|© UNICEF Jamaica/2010/Hickling|
|Children with their teacher at a primary school in West Kingston, Jamaica. The area was the epicentre of civil unrest that broke out in May.|
KINGSTON, Jamaica, 7 July 2010 – Young children affected by the violence that prompted Jamaica’s state of emergency in late May have been coping with their grief in ways that are not traditionally used in the island.
Over the last few weeks, as children returned to early childhood institutions throughout West Kingston – the epicentre of the violent unrest – they were embraced by teachers who were taught how to use art, dance and play therapy to help children express and manage their anxiety.
Some teachers were using these techniques for the first time; they had never before gotten on the floor to dance with children as a way of releasing stress, or encouraged them to express difficult emotions through drawings.
Training for teachers
In the aftermath of the civil unrest here, 114 educators from 59 early childhood institutions and two primary schools were equipped with skills to help 1,850 boys and girls. The training workshops were run by the Early Childhood Commission, with support from UNICEF, before schools in the affected communities re-opened their doors.
“I feel more equipped to face the children and parents on Monday morning,” noted one early childhood teacher, Ms. Davies, after the training. “I have been able to develop a definite plan of action. I have always wanted to be in such a forum.”
Classes were a welcome respite for children who had been dealing with sorrow caused not only by the harrowing days of gun battles between security forces and armed civilians, but also by years of sustained violence.
Memories of terror
Many West Kingston students came back to school still haunted by memories of terror. Some cried openly, while others whimpered quietly or were unnaturally withdrawn.
Another teacher who received the training, Ms. Atkins, was particularly disturbed by a three-year-old’s physical reactions. “He would start crying, wet himself and dive under the table every time he saw police at the school,” she said. Ms. Atkins used dance therapy techniques to help the boy and his classmates work through their fears.
“The hardest thing was for us to explain to the children why this had happened, and to allow them to be honest about their experiences,” said Mr. Knight, a teacher of three- to six-year-olds at one of the West Kingston schools. In his approach, Mr. Knight said, he relied largely on art therapy, which raised important topics that he then discussed with the students at ‘circle time’.
Partnership for recovery
The teachers themselves found comfort in the training sessions. Some of them lost friends and relatives in the violence and were not equipped with their own coping skills; many reported that returning to their classrooms was therapeutic in itself.
The introduction of these coping mechanisms, taught and practiced in the relatively safe school setting, are among a range of measures being used to help children heal in West Kingston. UNICEF has also supported the Child Development Agency in training teams of guidance counsellors and other human service professionals who are assigned to provide counselling to children in schools in the affected areas.
For those children who are back at school, the stories and fears etched in their drawings – stick figures holding and shooting guns, children armed with weapons, portraits of parents, siblings and grandparents dying by gunfire – speak of deeply painful realities that will take time and continued help to address.