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The Protective Role of the School in War Situations

Anica Mikus Kos
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.

This aritcle describes the functioning of the Bosnian school in Sloveniw and its impact on refugee children.


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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.

In summary,


  • 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 poor conditions.
  • 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 advocacy.


Mental health activities offered through schools and kindergartens were based on these ideas:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Prevention 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.
  5. 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


    psychosocial 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

Mental health 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 concepts were:

  1. 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.
  2. 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 capacities.
  3. In order to assume such a function teachers should be supported psychosocially, educationally and morally.



The main issues for the implementation of mental health activities in kindergartens and primary shcools were:

  1. The primary schools included all refugee children aged 7-15. Kindergartens included hundreds of pre-school children living in collective shelters.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Teachers and kindergarten teachers had to assume the role of psychosocial helpers.
  5. 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 every day.
  6. The school and the teachers had an important social role in the refugee community.
  7. 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.
  • Consulatations for teachers through refular visits to all Bosnian schools in Slovenia
  • Motivation for mutual help among teachers by discussing conceptual, organizational and relational problems
  • mediating between the Bosnian schools and Slovene authorities, etc.
  • Psychological 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 activites.
  • 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.



Klingman, 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 Books: London.


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