Protective Role of the School in War Situations
Sanja Derviskadic Jovanic
Sonja Gole Asanin
The school provides a protective function for children's
mental health. The awareness of this protective function
is not uet adequately developed nor is this function utilized
sufficiently to protect the psychosoical health of children
exposed to traumatic events or to long lasting adversities.
describes the functioning of the Bosnian school in Sloveniw
and its impact on refugee children.
SCHOOL IN SLOVENIA
In spring 1992, about 35,000 refugees from Bosnia and Herzegovina
arrived to Slovenia. About 7,000 were children aged 7 to 15
years. As Slovenia had no capacity to integrate these childrenin
Slovene schools, special shcools for refugee children were
organized, mainly in collective shelter. About 450 volunteer
teachers, refugees themselves, started to teach. Half of teachers
were without any pedagogic eductaion. Schools were lacking
basic facilities ans school materials like chalk and paper.
The international community sent some school materials. In
many communities the Sloven local eductaional system contributed
importantly to the functioning of the Bosnian schools. The
Slovene Ministry of Education provided the functioning of
the Bosnian schools. The Slovene Ministry of Education provided
organizational and administrative assistance. An important
contribution to the quality of the schools was the systemic
support to teachers by the mental health team which provided
care for the psychosocial well-being of refugee children.
- The school
was a forced innovation resulting from a mass catastrophe.
- The functioning
of the school was based on good will and solidarity.
- The functioning
of the school was improvised, the school was run invery
- The teachers
worked on voluntary basis, starting with no fee for their
work and later receiving a low financial reward.
- Half of the
teachers were not professional educators.
- The teachers
showed a high degree of incentive, creativity and flexibility.
- Both teachers
and mental health workers showed a high degree of involvement.
- Teachers' training
was combined with personal support to teachers.
- A holistic
supporting approach - the mental health team integrated
educational, psychosocial, organizational, material support,
mediation between Slovene and foreign decision makers and
Mental health activities offered through schools and kindergartens
were based on these ideas:
- Ecosocial paradigm
and social system theories according to which different
subsystems in the child's life influence the quality of
mental health and psychosocial development.
- The role of
protective factors and processes in children living under
condition of chronic distress (Rutter, Garmezy). The conditions
of life of refugees have all the characterisitcs of a chronic
stressful and traumatizing situation in which the major
adversities (multiple losses, bad living conditions, inferior
social position in the asylum country, manifold deprivation
etc.) can not be eliminated. The most important external
help for psychological survival and coping capacities is
the introduction of protective factors and processes in
the life of children and adolescents. The psychosocial climate,
relationships among teachers and childen, psychosocial help
received by children have potentials to act protectively.
Good school achievement has a significant impact on self
esteem of all children but it is of special importance for
children who have been exposed to multiple traumas and adversities.
Self-esteem is among key co-determinants of the child's
perception of locus of control and of coping capacities.
- The school
and social support: Social support is depicted a sproviding
absent resources and/or reinforcing existing resources.
For children who have experienced important traumatic events
and losses. The school is the most natural support system
beyond the family. The importance of the school in these
circumstances is much greater than in normal life circumstances.
There are two reasons for this. The first is that parents
are as much affected as children, often the impact of war
events has longer effects on parents thanon children. Therefore,
the natural supportive an protective role of primary careers
is in many families reduced or even absent. The second argument
stems from research work (Rutter) which shows that the protective
role of the school is more significant inchildren with family
adversities than on childrenfrom normal family environments.
of addtional traumatization and of cumulative or chain effects
of new trauma. Cumulative traumas increase significantly
the risk for psychosocial disorders (Rutter, Garmezy, Anthony).
Refugee children are exposed to many stresses and adversities
related to the life in asylum. School related negative experience
could have deleterious effects for refugee children who
had already been exposed to extremely stressful and traumatic
events. Therefore, it is of the greatest importance to prevent
school failure and other negative school related experiences.
- The school
as the field and determinant of psychosocial functioning.
Mental health and psychosocial development are based on
the internal mental health status (sadness, joyfulness,
optimism, pessimism, level of self-esteem) and on
functioning (social behavior, fulfilling normal life tasks,
learning achievements, etc.). The internal and the external
one are interconnected. In Bosnian children we observed
signs of emotional distress and sadness even when their
psychosocial functioning is a very important satisfactory.
The maintaining of good psychosocial functioning is a very
important protective mechanism against further psychosocial
disturbances which could have chain effects and deteriorate
the child's mental health and endanger his/her development.
The school is the most imporant space as the child's psychosocial
functioning and its quality determines, in an important
way, the child's functioning.
- Children are
always presented as the most vulnerable part of the population
but on the other side children and adolescents have a tremendous
coping potentials and resiliency. Both qualities can be
supported and increased by low intensity interventions.
For instance, including the childin meaningful organized
activites, which are supportive, might have healing effects.
When mental health workers can not reach an important number
of familis because of shortage of professional asn sometimes
because of the negatvie attitudes of refugees towards professionals,
focusing directly on children seems to be economic and advatageous.
Enhancement of the member of the family system who can recover
with the smallest investment may act as a healing element
for the entire family. Many children acted as the most healthy
and best coping element of the family system often supporting
their parents psychologically.
- Many preventative
mental health programs and healing interventions which affect
a great number of children are school-based. Schools are
social spaces in which children spend as muchtime with the
teachers and classmates as with their own families. Schools
are spaces in which a huge number of interactions occur.
Teachers have many opportunites to systematically observe
children and identify those in crisis or with special needs.
Teachers are in a relatively good position to provide various
ingredients of psychosocial health to children: emotional
support, enhancing the child's self-esttem through eductaional
achievement, developing social skills, etc. Events and experiences
which cause emotional problems to many children can be treated
in the frame of different school subjects, like arts, sports,
etc. The experience and knowledge of teachers can be enriched
by special training which enable them to act as psychosocial
helpers. All school children are reachable in the school,
all those who would never visit mental health institutions
could be exposed to certain helping influence. These influences
are of structural nature (organization of life, predictability,
confronting, age appropriate tasks), of interpersonal nature
(teachers' empathy, support, exchanges and debriefing with
schoolmates) or even based on more specific psychological
interventions like emotion expressive techniques and techniques
of behavior therapy.
workers were aware that school was the unique social structure
which could protect the development of all refugee children
affected by war. They decided not to invest their energy in
psychotherapeutic activites for a negligible number of children,
but instead to support primary schools. Among the leading
- The mental
health of children, their psychosocial development and their
chances to overcome war related adversities, depend onthe
organization and quality of their every day life in asylum.
- The school
is the social structure enrolling all children; maintaining
a good school and developing its protective psychosicla
role is the most efficient way of improving children's coping
- In order to
assume such a function teachers should be supported psychosocially,
educationally and morally.
IMPLEMENTING MENTAL HEALTH ACTIVITIES IN PRIMARY SCHOOLS
main issues for the implementation of mental health activities
in kindergartens and primary shcools were:
- The primary
schools included all refugee children aged 7-15. Kindergartens
included hundreds of pre-school children living in collective
- All refugee
children were exposed to stressful or traumatic war and
flight related events. They all had to adapt to the new
life situation in asylum which was heavily loaded with adversities.
The supportive and protective capacities or parts were much
reduced by their own psychological traumas and burdens.
- A vary small
number of children attended specialized mental health services.
The great majority of severely traumatised children could
be reached only through schools and kindergartens.
- Teachers and
kindergarten teachers had to assume the role of psychosocial
- Teachers were
eager to learn and they were willing to attend training.
Through training, mental health knowledge and skills could
be spread among persons with whom children spent some hours
- The school
and the teachers had an important social role in the refugee
- To organize
the system of mental health protection for refugees children
it was necessary to provide.
- Regular and
systemic training for all refugee teachers in psychosocial,
psychological, and educational matters.
for teachers through refular visits to all Bosnian schools
for mutual help among teachers by discussing conceptual,
organizational and relational problems
- mediating between
the Bosnian schools and Slovene authorities, etc.
support to teahcers on a group or individual basis, the
teachers have been exposed to similar traumatic events as
their pupils and faced enormous difficulties in their educational
- Some diagnostic
and counseling work with children with special emotional
or learning problems and running meeting with parents.
- Support to
refugee schools including fund raising, providing school
materials, engaging Slovene resources to help Bosnian schools,
giving public acknowledgment to the schools and so forth.
In spite of the
improvised character of the Bosnian schools, they functioned
during the first two years of refugees' life in Slovenia very
well and played a substantial role in maintaining themoral
of the refugee community. The children functioned astonishingly
well and the rate of psychosocial problems was not highter
then inthe Slovene population.
Of course we can
question whether the protective role of the school was the
main determinant of good psychosocial functioning of refugee
children. The sttribution of the protection of children's
mental health to the school. (its ethos, its remedial effects,
intense human involvement of teachers) is hypothetical. But
based on the direct observations on
school children, such an assumption could be made.
A. (1993) School-based intervention following a disaster.
Plenum Press: New York.
Kos A. et al.
(1996) Evaluation of projects of psychosocial help to refugee
children in slovenia. Slovene Foundation: Ljubljana.
Kos A. (1996)
The war, the school, and refugee children's mental health.
In: Van der Kwaak A., Wolffers I. (eds.) Primary Health Care
and Refugees. (pp. 15-34) University Press: Amsterdam.
Rutter J. (1994)
Towards an Education Policy for Refugee Students. Trentham
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