If you ran into Zana and Biljana at a local café in Golubovci, Montenegro, you might assume that they are close friends catching up over coffee. And you wouldn’t be wrong—Zana and Biljana are indeed good friends that frequently share laughs, are comfortable with one another, and know each other's stories. But their bond goes beyond just being friends. Zana and Biljana are co-teachers at the Star Garden kindergarten in Golubovci, and for the past two years, they have been the driving force behind the Special Olympics Young Athletes program in their community.
The Young Athletes program brings together children with and without intellectual disabilities, aged 2 to 7 years old, to learn basic sports skills and team-building activities. When Zana and Biljana first learned about the Young Athletes program at a Special Olympics Montenegro workshop in 2021, they realized they had an opportunity to make a direct impact in their community. Star Garden has a longstanding collaboration with a nearby daily center that provides services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The center’s staff assists students from Star Garden who require such services. Zana and Biljana hoped the Young Athletes program would contribute to the well-being of their students and promote inclusion between the two educational institutions.
The Young Athletes program has an activity guide for educators and suggests holding sessions up to three times a week for around 45 minutes. Each training consists of a warm-up, skill development stations, a group game, and singing songs. Zana and Biljana started the program with their own class and were initially met with some hesitancy from parents and colleagues. “We organized a meeting with the parents to inform them about the Young Athletes program,” said Biljana. “Some of them were unsure on what the benefits [of the program] would be, and we had colleagues that were skeptical about it because it takes up so much time,” she said.
Despite the initial skepticism, Zana and Biljana’s students loved the training, and it grew to include more sessions and involve students and teachers from Star Garden and the daily center. The program has become a tremendous success. “We do sessions now almost every day because the students are begging to have a training or the parents ask for us to hold a session because their children are always asking about it at home,” said Zana.
Zana and Biljana say the Young Athletes program has produced noticeable improvements in the behavior and teamwork among the students of all abilities in Golubovci.
“[The students] play together and help each other if they are having a difficult time with an activity,” said Zana. “We had a student that was nonverbal say his first words during a training session, ‘yellow tape’, because we have yellow tape to show the start points for our different Young Athletes activities and always say to start at the yellow tape. The teachers and parents were shocked and delighted,” she said.
The Young Athletes program has also given Zana and Biljana more knowledge about helping students with differing abilities succeed. “After our work with Special Olympics, we see the needs of our students so clearly,” said Zana. “Young Athletes has helped us recognize different behaviors of students with intellectual and developmental disabilities and explain the importance of motor skills and socialization to parents,” she said.
Zana and Biljana recommend for all kindergartens in Montenegro to have a Young Athletes program; they believe it helps students of all abilities learn how to cooperate with one another and develop their physical and communication skills.
“Young Athletes can lead to the improvement of so many skills in your students that you can’t imagine when you first start. It leads to more self-confidence, concentration, and understanding."
When asked to give advice to a teacher trying the Young Athletes program for the first time, Zana and Biljana recommend arriving at each session with a high level of energy, holding training regularly, and to be patient.
“Consistent communication during the training is very important,” exclaimed Zana. “ Don’t skip sessions and encourage your students with applause and positive words. Positive results will come…Young Athletes can lead to so many possibilities for your school!” she said.