This is a summary of Panel Two from the WPF sponsored conference, Unlearning Violence, held February 13 & 14, 2014.

Dr. Maryanne Wolf of Tufts University’s Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development opened panel two with a series of Kantian questions:  “What can we know? What should we do? How can we hope?”

Throughout the panel, Wolf, and fellow panelists, Dr. Regina Sullivan and Dr. John Lawrence Aber, both of New York University explored the answers to these questions as they relate to how the experience of violence impacts children’s development.

The child’s brain is different from the adults, Sullivan stressed. The former is not simply an immature version of the latter. Trauma early in life can cause irreparable damage to a child’s brain and increases vulnerability to psychiatric disorders later in life. The brain develops in ways that are both hard-wired and molded by experiences that change the shape and structure of neurons in the brain. Children’s brains, for instance, are hardwired to establish attachment to their caregivers. Trauma impacts this attachment circuitry in addition to affecting the development of other parts of the brain. No matter the context, a child attaches to its caregiver, even if that caregiver is abusive. And because attachment can occur throughout life, Sullivan suggested that with child soldiers it is very likely that attachment occurs during their time as a soldier. Furthermore, because the amygdala is not fully developed in a child, the immature brain processes trauma differently than adults, often associating trauma with attachment—not fear. Repeated presentation of trauma damages the amygdala, especially if experienced in the presence of the caregiver. “The most pronounced effects of this change happen in later life,” Sullivan noted.  She highlighted how a child’s relationship with its caregiver and the caregiver’s response to trauma, as well as where the child is in its developmental stage affects the basic changes in the brain with lifelong consequences.

Presenting a model of social emotional learning that demonstrated impressive contributions to children’s well-being and academic success, the second panelist, Dr. John Lawrence Aber, discussed the results of an impact study he conducted of the International Rescue Committee’s “Healing Classrooms Program” in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).  Many children in conflict-affected eastern DRC have been exposed to trauma, displacement, health risks, food insecurity, and violence. The “Healing Classrooms” intervention seeks to improve the social-emotional learning of these students by creating a safe learning environment. Aber’s study found that the intervention had a significant and beneficial impact on both students’ academic and social emotional outcomes. Creating safe and caring learning environments with supportive teachers contributed to better educational outcomes as measured by improved reading scores.

Aber noted that significant gains have been made in achieving the second Millennium Development Goal, universal primary education. Globally, 90% of children–up from 82% in 1999–are in school. This impressive gain still excludes 57 million children. Of those without access to primary education, 39 million are in conflict-affected countries. Aber stressed that while it is important to improve this number, we should not only focus on getting children to school, but also help children learn.  One way we can achieve this is to focus on social emotional learning–especially for children in conflict affected area. 

Dr. Wolf presented cause for hope from the results of her global literacy initiative, a  digital learning experience that deploys mobile devices to under-served children with the goal of helping them learn to read on their own. Wolf argued that open source platforms can be used to promote reading and learning in contexts where schools and teachers are unavailable. Using such technologies, Wolf and her colleagues aim to help 100 million children become literate by the end of the decade. The project is currently being piloted in two remote Ethiopian villages reaching twenty children in each of the villages. Within a relatively short period, children have already learned letters, how to write them, and how to recite the alphabet in English. Quick learners have been teaching others, including one child who figured out how to turn on his computer in five minutes and then showed the other children how to use theirs. In addition to child-led literary, the initiative also presents an opportunity to use the content of literacy instruction to provide ethical education through storytelling and to promote inter-group understanding through story sharing.

Jayanthi Mistry, also of the Eliot-Pearson Center, moderated a question and answer session that allowed the audience and panelists to more deeply engage with these questions. For example, Dr. Jack Shonkoff of Harvard posed a question about the role neuroscience and new insights into brain development can play to generate new ideas for development. The panelists also stressed that interventions need to move away from just promoting reading and numeracy – “reading, reading, and reading” – and instead should focus on teaching social-emotional learning. How can stories be used to teach lessons and promote a more peaceful world?

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