materials out of a school’s curriculum budget is very expensive. Tools for students with special needs are generally out of budget’s reach. For example, a specific dictionary for Sign Language or Braille alone can be up to 200 euros.
On the other hand, teachers are demotivated as they do not know how to manage diversity in classrooms, due to a general lack of awareness and training on inclusive methodologies among school professionals, families, and therapists. Portugal is one of the European countries with the fewest number of teachers trained to deal with diversity, according to the OECD. More than 50% of the teachers contacted by EKUI did not even know about the basic learning styles (auditory, visual, kinesthetic, etc.) and that multisensorial methodologies can help students learn more quickly and effectively since they activate different areas of the brain at the same time.
After years of working as a special education teacher and seeing first-hand how ineffective current teaching methodologies were, Celmira launched EKUI in 2015 with two main goals in mind that still drive her work. First, to develop critical skills in children, such as language, empathy, and socio-emotional abilities. Second, to help teachers and families eliminate barriers in learning and communication, so that all children have equitable access to quality education. EKUI, as a robust multisensorial learning methodology for reading, writing, and communicating, stimulates different spheres of the brain by including clues of Braille, Sign Language, Portuguese spelling, and phonetic alphabet, helping children grow in empathy along the way.
Celmira’s strategy is developed at four different levels, including dissemination of the methodology, replication through the network effect, building communities of stakeholders, and advocacy.
The first level is the shared implementation of the EKUI methodology in schools, through three interconnected phases.
(1) Training. From the very beginning, Celmira realized that the methodology would work only if teachers, educators, and families were trained in the deep values embedded in the EKUI cards, like diversity and inclusion. Based on that, every EKUI kit includes a 2-hour online training. EKUI also provides more extensive in-person trainings that are normally funded by schools or city councils.
(2) Implementation in class. The implementation begins with a screening of the class and a group assessment conducted by the EKUI External team, comprised of a network of volunteer and freelancer Mentors who have been previously trained and certified. The team starts by telling the story of “EKUI and the monster of barriers”, written by Celmira in collaboration with children and teachers to work in the components of EKUI and educate for empathy. The story features superheroes who are children with blindness, deafness, or autism spectrum disorders. Together, they eliminate the barriers that the “monster” creates and make the world a more equitable place for everyone. The story has Braille and is translated into Sign Language. The group assessment then generates a customized intervention plan for the year, with suggested activities based on the profile of the children. All activities are gamified, use stories as a starting point, encourage empathy, and include the four forms of communication. With the EKUI Methodology, every time children learn a letter through a playing card, they also learn its sound, the gesture that corresponds to it, and the respective Braille code points.
(3) Monitoring and follow up. Throughout the academic year, the teacher is supported by EKUI Mentors, with two 1-hour sessions per month. They can be speech therapists, Braille, or Sign Language teachers, depending on the group assessment. At the end of the year, the teacher fills in a questionnaire that assesses the impact of the methodology on different aspects, including not only student learning, but also key skills like empathy, language, and communication, and usefulness of the methodology for teachers.
The second level of Celmira’s strategy is to create a network of EKUI trainers and ambassadors to replicate and spread the methodology more easily and quickly.
Celmira created a “trainer training” certification for UDL and the EKUI methodology to expand the network of EKUI Mentors, support teachers with challenges that may arise, and make sure the methodology is well implemented. In five years, this training has certified almost 180 new trainers from 120 schools and is now promoted through a protocol with the official Teacher Training Centers, supporting the career progression of participants. Mentors are a key component of Celmira’s strategy because they enable a network effect far beyond the schools where EKUI has actually been implemented.
The third level of her strategy involves building a community for inclusive learning which connects and unifies all those who interact with the children. This is a key leverage of Celmira’s work, as it builds a core group of professionals and other constituencies to share their work, co-create new resources, and also to learn how to take a more active role in empowering people with special needs in their own communities.
Based on her pilot experiences, Celmira decided to launch the EKUI online platform, where EKUI activities can be co-created and shared with others, and which now has over 10,000 members. The new version of the digital platform, that is currently under development, will also provide detailed manuals and many resources for parents, such as diagnostic tools, online consultations, and telephone support. In this way, Celmira is making teachers and parents co-responsible for prevention, identification of symptoms, and early diagnosis – key levers to avoid literacy problems.
The fourth and deepest layer of Celmira’s strategy involves advocacy and changing the school curricula in order to transform the way the education system works in terms of inclusion. Already, Celmira has achieved astounding results. The EKUI methodology has been validated by experts in linguistics, Braille, Phonetics, and Sign Language, by the Secretary of State for the Inclusion of People with Disabilities, and by public institutions like the National Institute of Rehabilitation and the National Institute for Early Intervention. These validations not only increase the trust factor for the methodology, but they also are key to spreading this new approach to other institutions such as the education system. Additionally, Celmira is constantly building relationships with Education Departments and Government Agencies all over the country, to continue promoting the use of UDL methodologies and having them included in the school curricula. One key milestone in this direction was to have the EKUI training accepted into official Teacher Training hours, required by the government each year as a part of the Teacher’s National Development Programme. EKUI has been also presented in the Parliament within a Parliamentary Conference on “Resources to promote Inclusion”.
EKUI is a non-profit association which, in order to be sustainable, relies on grants, on the sale of EKUI cards kits at affordable prices (EKUI Alphabet + 2h training cost USD $18 and Professional EKUI Alphabet + 2h training cost USD $40) and on other services, such as training courses with paid access, which are normally funded by schools and city councils. Additionally, the new EKUI online platform will have a Premium version for a fee, representing another income stream.
The impact of EKUI is being evaluated through a longitudinal study with over 300 teachers-implementers, which is supported by the Catholic University of Portugal in Braga and measures outcomes around spread, depth, and speed of learning, empathy, and social inclusion. The initial conclusions of the research highlight effectiveness in learning the letters (72% of cases); communication skills and development of phonetic skills (67%); improvement of inclusive attitudes (90%); and usability by teachers (96%).
In its first five years, Celmira’s organization has already impacted nearly 100,000 people in 76 Portuguese cities, including students, parents, teachers, and therapists, and has trained almost 4,000 teachers through the Teacher Training Centers. As more schools sign on, Celmira is concentrating on growing the EKUI network of teachers, the digital component of the methodology and the “do it yourself” materials and manuals on the platform, both which will enable them to scale much more quickly and provide a standardized and streamlined process. Her expansion plan starts with Brazil in 2021 and with pilot plans in other European and African countries like Finland and Angola.
Celmira was born in Angola and moved to Portugal when she was six years old when war broke out. Initially she lived with relatives while her parents stayed behind to try to save something of their farming business before also fleeing to Europe. She suffered discrimination in her environment and was marginalized at school because she came from Africa. She developed the need to fight for injustices and defend the most vulnerable, and during her childhood she wanted to become a lawyer. Due to the limited economic resources of her family, she couldn’t afford to study law and became a teacher instead, passionately devoted to helping children with special needs. At her first post, she organized an agreement with parents and the school so that a child with brittle bone disease could attend class with the rest of the students.
In Portugal, all schools are supposed to be inclusive, as there are no specific schools for children with special needs. But when Celmira started teaching she saw how thousands of children were falling behind due to standardized teaching methodologies where “one size fits all”. She started to do deeper research on the topic and created innovative inclusive educational strategies, to bring to life what the Salamanca Convention1 has been advocating since 1994: that all children must learn together, in “the least restrictive environment possible”, to have a fair and truly inclusive school and society.
To better understand the roots of the problem and devise solutions, Celmira completed a PhD in Special Education at the University of Salamanca in Spain, where she used a scientific approach to analyze why many children with special needs couldn’t write or talk and how this situation was being addressed. Discovering that there were no inclusive methodologies to solve this huge problem, she decided to create EKUI. Initially, she focused on children with special needs. However, soon she was amazed at discovering how her methodology proved effective for all children and, even more importantly, how her method was bringing together entire classrooms, fostering empathy and new relationships among the students.
Celmira reaffirmed the need for her work through a difficult personal circumstance, when she suffered a stroke and, for a time, was unable to communicate verbally. This event led her to realize what millions of people around the world feel every day, and the frustration they suffer from not being able to interact fully with others. After that moment she dedicated her life to mitigate such “pains”. Celmira survived another stroke a couple of years later.
Celmira has always combined her work as a serial entrepreneur with her passion for teaching. Since 2003 she has initiated several projects and associations to empower children with special needs and their families, but her system change contribution came in 2015 with EKUI. Over the past year, she has devoted herself to EKUI full-time, in order to think about bigger and more advanced scaling strategies.
She has received several awards for her excellence in social entrepreneurship, among them the INSEAD Social Entrepreneurship award in 2016. She is the author of the book School of Parents, published in 2012. Schools for Parents has been a key passion for her; she has founded many schools of parents during her career, to help parents cope with children with special needs, and she used to care for the children herself to allow the parents to have some hard-earned vacation time.