Education for Children With Emotional and Behavioral Disorders in Kenya: Problems and Prospects

By Mukuria, Gathogo; Korir, Julie


There is a continuing disparity in educational services in Kenya for children with disabilities. Traditional African beliefs, cultural perspectives, and religious practices have resulted in negative attitudes toward individuals with disabilities. As a consequence, educational services for individuals with special needs (especially for those with emotional and behavioral problems) are not being addressed adequately.

KEY WORDS: attitudes toward disability, disabilities, emotional/ behavioral disorders (E/BD), Kenya, special education

Most of the global population lives in the developing countries of Asia, Africa, the Caribbean. Latin America, and the Middle East (Eleweke & Rodda, 2002; Mutua & Dimitrov, 2001b). An estimated 80% of all people with disabilities reside in isolated areas in developing countries (Oriedo, 2003). with 150 million of them children (Eleweke & Rodda). Disability-related issues affect approximately 50% of the population in these countries (Oriedo). The problem is further compounded by the fact that most of the people with disabilities are extremely poor and live in areas where medical and educational services are nonexistent (Eleweke & Rodda: Maja- Pearce, 1998: Oriedo).

Only 2% of individuals with disabilities in developing countries receive any form of special services (Eleweke & Rodda, 2002). In Kenya, however, individuals with disabilities are a crucial sector of the marginalized population (Mulama, n.d.; Mutua & Dimitrov. 2001a; Oriedo, 2003). An exact number of individuals with disabilities is not available (Ndurumo, 2001); however, according to Ndurumo. the United Nations estimated the number to be at least 10% of the population but noted the possibility of prevalence being as high as 25% because of poverty, inaccessible health care and educational services, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and poor transportation. In 1998, 46% of the 251,000 people with disabilities were children (Ngaruiya, 2002). The Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology (MOEST, 2004) provided an estimated prevalence rate of 10% and noted the fact that there are approximately 750,000 students with disabilities at the elementary level. Of the 750,000 children, 90,000 have been identified and assessed, but only 26,000 are enrolled in school. The government has provided minimal funding despite the overwhelming needs. Furthermore, there is no practical government policy for special education.

In the past 3 decades, Kenya has exerted tremendous efforts to address the challenges confronting students with individual needs, but a great deal remains to be accomplished. It is fortunate that through technology Kenyans are becoming more aware of what is happening in other parts of the world (Jimba, 1998). As a consequence, parents and advocates of individuals with disabilities are lobbying the government to do more for those with special needs. The goal of special education programs is to provide services for exceptional children in the least restrictive environment possible (Mukuria & Obiakor, 2004).

In this article, we provide an overview of special education in Kenya and address several issues relevant to the status of special education services. These issues include the (a) prevalent cultural attitudes toward individuals with special needs, (b) plight of individuals with emotional and behavioral problems, and (c) identification, assessment, categorization, and placement procedures.

Special Education in Kenya

Kenya is committed to achieving education for all of its citizens (MOEST, 2004; Mulama, n.d.; Ndurumo, 2001; Oriedo, 2003). The Kenyan constitution states that children with disabilities have a right to benefit from a full and decent life in conditions that ensure dignity, enhance self-reliance, and facilitate active participation in society (Constitution of Kenya, n.d.). However, the rights of children with disabilities to have special care and assistance, particularly in relation to access to educational opportunities, are nonexistent. According to Oriedo, Kenya’s “policy” on special education promises to (a) provide skills and attitudes with the goal of rehabilitation and adjustment of people with disabilities to the environment; (b) provide adequate teachers, who are skilled in theory and in the practice of teaching students with special needs; (c) increase the inclusion of exceptional children in regular schools, related services, and community-based programs increase parental participation; and (d) identify gifted and talented children early and provide them with special programs that will increase the development of their special gifts and talents.

Despite these provisions, the government has failed to provide both formal and informal educational opportunities to people with disabilities (Kiarie, 2004; Mulama, n.d.; Oriedo, 2003), due partly to a lack of an explicit special education policy (Muuya, 2002). For minimal financial investment, Kenya has endeavored to provide special education to those in need. The total budgetary allocation for special education in the past 10 years was equivalent to US$580 million (Gichura, 1999).

Inequity toward individuals with disabilities arises from the family, community, and society at large (United Disabled Persons of Kenya [UDPK], 2003). People with disabilities have been denied justice through the lack of (a) interpreters in courts of law, (b) access to social amenities (e.g., wheelchairs, specially designed bathrooms, hearing aids), and (c) accessibility to buildings and transportation. Furthermore, they have been discriminated against in education and educational opportunities (UDPK). According to Oriedo (2003), they have little or no access to education, health, employment, and rehabilitation. In addition, people with disabilities have been marginalized during the distribution of resources because they have been perceived as more of a liability than a group of contributors (UDPK).

There are some institutions and programs in Kenya aimed at enhancing the education of children with disabilities (Oriedo, 2003).

* In 1977, a special education curriculum was developed at the Kenya Institute of Education.

* In 1984, the Ministry of Education, with the support of the Danish International Development Association, initiated the educational assessment of individuals with disabilities, which was aimed at the early identification of children with disabilities and the provision of professional help to parents and guardians for the children’s rehabilitation and integration and the provision of educational assessment and related services across the country.

* In 1986, the Kenya Institute of Special Education was founded with an aim of training special education teachers.

* Integration programs that assist children with visual, mental, physical, and auditory impairments have been established.

* Although limited, vocational training centers and special recreational programs that train youths with disabilities in such courses as carpentry and tailoring are now in existence.

It must be noted, however, that despite these efforts, the lack of adequate funding still prevents the participation of many children with disabilities in these programs and services (Gichura, 1999).

Mental Health Services in Kenya

Mental health services in Kenya are not free. Although the Kenyan government has introduced a cost-sharing medical system, only those with financial means are able to access treatment. As is typical of many developing countries, the gap between the rich and the poor is enormous (Weil, 2005). It is unfortunate that many students with special needs come from poverty-stricken homes. In addition, medical referral and transport systems are inadequate (English et al., 2004). The unspoken societal consensus is simple: The productive individuals must be given the meager available resources first.

Attitudes Toward Disabilities and Emotional and Behavioral Problems

African beliefs, cultures, and traditions greatly hamper the provision of services for individuals with disabilities (Ihunnah, 1984). According to Abosi (2003), Ihunnah, and Maja-Pearce (1998), superstitions that view a disability as a curse from the gods are among the factors that contribute to the general apathy and disregard of children with exceptional needs in Africa. Ihunnah summarized the beliefs on the etiology of disabilities as

. . . a curse from the gods, breaking laws and family sins, offences against the gods, witches and wizards, adultery, misfortune, ancestors, god’s representatives, misdeed in a previous life, illegal or unapproved marriage, shows the omnipotence of god. evil spirit, killing certain forbidden animals, a warning from god. and fighting elders during harvest and planting seasons, (pp. 35- 36)

Education of Individuals With Emotional and Behavioral Problems

Attitudes toward individuals with disabilities in Kenya (like the rest of the continent) are generally negative (Muchiri & Robertson, 2000: Mutua & Dimitrov, 200Ia: Oriedo, 2003). Individuals with disabilities have traditionally been viewed as helpless and hopeless (Kiarie, 2004). The majority of people in Kenya believe that a disability is “retribution of past deeds by the ancestors” (UDPK, 2003. p. 2\). The Swahili word for deaf, for instance, is biibn. meaning stupid (Maja-Pearce. 1998). Consequently, parents of children with disabilities tend to be ashamed of such a child (United Nation Educational, Scientific & Cultural Organization [UNESCO], 1974). Children with disabilities are hidden from the rest of society (Abosi, 2003; Kiarie; UNESCO). Children with mental retardation and deafness are more visible in community settings than those with physical impairments, although they may not be more prevalent than other categories of disabilities, perhaps because of communication difficulties within these populations (UNESCO).

In a survey administered to regular and special education teachers, administrators, social workers, and teacher education students at Kenyatta University on the societal perception of individuals with behavioral and emotional disabilities, 80% of the participants indicated that the Kenyan society perceives these individuals as being mad or possessed by demons (M. N. Runo, personal communication, December 15, 2004). Another questionnaire focused on whether individuals with behavioral and emotional disorders are capable of learning. Seventy-eight percent answered that the curriculum does not provide the necessary strategies to teach such students (M. N. Runo. personal communication). MOEST (2004) commissioned the Special Education Task Force to investigate the challenges facing individuals with special needs and to make recommendations. These findings, published in 2003, reported that individuals with behavioral problems are usually educated in rehabilitation facilities. They are treated in the same manner as juvenile delinquents (Kochung, 2003; Ndurumo, 1993). Rehabilitation centers cannot help an individual maximize his or her potential.

According to Abosi (2003). most of the negative feelings about a disability and toward people with disabilities are misconceptions that develop from a lack of proper understanding of disabilities and how they affect functioning. It is fortunate that new attitudes can be boosted through knowledge about disabilities and their causes by providing information through lectures, symposia, seminars, and mass media.

Identification of Students With Exceptional Needs

There are critical steps that are followed before students are placed in special education programs. The first step is referral, which is initiated when the parent, teacher, or other related professional completes a referral form that delineates the nature and duration of the problem (McLoughlin & Lewis, 2005). In Kenya, students with disabilities are indiscriminately integrated into special schools. The erroneous assumption for this is that they will eventually function in the society (Mukuria & Obiakor. 2004: Mutua & Dimitrov. 200Ib). The plight of individuals with behavioral and emotional problems is even worse because identification of these students is left entirely to medical professionals who place them in medical wards for individuals with mental illness or in rehabilitation centers with juvenile delinquents and HIV-positive individuals.

The definition of behavioral and emotional disorders is culturally specific (Kauffman, 2005), and a general consensus on the definition has not been reached. Different ethnic groups in Kenya perceive emotional and behavioral problems differently. For instance, for communities in which boys traditionally are trained to be warriors, engaging in physical activities that can be perceived as a “fight” would be the norm. The same activity could be shunned in a different community. Although the Kenyan community is generally changing from the traditional way of life, the geographic location, level of education, socioeconomical status, and religious beliefs determine how individuals or a community may perceive a given behavior.


Assessment, a critical ingredient of the entire process of education, involves the collection of information pertinent to making decisions regarding appropriate goals and objectives, instructional strategies, and program placement (McLoughlin & Lewis. 2005: Obiakor & Bragg, 1998). An appropriate assessment should ensure proper placement of a student with special needs, and assessment should be administered when a student experiences difficulty meeting the demands of a general education program. At this point, the student is referred for j consideration for special education services. It is unfortunate that assessments administered to special education students and particularly those with behavioral and emotional disorders are inadequate and fragmented.

Kenya is a stratified society in terms of ethnicity and socioeconomic status (Mwabu, Kimenyi, Kimalu, Nafula, & Kalundu, 2003). During colonization, certain regions where the British settled had an advantage over other areas. In those areas, schools, hospitals, and roads were constructed. For instance. Nairobi, Meru. Embu. the Central Province of Kenya, and certain districts of the Rift Valley (Kericho. Uasin Gishu) are ahead of other regions in development and education. The more people are educated, the better they can deal with a disability. People from these regions are quick to take their children for assessment once they notice that something is wrong. Poor areas, especially the North and Northeastern Province of Kenya (bordering Somali). where people are nomadic are underrepresented because they do not have access to assessment facilities. Even in areas where assessment facilities may be accessible, religious and cultural beliefs may deter them. For example, many Muslims look at schools with suspicion if the schools are funded and staffed by non-Muslims.

Categories of Disabilities

In Kenya and other African nations, students are not properly categorized. This is due to a number of factors, including cultural beliefs, socioeconomic problems, and a high rate of illiteracy, undertrained personnel, and lack of funding. Mutua and Dimitrov (200Ib) indicated that, whereas students with mild mental retardation may be educated in regular schools, those with moderate to severe disabilities are typically served in settings in which they cannot reach their highest potential. The lack of a policy that advances the rights of individuals with special needs in Kenya leaves this population vulnerable to neglect and physical abuse. Furthermore, because such a policy or law does not exist, most schools and services are operated by religious, private, or philanthropic organizations (Ndurumo, 1993).

The predominant categories of disabilities in Kenya are auditory, mental, physical, and visual disabilities (Ngaruiya, 2002). According to Gichura (1999), in the late 1990s, there were 107 special schools in Kenya. Of these, 31 were for those with auditory impairments, 46 were for the mentally challenged, 13 were for those with physical handicaps, 16 were for students with visual impairments, and 1 was for the deaf-blind population. The number of schools and enrollments in each of these schools increased significantly between 1990 and 1998. In addition to the special schools, there were 761 special units in primary schools serving students with disabilities in 1990. Despite progress, students with special needs continue to be indiscriminately categorized. It is not unusual to find certain ethnic groups overrepresented in the emotional and behavioral category of disabilities because of the lack of consensus of what constitutes an emotional or behavioral problem and the assessors’ language and cultural bias.


The placement of students with special needs frequently determines the kind of program they receive. If a student is placed in the wrong program, his or her educational needs cannot be addressed. It is not unusual to find students with mental retardation or emotional and behavioral problems assigned to a classroom for students with learning disabilities (Mutua & Dimitrov, 200Ib). Furthermore, students in Kenya are often placed in classes without obtaining parental consent.

Inclusion. Beginning in January 2003, the Kenyan government began providing free primary education for all children (Kochung, 2003; Mulama, n.d.). As a result, the enrollment of children with disabilities increased in special schools, special units, and in regular schools (Kochung). In general, students with disabilities are not being integrated in regular schools (Mutua & Dimitrov, 200Ia). Most educational services for children with disabilities are offered in boarding settings (Njoroge, 1991). The majority of children with disabilities are forced to leave their families to attend special boarding schools. A few learn in separate classrooms in regular schools or in integrated classrooms with their peers without disabilities (Kiarie, 2004). Students in institutions for hearing, physical, or visual impairments are expected to follow the same curricula as those implemented in the regular primary and secondary schools (Gichura, 1999).

Significant effort has been expended to integrate students with disabilities in regular schools. Gichura (1999) and Kiarie (2004) have summarized the status of special services to students with disabilities in Kenya.

* In 1990, there were 184 integrated programs, which increased to 655 in 1998.

* The number of schools for students with visual impairments has declined because of the aggressive integration of these students in the regular schools by Sight Savers International and the Low Vision Project by Christofel Blinden Mission, the sponsors of these schools. Currently, approximately 1,500 students with visual impairments are served in Kenya’s 1 secondary school for students with visual impairments, 6 special primary schools for this group of students, or 19 units located in regular schools.

* The integration of students with physical disabilities is occurring at all levels. It is estimated that more than 11,000 children with physical disabilities are int\egrated into regular schools.

* The integration of students with hearing impairments occurs only at the secondary school level due to the lack of trained sign language interpreters.

* The enrollment of students with auditory disabilities has increased significantly in recent years, thanks to the efforts of welfare organizations in building physical facilities and the Peace Corps for providing teachers.

According to MOEST (2004), the Kenyan government aims at ensuring education for all children, including those with disabilities, through the provision of inclusive and quality education that can be accessed by and is relevant to all Kenyans. The government supports this goal by providing grants for students enrolled in special schools or special education units. Despite the impressive progress in providing quality and inclusive education to children with disabilities, many challenges remain.

Challenges Faced in the Provision of Special Education Services in Kenya

Individuals with disabilities in Kenya experience difficulties due to built-in social, cultural, and economic prejudices, stigmatization, ostracism, and neglect (Oriedo, 2003). According to Eleweke (1999), Mutua and Dimitrov (200Ia), and Peresuh and Barcham ( 1998), the absence of mandatory legislation supporting the implementation of programs and services for individuals with disabilities has resulted in the provision of inadequate services.

In Kenya, many children with special needs are vulnerable to neglect, abandonment, and mistreatment (Ngaruiya, 2002) and are excluded from general education (Muchiri & Robertson, 2000; Mutua & Dimitrov, 200 Ia; Oriedo, 2003). There are several reasons explaining this trend.

* The negative perspective toward individuals with disabilities is a major mitigating factor in the provision of appropriate education for children with disabilities (Muchiri & Robertson, 2000; Mutua & Dimitrov, 200Ia; Oriedo, 2003).

* The Kenyan school system remains highly examination oriented (Muchiri & Robertson, 2000), resulting in the ranking of schools; therefore, districts do not recognize special schools as examination centers (Oriedo, 2003). As a consequence, the benefits of education for children who are unlikely to succeed in national examinations are unclear to those supervising the system (Muchiri & Robertson).

* Class size and teacher-to-student ratios are very high, making individualized instruction difficult or impossible (Kemble-Sure. 2003: Muchiri & Robertson. 2000). The failure of the school curriculum to focus on life skills has also been detrimental (Oriedo. 2003).

* School buildings are not accessible, making it difficult for students with physical disabilities to attend (Gichura. 1999; Kochung. 2003: Muchiri & Robertson, 2000: Oriedo. 2003). The existing facilities lack the basic technical training devices (e.g.. Braille, typewriters, hearing aids, specialized play materials; Gethin, 2003; Gichura: Kochung: Mulama. n.d.: Oriedo).

* The number of teachers trained in special education is minimal (Gethin, 2003; Gichura. 1999: Kiarie, 2004; Kochung. 2003: Muchiri & Robertson, 2000: Oriedo. 2003). Often, the few teachers trained in special education lack confidence in their ability to instruct students with exceptional needs (Muchiri & Robertson).

* Research in special education has not received significant attention because of a lack of specialized technical personnel (Kochung. 2003) and incentives (Gichura. 1999; Oriedo, 2003).

* High rates of tuition and fees charged by the special institutions have resulted in “nonstarters” and “dropouts” from the special education programs (Mulama, n.d.: Oriedo. 2003).

* The government’s policy on the education of individuals with disabilities is implicit (MOEST. 2004: Muuya. 2002), contradictory, and fails to provide the mandated free education for all citizens (Oriedo, 2003). This has resulted in education in special schools being compromised (Gethin. 2003).

* The lack of adequate government funding (Gethin, 2003; Gichura, 1999; Mulama. n.d.: Mutua & Dimitrov. 200Ia; Muuya. 2002) and the acute poverty levels of parents of children with disabilities have resulted in inequitable educational opportunities among people with disabilities (Gichura; Kochung, 2003).


The provision of educational opportunities for Kenyan children with disabilities is still fraught with many problems. Educational needs of children with behavioral and emotional disorders are not being adequately addressed. Despite many problems, including lack of funding, facilities, and trained personnel, encouraging progress is being made putting into account the nature of Kenyan economy. However, the public should be more receptive to the needs of individuals with disabilities than they are currently. Being aware that the government cannot meet all the need, the public should rally behind the government by supplementing its efforts.


Abosi. C. O. (2003). Thoughts on un action plan for the development of inclusive education in Africa. Council for Exceptional Children: Division of International Special Education and Services. Retrieved July 18. 2003. from http://www intl.natlover.htm

Constitution of Kenya, (n.d.). The Constitution of Kenya. Retrieved July 21. 2003. from http://oncampus.richmond.edU/~jjones// confinde/Kenya.htm

Eleweke. C. J. (1999). The need for mandatory legislations to enhance services to people with disabilities in Nigeria. Disability and Society. 14. 227-237.

Eleweke. C. J.. & Rodda. M. (2002). The challenge of enhancing inclusive education in developing countries. International Journal on Inclusive Education. 6. 113-126.

English. M.. Esamai. F.. Wasunna. A.. Were, R, Ogutu. B.. Wamai. A., et al. (2(XM). Assessment of inpatient pediatrie care in first referral level hospitals in 13 districts in Kenya. The Lancet, 36(3). 1948-1953.

Gethin. H. (2003. July 31 ). Special schools neglected-Govt. East African Standard. Retrieved July 31. 2003. from http:// news31072003011. him.

Gichura. S. (1999). Education for all (EFA 2000): Assessment of progress Kenya country report: Draft report. UNESCO. Retrieved July 18. 2003. from contents.html

Ihunnah. A. C. ( 1984). The status of special education in a developing country: Nigeria (Doctoral dissertation. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. 1984). Dissertation Abstracts International. 45/08. 2483.

Jimba. S. W. (1998). Information technology, globalization and Africa’s information development. OCLC System & Sen-ices, 14. 64- 70.

Kauffman. J. M. (2005). Characteristics of emotional and behavioral disorders of children and youth (8th ed.). Columbus. OH: Prentice Hall.

Kemble-Sure. G. (2003). Establishing a national standard and English language curriculum change in Kenya. Language, Culture and Curriculum. 16(2). 20-38.

Kiarie, M. W. (2004). Education of students with visual impairments in Kenya: Trends and issues. International Journal of Special Education, 19(2). 16-22.

Kochung. E. (2003). Report of the task force on special needs education appraisal exercise. Nairobi, Kenya: Ministry of Education Science and Technology.

Maja-Pearce. A. (1998). Disabled Africa: Rights not welfare. Index on Censorship. 27. 177-195.

McLoughlin. J. A.. & Lewis. R. B. (2005). Assessing students with special needs (6th ed.). Columbus. OH: Prentice Hall.

Ministry of Education. Science, and Technology (MOEST). (2004). Development of education in Kenya. Retrieved November 23. 2005. from reports/kenya.pdf

Muchiri. N.. & Robertson. L. (2000). Including the excluded: An inclusive education project in Mem North District Kenya. Paper presented at the meeting of the International Special Education Congress. University of Manchester. Retrieved July 18. 2003. from abstracts/papers_r/robe rtson_2.htm

Mukuria. G.. & Obiakor. F. E. (2004). Special education issues and African diaspora. Journal of International Special Needs Education. 7. 12-17.

Mulama. J. (n.d.). “Schooling for all” an empty slogan for disabled children. Retrieved November 23. 2004. from http://

Mutua. N. K.. & Dimitrov. D. M. (200Ia). Parents’ expectations about future outcomes of children with MR in Kenya: Differentia] effects of gender and severity of MR. Journal of Special Education. 35. 172-180.

Mutua. K.. & Dimitrov. D. M. (2(K)Ib). Prediction of school enrolment of children with intellectual disabilities in Kenya: The role of parents’ expectations, beliefs, and education. International Journal of Disability. 48. 179-191.

Muuya. J. (2002). The aims of special education schools and units in Kenya: A survey of headteachers. European Journal of Special Needs Education. 17.229-239.

Mwabu. G.. Kimenyi. M. S.. Kimalu. K. P.. Nafula, N.. & Kalundu. M. D. (2003). Predicting household poverty: A methodological note with Kenyan example. Management 15(1). 77-85.

Ndurumo. M. ( 1993). Exceptional children: Development consequences and interaction. Nairobi. Kenya: Longman.

Ndurumo. M. (2001). Rights of persons with disabilities. A paper presented to the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission at the Beach hotel. Retrieved November 23. 2004. from http://www.

Ngaruiya. S. (2002). The past, present, and future of ECD: Understanding children, families, and communities over lime and across cultures. A report on the status of early childhood development (ECD) in Kenya. Early Childhood Development Virtual University. Retrieved July 18. 2003. from hup:// downloads/Kenya_Country_ Report.pdf

Njoroge. M. C. N. (1991). Factors influencing initiation of successful mainstreaming of visually handicapped students in Ken\a. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. University of Texas at Austin.

Obia\kor, F. E., & Bragg. W. A. (1998). Exceptional learners in Nigeria and USA: The placement issue. The Journal of International Special Needs Education, 1, 31-36.

Oriedo. T. (2003). The state of persons with disabilities in Kenya. Council for Exceptional Children: Division of International Special Education and Services. Retrieved July 18. 2003, from http:/ /

Peresuh, M., & Barcham, L. (1998). Special education provision in Zimbabwe. British Journal of Special Education, 25(2), 75-80.

United Disabled Persons of Kenya (UDPK). (2003). United Disabled Persons of Kenya: The organization (UDPK). Retrieved July 18, 2003, from

United Nation Educational, Scientific & Cultural Organization (UNESCO). (1974). case studies in special education: Cuba, Japan, Kenya, Sweden. Paris: Author.

Weil, D. N. (2005). Economic growth. Boston: Addison-Wesley.

Gathogo Mukuria graduated from Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge. Julie Korir is currently a doctoral candidate at the University of North Texas, Denton, and she teaches in the Arlington Independent School District in Texas. Copyright 2006 Heldref Publications

Copyright Heldref Publications Winter 2006

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *