After watching the Genocide documentaries, visiting memorial sites and even listening first hand to the sad accounts of genocide survivors, the students we receive at school are often more traumatized than we presume. That in their broken state, we greet them with CATS and beginning of term exams as usual is something even more disturbing!
The month of April, in Rwanda, carries with it traumatic reminders that may trigger increased symptoms or behavioral outbursts among students. For children and adolescents, exposure to traumatic events and the symptoms that follow may interfere with the ability to have a reasonably normal school experience. The truth is that whenever students turn up for second term, or to continue the semester, we just pick up from where we left and move on with a characteristically traumatised group!
Let’s face it; handicapping conditions that are observable such as blindness, physical disability, deafness, autism, and even dyslexia are much better understood in educational settings than emotional disturbances and learning disabilities that come from trauma in the child’s life. For these children, the answer is often a referral to the school counsellor for the emotional issues that cannot be addressed in class. However, this separation of the emotional and the academic challenges faced by traumatised children is not getting the job done. A child cannot compartmentalise emotions, thoughts, and behaviors as some adults can. The whole child comes into the classroom and either succeeds or fails based upon whether all aspects are engaged in the learning process rather than impeding it.
In fact, research has it that many traumatised children fail in school, especially in second term, and failure can take many forms. Children can externalise their difficulties in emotions/behaviours and find themselves in constant trouble and the subject of behavioral restrictions. Some children sit quietly and can dissociate (day dream) in the classroom and not learn. An extreme example of the internalising child is the one who pretends to be ill, doesn’t come to class, or when they are old enough drops out of school altogether, to mention but a few.
How can teachers help learners with post genocide trauma?
To begin with, immediate CATS or beginning of term exams must be avoided. The students may not have been direct victims of genocide, but the commemoration week recreates a 1994 Rwanda in April. Tread softly.
Even more, teachers should encourage expressive learning. Children best learn by doing, not listening or even watching. Traumatised children bring into the classroom many fears and emotions as well as poorly self-regulated excitement and activity levels. Expressive learning channels mental, emotional and behavioral energy into learning.
Further still, while avoiding rigidity, the optimal learning environment for the traumatised child must have comforting structure that signals to the child that safety is assured, adults are appropriately in charge, and students can focus full time on being interested learners in their own childlike fashion.
Besides, teachers should major on the successes than failures. Traumatised students give up long before the mastery stage and therefore decline or even refuse to take the risk to do something new. The child must experience many more successes than failures in small and large ways.
Similarly, teachers need to encourage learners through relationships. Traumatised children need social support but seldom know how to ask or how to accept such support. Adults cannot wait until the child is receptive to relationship, the adult must meet the child much more than halfway. Relationship with a safe adult addresses much of what the child needs in order to begin to open up to the risks of learning and trying new tasks.
In addition, multidimensional instructional approaches that include auditory, kinesthetic, and visual components can be very effective. Children learn differently and the specific learning style of each traumatised child must be identified to help overcome the many hurdles to learning identified above.
Competition can equally be a learning tool if not overdone and if it is even. Even competition ensures that any of the competitors have a good chance to win. If the outcome is predictably determined, it may be fair competition but it is not even and will not be a positive learning experience for the traumatised child.
Also, if learning is not fun then it will not be sustainable for the traumatised child. The two primary jobs of a child are to learn and have fun. It is optimum to do both at the same time when possible. The optimum learning environment is learning in an enjoyable and fun setting.
To make learning fun, a variety of activities is needed. The opposite of a constricting/rigid learning setting is one that has a variety of interests and activities. Traumatised children are often poor at self-regulating high energy so they will need outside help even with positive emotional expression.
Because traumatised children live in a solitary world, positive social experiences are critically important. Varied classroom activities, socialised learning and positive teacher response will help a great deal.
The writer is a lecturer at The Adventist University of Central Africa