“Our everyday life is as it is. This is normal for us,” a second-grade student told me in Damascus, Syria.
In my work with traumatized children, I have witnessed many different versions of “normality.” Some students left their homes with their parents to create a new home elsewhere. Others have experienced their fathers leaving the country — leaving them, their mothers, and relatives behind. Living with hunger, missing school, and war have also become a part of their “normality.”
Trauma-affected children’s ever-changing environment teaches them to adapt
repeatedly, so they no longer notice that they are adapting. “It is as it is,” say children, teenagers, and adults alike. The constant change is their normal, for the good and less for the good. But, while these children continue to try to live their everyday lives, their changing environment, hunger, and missed school are taking their toll.
Beatrice Rutishauser Ramm, Essence of Learning Founder, teaches Syrian students Essence of Learning learning methods.
These children feel overwhelmed, especially when trying to get an education. They suffer from learning difficulties due to toxic stress and trauma, missing school, shifts in teaching, and the pressure to catch up on school curricula. In Syria, the Essence of Learning team discovered that 90% of the children report learning difficulties and that 90% are malnourished. As a result, learning becomes “a mountain problem,” as many students described.
So what can be done to support these trauma-affect children? I developed Essence of Learning to answer this question.
Essence of Learning is a United Nations-endorsed teaching style that effectively
nurtures trauma-affected children in classrooms. Since 2001, Essence of Learning has changed the lives of over 50,000 trauma-affected children in a dozen countries.
Positioning the Child as the Expert- not the Problem
Essence of Learning ensures that each child understands that they have many
competencies for learning because their circumstances simply demand a different approach. The critical message to the children is not “you have a problem” but instead helping them to understand that the problem lies with their environment.
Essence of Learning helps them understand that if their environment is challenging, it is natural that their learning ability becomes challenging, too. Most importantly, Essence of Learning allows children to understand that there are ways to address these challenges.
From here, Essence of Learning educators guide the children in developing creative learning ‘helpers,’ which support them in understanding the subjects and building concrete learning steps. This is done through working with the children to visualize each learning step to give each child a concrete orientation. For example, a child who has suffered trauma may have forgotten what certain letters look like and how to write or read them. Through visualization, using card cutouts of letters (or letter cards) that can be touched and felt, the child can reconnect with how to write the letter. Similarly with mathematics, by using bottle tops to signify numbers visually, children are able to reconnect a written number with a value. These learning helpers become helpful coping strategies the children can refer to at any point in the learning process. After the visualization and orientation phase, the child can step into the next phase of the learning pathway.
Support Traumatized Children To Heal in Community
Essence of Learning works with groups of children within the same developmental level, allowing the children to support each other and experience solving learning problems in different ways. This grouping also ensures that the children’s thinking ability is respected and they are treated appropriately for their age. Age-appropriate learning also has a positive effect on the learning speed of the group as, generally, older children learn faster due to their already having acquired analytical thinking skills. In comparison, younger children have only developed reflective thinking skills.
Focus on What Traumatized Childen Can Do
All the children start with easy tasks, such as simple mathematical calculations in low number ranges, to reintroduce the concept of plus and minus, etc., progressing on to increasingly challenging tasks. Repetition of the learning steps for each task allows the students to build their confidence, as they don’t focus on what they can’t do but instead on what they can. Through this process, EoL teaches the children coping strategies for learning that they can use by themselves. The outcome is that the children feel empowered, their interest in learning increases, and their relationship with learning becomes more positive.