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Resilience: The Needs of Children and Schools - Child Protection Week.

Updated: Jan 21, 2019

By Claudine Ribeiro - JPCCC Director

It is a common thought that school is like a second home for children. Seven or more hours a day are spent there, 5 days a week, 40 weeks a year. In the ideal world, the school has the potential to be the incubator, the catalyst for adulthood, as the child searches to find meaning and understanding in his world.

Schooling potentially can and should go well beyond academic and cognitive development, focusing on the whole child, including emotional, social, physical and mental needs, and providing a support base to the child that nurtures the child on a psycho-social level. The ideal school could be measured on the degree to which it provides an environment that is safe, stimulating, nurturing and supportive, and ultimately creates a resilient child.

Does the schooling system in South Africa, live up to this resiliency challenge?

Let’s look at a few of the common and often repeated headlines in SA news on the state of SA schools: “Two teen girls murdered at Vryberg School” (EWN 28/5/2018); “Basic Education needs more money not budget cuts” (EWN 8/5/2018) “Teacher accused of raping pupil” (News24 1/11/2017) “Matric Pupil assaults teacher with brick” (News24 25/10/2017) “South African Schools’ ongoing wrestle with racism” (Daily Maverick 2/8/2017) “Culture of Silence (at …school) slows investigation into abuse” (Timeslive 8/5/2018).

As we unpack the issues affecting SA schools, it becomes clear that in many instances, schools are not only not providing a holistic education within a safe space, but rather the education system itself is under severe attack.

It is probably unfair to single out our education system, and maybe more important to say that it holds and in fact mirrors some of the very deep chasms and challenging dilemmas that face South African society, which we are its citizens are coping with on a daily basis. Increasing levels of poverty and unemployment, corruption within the government at the very highest levels of state, a weakened economic status and political turbulence are perhaps some of the more obvious reasons for this uncertain state of our nation.

What is unequivocal is that the various systems within society are the losers, bearing the brunt of these social difficulties. How sad that our families and our schools have to bear the brunt of these societal trends. At the end of the day, there is only one loser, and that is the child.

As an organization that offers counselling to schools in and around Johannesburg and Soweto, we are aware of the burden placed on children and adolescents, who are within the schooling system. Cases involving domestic violence and abuse have become increasingly apparent. Families are suffering from a lack of resources in their homes, and increasingly rely on assistance to meet very basic needs. There is an increase in activities such as bullying within schools, and increasing number of children are attempting to cope with circumstances that involve family breakdown. On the increase are staff teams that are burnt out and just generally feeling frazzled from their work in the classroom, often leading to general administrative and leadership difficulties in some schools. Where the country, and the home is in a bit of chaos, it follows that the classroom will follow suit.

It is important that we as an organization remain committed to our intention of providing basic mental health assistance to learners in schools. Whilst some of these services are provided from the Department of Education, in reality the waiting lists are long, and the psychologists few. It has become imperative that we attempt to offer a service that reach as many schools as possible. There are many challenges facing us in the offering of such services, including lack of school resources such as space to work and ability to pay even a small stipend for such services. There are often bureaucratic blockages to reporting abuse cases, and difficulties in gaining access to needed resources to offer these services. However we need to continue to offer services even with these challenges, and ensure that we focus on the mental health of our children as a priority.

We also, however, need to turn our attention to building resilience in our children, and in our schools. Counselling itself is an act of strength, a way to assist someone to look at their own strengths and build on those. It is acknowledged in many sources that the presence of a caring and supportive adult outside of the family is often a means to build up resilience in the child. It allows the child to experience consistency, empathy, optimism, honesty, as well as feelings of competency and self-worth. This learning can in fact also have a positive effect on those around the child.

In addition, we can and must begin the process of assisting schools to build up resilience within their system as a whole, which will also provide the individual child with a greater system of support and nurturing in this environment. The following systems can be built into schools to assist them with the resilience-building: running support groups for teachers and the management sector within schools; developing sport, cultural activities and clubs that encourage children to nurture strengths and interests; running specific support groups for children (for example for bereavement or trauma, or family breakdown); providing specific programmes that nurture connections between children and teachers beyond that of the classroom, within smaller settings; looking at a system of restorative justice in certain situations; encouraging schools to work in partnership with each other; developing specific training for teachers in resilience and capacity-building; offering training to children and adolescents, beyond the basics of academia.

We have trained several Grade 11 students in peer counselling skills. Such a programme is an excellent example of creating resilience within both the school setting and the individual. It ticks all the boxes of developing empathy, developing a sense of achievement and competency, creating partnerships and connections, developing and evolving social awareness and understanding.

There are many challenges in the education sphere. It is the responsibility of organisations such as ourselves, as well as the Department of Education, and individual schools themselves to continue to develop creative programmes such as these to augment basic schooling. The challenge is to continue to monitor our efficacy in the existing programmes that are offered, and to bravely look at new and alternative ways of encouraging resilience in our youth. It is incumbent on us to look at the burning issues that form the cornerstones of South African society, such as racism, poverty and corruption and encourage healthy debate. Scary, but essential in order to develop schools that are proactive, solution-based, and strength focused.

We want our children to leave school believing that they can and that they will.

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