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Getting to learning in conflict and violence affected contexts

Joel Reyes's picture
A teacher in Chatila Refugee Camp in Lebanon leads a literacy game with his students. Photography by Ich Ohg, courtesy of Right To Play.

We teamed up with Right To Play, a global development organization headquartered in Canada, to design and deliver a session that explored how learning takes place in situations marked by conflict and violence. Central to the discussion were the role and relevance of social-emotional learning (SEL) and psycho-social support (PSS) to the learning agenda in conflict and violence affected contexts. The immediate goal is to provide school access and safety to children and youth. However, once safe in school, their learning and socio-emotional wellbeing become interdependent objectives. 

The session took place during the World Bank’s Human Development Week, a time where more than 1000 of our colleagues in health, education, and social protection gathered in one place to share insights into their best work.
Right To Play implements an innovative approach that successfully trains teachers to incorporate play-based learning to deliver curricula including in conflict affected countries. Playing can trigger critical reflection, communication and relationship building, self-efficacy and internal locus of control, which are crucial in generating both individual resilience and learning. The play-based learning approach has resulted in improved school attendance, motivation for learning, active participation in class, and improved school performance. It has also produced a less tangible yet equally important spill-over: children’s restored hope in the future.
Here’s what we found out through our panel of experts from USAID, IRC, Save the Children, Right To Play and the World Bank:
Children’s learning outcomes in developing and crisis-affected settings are alarmingly low. Around the world, an estimated 35 percent of the 61 million out-of-school primary school-aged children live in conflict-and crisis-affected countries.
Children in these countries face greater exposure to violence, poverty and neglect. Such exposure considerably impacts not only their well-being but also access to school and learning outcomes. For instance, one in six children in Latin America and almost two in three in southern and eastern Africa fail to acquire basic numeracy skills. In countries like Burundi, Congo, Mozambique, Nicaragua and Senegal, at least one out of every three children do not reach the fourth grade. Overall, 250 million children are bereft of basic reading, writing and math skills, despite 130 million of those children reporting primary school attendance.
Poor individual learning outcomes and unhealthy lifestyle translate into massive social costs by preventing children from becoming productive members of societies. Research in neurobiology and behavioral sciences demonstrates that exposure to violence and related shocks can alter brain development and affect learning abilities, such as long-term and working memory, flexibility in attention deployment, and inhibition.
As a consequence, these individuals are less likely to be employed, to experience upper mobility in the job market, and to contribute to both economic production and growth. Finally, expected lower income weakens individuals’ resilience to further shocks including through negative coping mechanisms.   
Available evidence reveals that integrating SEL measures into classrooms improves the well-being and academic performance of children and youth. SEL increases students’ academic achievement and positive attitudes towards themselves and the external environment.
It also reduces problem behavior syndromes and emotional stress. Moreover, it helps children develop skills, attitudes and behaviors needed to foster healthy relationships, manage conflict with others, express care and concern, and work effectively with peers. Notably, the positive effects of integrating SEL into learning processes are not limited to students but also extend to those who instruct them as well as families and society.
PSS measures are key to build and strengthen youth’s resilience. PSS encompasses a wide range of measures targeted to strengthening individual and collective resilience by enabling families to bounce back from the impact of crises and helping them respond to future shocks. By doing so, PSS promotes restoration of social cohesion and social capital.
We believe that SEL and PSS have a role in promoting resilience, social behaviors, and social cohesion, as well as in restoring self-esteem and dignity.
Interventions in conflict and violence affected contexts could greatly benefit from a more systematic use of SEL and PSS. Those benefits can be optimized if the learning process occurs in safe and protected environments, which enable children to be more receptive to external information. This suggests that education programs could seek greater coordination with conflict–management and prevention interventions to ensure the right structural incentives conducive to the learning process.   
Education interventions should adopt a more holistic approach by focusing both on students and teachers. Qualified teachers are instrumental in delivering good-quality education. As such, teacher training has to run in parallel to the development of SEL/PSS-integrated curricula.
Moving forward, traditional education measures can hardly overcome existing challenges, especially in countries with protracted violence. These challenges require sustainable financing mechanisms and innovative approaches for long-term effect. Institutional capacity building and teacher trainings are necessary not only for the success and sustainability of PSS/SEL related projects/initiatives, but also for any education initiative.
Successful integration of SEL competencies in the curriculum can only happen if effectively institutionalized as well as delivered by qualified teachers. Greater investment in PSS/SEL in conflict and violence affected contexts is needed. Development organizations like the USAID, IRC, Save the Children and Right To Play have launched initiatives across the globe in various contexts of adversity.
The evidence-based work of these organizations and their on-the-ground experience, measurement and innovative approaches could be useful in institutionalizing and scaling up these initiatives. We at the World Bank can also play a positive role in coordination and deployment of these efforts in the education sector of individual countries.  
The World Bank should capitalize on its access to national governments to promote a policy dialogue and best practices on these issues. At the same time, the World Bank should benefit more from the experience of other agencies and NGOs, which are already successfully experimenting with innovative approaches to learning. Institutionalization of PSS/SEL in education programs can only be successful within a broader rethinking of how to effectively design and implement adaptive education systems in the face of shocks and protracted crises. Education is key to mobility and innovation in the face of adversity. It is also a key contributor to closing the humanitarian and development gaps in emergency and protracted crises situations.
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Submitted by Vidur Chopra on

Interesting blog post and a much needed discussion, but would help to clarify what the author means by concepts of resilience and social cohesion. The field of EiE is fraught with these words, without any agreement on what this means, how programs and studies should evaluate and measure these outcomes, how they differ developmentally (e.g. youth resilience vs. resilience in young children). Precise and clear definitions that help program staff and policy makers understand these ideas, especially in contexts of fragility, is what the Bank should be pushing for, instead of abstractions that we all know are useful but find ourselves stuck in and difficult to move beyond.

Submitted by Joel Reyes on
Vidur, I fully agree: abstractions limit addressing concrete safety, wellbeing and learning needs.  Resilience is one of those complex phenomena with multiple definitions and, thus, limited agreement on one.  In the Bank’s Education Global Practice, we defined it as the process followed by people (and their communities and institutions) to recover, continue to perform, and positively change amid adversity.  This definition is important as it helps us to collect existing and new evidence on what this process is and how to support it.  Understanding resilience is not to let vulnerable people fend for themselves, but to provide relevant support and services to build capacities and support a resilience process. SEL and PSP are but one of these supportive strategies.  You can find more detailed “unpacking” of resilience, here:;;

Submitted by Edward C. Ayadiuno on

This article states the precise situation as it is. If there's an end toco flirt there'd be more access to education in Africa,in particular. I don't know how the Arabs value education,however,we Africans know it's a non-negotiable instrument to a better life.

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