Any kind of national or regional crisis, especially the ones that often last several years, tend to have devastating effects on the education of children, sometimes creating “lost generations” that have only known conflict, deprived of any form of schooling. Once they become adults, the ability of these children to contribute to the reconstruction and development of their country tends to be heavily limited. Education during a crisis is very important. It allows children to keep the learning channels open, to keep their dignity and to develop their social and human value. One can be robbed of one’s possessions, but education is for life and stays with the individual.
Children in emergency and crisis situations, especially those caught up in wars and conflicts, usually consist of three main types: separated and unaccompanied children, child soldiers and those with health problems like AIDS or specific disabilities. Since children are generally an important section of the victims of most crises, any kind of effective education must take into consideration their specific needs, differentiated according to their age and situation, and involve the whole family, where possible.
The United Nation’s High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that unaccompanied children are between 2% and 5% of a refugee population with child soldiers representing about 40%. Thus any kind of education as part of a reintegration programme must emphasise an inclusive approach with the participation of the family and the entire community through an inclusive approach.
In a crisis situation, the school or structured educational activities represent a haven of normality where children can find a routine. There are 10 success tips for educating children in these circumstances:
1. Educational activities should take into account the age and experience of the child and include elements that will contribute to his/her psycho-social wellbeing and self esteem. For example, adolescents, who have already experienced the adult world, often have specific adult needs and expectations and would not necessarily want to be associated with programmes aimed at younger children. They may require specific education around accelerated learning to enable them to catch up with years of missed schooling and with a focus on self-sufficiency and independence. With there being a fair amount of disorientation, psychological wellbeing is most important within any education context to help the child to make sense of the situation and see the possibility of a different future.
2. Any education, professional training or skill boosting measures should allow the child to meet his/her needs and also contribute to the subsistence of the family. This would prevent the return of the children, eg. the child soldiers, to armed groups, given the lack of any better options available.
3. Education must be given within a market context in that children should be educated in a diverse range of skills to meet the needs of their society/community, not just in one stereotypic or predictable trade: like everyone being taught hairdressing! This has been found to be one of the main faults of crisis programmes which often fail to offer usable skills for the labour market.
4. Protected play areas and child-friendly spaces should be provided. Children and their families would be able to gather for recreational, cultural and sporting activities. This aspect emphasises the security aspect of education by bringing families together in a routine, non-threatening and comforting way.
5. The school should be accessible to everybody in the targeted community, in particular the more vulnerable and marginalised children, because schools can be effective ways of protecting children, particularly in emergencies. For example, protection against being recruited into an armed group or against any other form of violence, abuse or exploitation.
6. Particular attention should be paid to children who are head of the family, separated or disabled, child mothers, young victims of violence of any kind and child soldiers, so that flexible methods of training and timetabling can be adapted in their programmes. This flexibility in their training schedules allows the children to keep up with any economic/family activity they are already committed to, like child mothers attending their classes. Former child soldiers would also require some kind of informal education that provides professional qualifications at an accelerated rate.
7. There needs to be real involvement of, and active contribution from, the children themselves, the community and, if possible, the local officials. This is a very important element in making education programmes successful in emergencies. If the targeted users have a greater degree of ownership they are more likely to value it and gain from it
8. The knowledge being imparted should bear a significant relevance to the lives of the children and not just be on an abstract basis. For example, in areas where children might be exposed to anti-personnel mines or other weapons of war, the school can provide ways of making children aware of the risks of them, especially when the mere fact of going to school can be a risk in itself! It should also be the same for health education – especially in reproductive health and hygiene – to limit the rates of certain illnesses and prevent the transmission of HIV/AIDS through greater awareness.
9. Children would also be taught how to face up to such emergencies and natural disasters and to cope with them. They would be made aware of how to react in an appropriate and organised way and to take useful and relevant precautionary measures.
10. Finally, to allow for continuity and enable a community to rebuild itself, existing educational systems, like using the mother tongue instead of imposing a new language, should be used as much as possible for any educational activities, rather than creating separate structures. It makes continuity much more comfortable and manageable.
The main thing for any educator to remember is that these children are likely to have been displaced, some might have lost their parents, their life as they know it and would be rather disorintated. Education would be the last thing they would think they need. Hence education in this context should be focusing on reintegrating the children within communities and reducing their sense of displacement. In this way, the process of having an education becomes meaningful and relevant by establishing some semblance or order, security and consistency for the children, giving them a greater sense of purpose, while imparting essential knowledge about how they can live their lives constructively. In time, their coping skills, personal awareness and self-reliance would be greatly improved.