Transforming schools into safe zones for learning during a conflict

By Natalie Lovenburg

March 1, 2018

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Creative’s Susan Ayari will discuss various global education topics at the annual Comparative and International Education Society (CIES) March 25-29 in Mexico City.

Afghan Children Read combines quality education with Social Emotional Learning

Despite the tremendous gains made in education in Afghanistan since 2001, more than 40 percent of Afghanistan’s school-aged children are out-of-school.

Creative’s Senior Associate in Education in Conflict, Susan Ayari currently serves as the Project Director for the USAID-funded Afghan Children Read, which works to ensure quality education service delivery through an evidence-based early grade reading program in four provinces throughout Afghanistan. Creative implements it with the International Rescue Committee, Equal Access and SIL LEAD.

At the annual Comparative and International Education Society (CIES) March 25-29 in Mexico City, Ayari will discuss early grade reading material development and delivery in Afghanistan, language mapping in a multilingual environment and Social Emotional Learning in conflict-affected countries, as a panelist and discussant on four sessions at the global education conference.

In this Q&A, she shares her insights on integrating Social Emotional Learning into education in Afghanistan to ensure children living amidst conflict and crisis have the tools to heal, learn and succeed in life.

For a full schedule of Creative’s CIES 2018 panels, including panelists, times and locations, click here. Follow @1977Creative and #CIES2018 on Twitter for up-to-date coverage.

What are the main challenges or threats to education in Afghanistan?

Ayari: In Afghanistan, there is still great insecurity in the country because of the various competing factions—Taliban, ISIS and Al Qaeda working to destabilize the government.

As in many other countries which experience extreme political instability or violence from terrorism, schools are often the first places which are targeted by insurgents who may not believe in the curriculum being taught, or who do not want to see a segment of the population – most often girls – receive an education.

When schools are under threat, they are no longer safe spaces. Families are afraid to send their children to school and educators are afraid to come to school to teach. During the period of the Taliban rule, schools were closed, teachers were threatened and girls were forced to stay home.

If education is not valued over time, fewer people move into a career of teaching and this creates a lack of qualified teachers until there is political shift and the government prioritizes education once again. Today, as hard as the government is working to provide access for all children, there are still many schools with no infrastructure at all.

What risks do these disruptions in education pose down the line for students? For society?

Ayari: The future of any society lies in its ability to provide hope and opportunity for its young people. Schools should be a safe place; a place of positive constancy.

Young children in grades 1 to 3 need to be armed with foundational literacy skills – skills that follow them throughout their education. If disruptions take place repeatedly, safety is compromised and so is the learning trajectory of the students. The longer children remain out of school, the more difficult it is for them to reintegrate into school.

How does the Afghan Children Read project address these risks?

Ayari: The Afghan Children Read project is working on two fronts. First, it is piloting cutting edge early grade reading materials to improve the quality of reading instruction in early grades. Second, the project works closely with the Afghan Ministry of Education to develop its capacity to scale-up nationwide an early grade reading program in its two official languages: Dari and Pashto.

We work at the national level to support the development of policy based on evidence and research. At the community level, we aim to ensure parents, religious and tribal leaders, understand the importance and value of literacy for their children.

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In collaboration with the Ministry of Education, the Afghan Children Read project has distributed more than 314,070 teaching and learning materials in Pashto and Dari languages, providing some 188,500 early grade students in Afghanistan the opportunity to improve their reading skills.

What does Social Emotional Learning look like in practice for the Afghan Child Read project?

Ayari: As educators and scientists have learned more about the brain and its functions in the past 20 years or so, we’ve been applying that research to best practices in the classroom.

When I was an undergraduate student of education in the mid-seventies at Boston University, we weren’t using the term “Social Emotional Learning.” But we learned that good teachers understand that it is important to address three core aspects of students: 1) Cognitive, 2) Affective, and 3) Social.

At its foundation, Afghan Children Read is an early grade reading project. For the project to ensure children have a positive experience learning to read and to strengthen teacher skills and approaches to teaching reading, we have integrated Social Emotional Learning skills and approaches into the guide for the teachers.

We have adopted the International Rescue Committee’s framework of Social Emotional Learning competencies: 1) Brain Building, 2) Emotional Regulation, 3) Social Positive Skills, 4) Conflict Resolution, and 5) Perseverance.

In the project’s teaching and learning materials, the themes focus on friendship, cooperation, coping with fear, accepting consequences, among other important social emotional subjects. Teachers leverage these main themes to ask students open-ended questions, opinion questions, and thought-provoking questions regarding values and morals.

How does Social Emotional Learning support in education unlock student learning and development, especially for those children living in countries facing conflict?

Ayari: Together, Social Emotional Learning and psychosocial support are designed to provide students with the tools needed to build resilience to mitigate the negative effects of trauma and conflict. Schools are ideal environments for children to develop social emotional competencies that enable them to manage their feelings, motivations, social relationships, self-esteem, self-efficacy and a sense of purpose.

Creative’s holistic approach to employing Social Emotional Learning components in its programs ensures establishing and identifying support structures within the school, home and community. By working with the “whole” child, recognizing his or her fears, concerns, aptitudes and areas for growth, teachers can provide an environment that allows for optimal learning.

What is the end goal of applying Social Emotional Learning in Afghan classrooms?

Ayari: The end goal is for children to learn! In many ways, learning to read is Social Emotional Learning. In my 30 years of experience as a teacher, I’ve seen that when children are afraid, unhappy or hurt, they are not ready to learn. Elevating this awareness by training teachers to effectively use Social Emotional Learning tools in the classroom creates the mental space for children to learn to their fullest potential.

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