One child, one classroom, one school at a time
Joyita Ambett and Neha Pradhan Arora
Abuse and violence against children is a harsh reality for children from all socio-economic background groups in India. A study in India showed that one out of two children is affected by child sexual abuse. Both girls and boys can be victims of sexual abuse, domestic violence, online abuse and exploitation, emotional abuse, and neglect. Abuse can happen anywhere – at homes, in schools, public places and in communities. The COVID 19 pandemic, lockdown and prolonged school closures have further exacerbated vulnerability (economic, social, and emotional) to various forms of abuse. While economic factors are causing children to drop out of school, be forced into labour or early marriage, emotional and social factors are leading to cyber bullying, grooming and even other forms of sexual abuse and exploitation.
All forms of violence, abuse and exploitation have long-lasting consequences on a child’s physiological, psychological and social deprivation. Low self-esteem, lack of trust, feeling of helplessness, depression, and poor social skills are only some of the lifelong effects of abuse on children. All of this in turn affects overall development and learning.
After children have returned to school, some after almost two years; some for the first time as five-year olds, the anxiety, fear and trauma of the last two years is visible. It is important for educators to remember that schools are not only a place for academic learning but also for social and emotional learning, social interaction and social support, especially for those children who are vulnerable and might be facing adversities and abuse in their homes or elsewhere.
What is ‘resilience’ and how does it ensure protection of children from abuse and trauma?
Resilience is the ability to cope with negative life events and challenges, or specifically as the capacity to ‘bounce back’ from difficult situations and persist in the face of adversity. Our interactions with children in schools and communities has shown us that resilience is the most critical skill and characteristic that will help children not just cope with trauma but also be able to identify situations and tackle them differently. It does not mean that after developing resilience, children won’t experience adversity or distress in their lifetime. What matters is how an individual deals with such situations. Are they able to identify and reach out for support from their community – family/friends/teachers and other support systems?
It is therefore important that the building of resilience is integrated and embedded into our classrooms, our curricula and our conversations. We need to teach resilience to children from the beginning and not as a response to something negative that they might have experienced. If resilience is built from the beginning it is believed that many instances of abuse and adversities can be prevented and the effects of adversity minimised. We find that resilience can also be understood through the following four elements –
• Being prepared – awareness of risks that could cause trauma and distress.
• Having response mechanisms and structures – within the school and community.
• Having safe spaces for expression and solidarity, for everyone.
• Collective identity, responsibility, and purpose.
It is critical that schools acknowledge and integrate these elements into their curriculum as well as into their overall culture, as a foundational approach.
What is a “safe space”?
As a teacher you might have come across a student in your class who appears to be socially distant, a student who is not able to pay attention in class, a student who has been absent very often for no reason, a student whose behaviour towards others is always aggressive, a student who is a victim of bullying from his/her peers. You get worried and concerned and often wonder how to help such children. How can you and your classroom space be a refuge for a child who might be or is at risk of abuse and adversities? Creating “safe classrooms and schools” is the answer!
Every classroom can be a safe space when it –
• has clear boundaries of behaviour
• has respect for all
• is a non-judgmental space for everyone to express and explore their emotions
• makes every child feel heard and acknowledged
• nurtures a sense of belonging and allows them to identify with the collective.
This can be achieved with simple tools and activities –
• Check-ins and ice-breakers/energizers at the start or end of day.
• Circle time.
• Spaces for children to express themselves – a wall / a board / a suggestion box.
• Small ways in which children are able to acknowledge their identity – a name chart with photos; a tree of children’s hand prints; keep a favourite toy or book in the class common resources.
• Activities that encourage participation of all and build self-esteem.
• Sharing and helping tasks in the class and with school community.
• Class symbol/song/action that builds a sense of collective identity.
• Practices that reinforce consent and respect of all those around us.
• Regular awareness and reflection sessions on safe and unsafe actions and behaviours.
• A regular life-skills curriculum that involves interaction, reflection and action to build understanding and practice of self-awareness, emotional awareness, communication, collaboration amongst other skills.
• Consistent and purposeful use of arts-based tools like theatre, dance, play, and movement to allow children to express their grief, pain, or trauma fully.
Making every classroom, every room, every playground a safe space with adults who share connected relationships of trust with the children must be a conviction and a commitment in every educator and in every school. This can be reinforced by drafting a child protection and safeguarding policy and having regular conversations and awareness sessions on safety with children, parents, teachers and staff. It can also take the shape of capacity-building of children, teachers and counsellors to become ‘safety champions’ in their own classrooms and communities.
We thus see how the four elements of resilience can be developed in schools, through nurturing safe spaces and positive relationships with committed action at individual, classroom and organizational level.
We at Mudita Foundation believe in building resilience one child, one classroom, and one community at a time, so that there are community-based prevention and response mechanisms that are active and effective. We are committed to supporting every individual, organization or community in their journey towards creating safe spaces for everyone. We dream of a world where every individual is living up to their full potential without fear, abuse, and exploitation.
The authors are co-founders of Mudita Foundation, an organization that works towards tackling the issues of sexual abuse, online abuse and exploitation against children and human trafficking (www.muditafoundation.in). With an aim to build safer and more resilient communities, we initiate interactive sessions and interventions with vulnerable groups and communities on safety – both in personal and public spaces. If you would like to know more about what you can do to create a safer world, reach out to us at email@example.com.