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Working Professionally with Children and Youth in Care
CYC-Online Issue 62 MARCH 2004 / BACK
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Places of emotional safety: Creating classrooms where “I can”

Beryl Lourens

There is a growing awareness all over the world of the need to provide emotional support to, and to develop, the emotional intelligence of our children. In South Africa, with the HIV/AIDS pandemic affecting the lives of so many of our children, it is vital that we use every possible opportunity to create safe places or havens where children can be supported and strengthened. Although I will be referring mainly to classrooms, as that is where the focus of my work is at the moment, the same principles apply in many situations, such as our homes, crèches, children's homes and shelters, or anywhere else where adults are working with or “minding” children.

Nandi is a 12-year-old girl living in the Valley of a Thousand Hills. She has two younger brothers; although poor, they lived happily for many years with their mother and their grandmother. Mother used to go to work in the city during the week, leaving the children in the care of their grandmother but she came home every weekend, bringing them food and other things they needed. That is, until mother became ill. Nandi will never forget the day that someone phoned grandmother to say that mother was never coming home from the city again because she had died in the hospital there. Grandmother had told Nandi and it hurt her so much inside and she felt so scared but she couldn't talk about it because grandmother had told her not to talk about it in front of her brothers, and at school they could never talk about those kinds of things. Nandi no longer found it easy to concentrate in school, and her teacher often called her lazy and punished her. Grandmother had a small pension that she went to fetch each month. The family needed that money for food. They couldn't afford to stay in their house and had to find one in another area. Then Nandi’s biggest fear came true: grandmother told her that she was going to go to the hospital as she needed to see a doctor. Every day Nandi ran home hoping grandmother would be back but she never returned. Nandi had to spend all her time looking after her younger brothers and doing all the things grandmother used to do. She tried to go to school but many days she couldn't because, after she had sent her brothers off to school, she would have to try to find some food. Sometimes the neighbours would give her food if she did cleaning for them and worked in their fields, but most of the time the children were hungry because the neighbours didn't have much food themselves.

Why do our children need emotionally safe places? Research, as well as our work with teachers in rural schools, has taught us that Nandi and her brothers, are one example of many children throughout KwaZulu-Natal, and in the rest of South Africa, who are in distress due to the following:

1. Many children are not experiencing loving primary relationships, which are essential to a child's development of self.
When children experience negative primary relationships, it has an enormously detrimental effect on their development. Clinical professor and child psychologist Stanley Greenspan describes what he calls the real “ABCs”. This is the set of emotional and social skills that newly born children need to learn during their first few years of life and which they will need throughout their lifetimes.

These skills, which contribute to their developing sense of self, include the ability to regulate attention and self-comfort, to relate to others with warmth and trust, to communicate and to gain an understanding of increasingly complex ideas and the connections among them.

These skills are only learned, he writes, through interactions with loving caregivers. A child who grows up with fear, instability, shame, disapproval or a lack of acceptance by their caregivers, suffers, according to Abraham Maslow, a “loss of self' and gradually comes to agree with the adult’s perception that he/she is unacceptable. When this happens the child experiences acute pain and the feeling that there is something wrong with him, that he is defective.

To develop a healthy sense of self, children need those around them to be loving, nurturing and emotionally available. The neurological foundations for skills we value most, such as the ability to process and control our emotions, to delay gratification, to moderate our own behaviour and to behave with empathy, all develop within a relationship of trust and nurturing, where children feel safe and know that their needs will be met.

2. Many children are experiencing stress in dysfunctional families and neighbourhoods.
When families are unable to meet a child's basic emotional and developmental needs, the resulting stress or trauma can have a negative and long-lasting effect on the child's growth, ability to learn and behaviour.

Stress, defined by Anthony and Thibodeau as “anything that a child perceives as a threat...either to his survival or his self-image.” can be caused by any of the following:

3. Many children are experiencing the death of their parents and caregivers
British researcher R.D. Coddington, in his Life Events Inventory, which rates stressful experiences in pre-scholars to 16-year-olds, rated the death of a parent as one of the four most stressful events in the lives of children.

Many of our children are living with dying parents or caregivers. In a study, carried out, last year, by Nirmala Gopal and Dr Reshma Sookrajh of Durban-Westville University, a group of women dying of AIDS in a Durban hospital spoke about their fears regarding their children's future. They also told how their children were already undergoing emotional pain and a sense of loss and bereavement.

4. Stress inhibits learning and higher-order thinking
The work of people like researcher Dr Paul MacLean has made us aware of the role of the brain's emotional controller, in learning. Stress and negative emotions, they say, inhibit learning and higher order thinking while a happy, positive environment enhances learning and higher-order thinking.

The teachers we are working with tell us that they are finding that there is an increase in the number of children who have behaviour problems and who are having difficulty with learning. Children who were previously able to learn and behave well now behave badly and can't do their schoolwork.

With so many of our children living in dysfunctional families or fending for themselves, we need to ask:

Let us return to the story of Nandi and her brothers to illustrate the point––

One afternoon something wonderful happened in Nandi’s life. Lungelo, her brother came running down the road and behind him was his teacher, Mrs Ndlovu. Mrs Ndlovu had noticed, in the short time that Lungelo had been in the school, that he was lethargic and couldn't concentrate on his work. She had recently been attending, together with the other teachers in her school, our course on emotional literacy and had come to see the need for creating a caring classroom environment. She had realised that, when children exhibit poor behaviour or lethargy and concentration problems, it is more likely due to one or more of the stress factors discussed earlier, than because they are rebellious or unintelligent. The Valley Trust social worker had been helping the teachers to identify and work with children in distress so Mrs Ndlovu had asked Lungelo to take her to his home. When she arrived at the house she found out what the situation was and, with the guidance of the social worker, was able to intervene. Also important, was the fact that the children's teachers were able to give them the support of a classroom environment in which they felt accepted and valued.

Over the last few years, the Valley Trust has been working with teachers on a programme that supports the development of emotionally safe classrooms. This programme concentrates, firstly, on nurturing the emotional literacy of the teachers themselves, through personal development. It aims to encourage self-awareness and build their sense of self-worth. It challenges their paradigms of themselves, of their learners and of their role as educators. It then supports them in their emotional support of children, working with them to develop structures, procedures and strategies that can be implemented throughout the school to build a caring school and classroom climate. It is not a “quick-fix” programme but one that takes place over an extended period. Research clearly indicates that programmes of this kind need to be ongoing, throughout the child's school life, if they are to be really effective.

Professor Perry London from Harvard University says, “Schools today must lead the battle against the worst psychosocial epidemics that have ever plagued the children of our society. Schools need programs to protect children against the ravages of social disorganization and family collapse.”
Our work is based on the belief that such programmes need to be part of a caring, supportive ““whole-school” culture or climate for which every teacher, in every classroom, takes responsibility. It is not enough, for instance, for the Lifeskills teacher to nurture self-esteem and emotional competencies in Life Orientation classes only, as good as these classes may be. Emotional literacy is a lifelong process and therefore needs to be nurtured on a daily basis, in every classroom and across the curriculum. If it is to be sustainable and children are to really benefit every teacher in the school needs to take responsibility. Parents and caregivers also need to be involved and to make this possible, teachers need to be supported at classroom level, not only through training workshops.

What is an emotionally safe classroom?
Although there are many factors that contribute to a safe classroom, for the purposes of this paper I am going to briefly share with you our definition and the model that we are using as a framework for our programme.

We have defined an emotionally safe classroom as:

A place where I can
a) be myself and express my feelings and share my circumstances without fear;
b) connect with a person (adult) and a group who value and respect me.”

This is how some Grade 6 and 7 learners in a rural school described their ideal classroom: “We need to be listened to with understanding and humanity.”
“Sometimes we need people or educators that are not impatient with us but who can understand that we are still children – we will do [better] with a bit of guidance.”

“We need them not to joke about our physical appearance because it is so painful to be made a joke over something you cannot change.”

How does one create an emotionally safe classroom? The framework for our emotionally safe classroom intervention, which is presently taking place in 10 rural schools, has been drawn up from:

I have called it the “I CAN” model – a classroom climate where children are valued, supported and affirmed.

"I CAN” “Framework for an emotionally safe classroom that builds Self Worth and Self Esteem
And now, a brief description of the model:

I am good: Starting with the hub of the wheel, the foundation for creating an emotionally safe school and classroom is good values, structures, procedures and strategies that promote character-building values are put in place throughout the school. The everyday behaviours that express these values are explored, practised and discussed on a daily basis. Children learn what is good and just, and all behaviour is measured accordingly.

I am loved: Teachers model good values at all times, respecting themselves and the children and, in turn, encouraging and expecting them to do the same. In this way, they feel loved and accepted. Teachers modelling these values are a crucial element in the creation of an emotionally safe classroom and school.

I belong: The practice of good values such as respect and compassion, together with the implementation of strategies, such as team learning, that lead to sharing and cooperation as opposed to competitiveness, contribute to the development of a strong classroom community in which children feel valued and accepted.

I can make good decisions: the use of democratic procedures, such as regular class meetings, gives children the opportunity to be involved in decision-making regarding issues such as school and classroom governance, curriculum etc. This gives them confidence in their ability to make good decisions.

I can feel and understand: Teachers use strategies that enable children to identify and talk about their feelings and emotions, and develop empathy for the feelings of others.

I can think: Through the teaching and practice of creative and critical thinking skills, children gain confidence in their ability to solve everyday problems.

I can manage conflict: Children are taught conflict resolution strategies that are practised in the daily life of the classroom and school. I can be responsible for my own behaviour: The practising of values and the use of positive methods of discipline, consequences and affirmation, give children the opportunity to learn self-discipline by having to think about and take responsibility for their own behaviour.

I can learn well: There is a belief that every child is intelligent and can learn – not only those who are good at maths and language. Teachers recognise and use methodology that caters for different learning styles and multiple intelligences.

Whole School: As discussed earlier, it is important that these structures, strategies and procedures are implemented throughout the entire school so that there is a caring atmosphere throughout the school.

Parents and Caregivers: While there is growing evidence that schools can make a real difference in the lives of children, the “family”, the parent or caregiver is the primary educator of the child. This programme includes strategies and approaches that encourage schools to reach out to parents and caregivers and, wherever possible, involve them in choosing and supporting the school's values at home.

Teachers have our children in their care for 5 hours a day, 196 days a year. Imagine the impact it could have if every classroom throughout our country was an “I Can” classroom, an emotionally safe place where children are respected and celebrated, firstly as individuals and secondly as part of a caring school community.

This feature: ChildrenFIRST, issue 53 (January/February 2004)

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