Empowering Ukrainian youth to shape their education path

How working with Ukrainian youth in Poland led to a new tool to help make their education options clearer

06 November 2023

Marta has always been good with numbers. In Lviv, where she grew up, the 14-year-old was at the top of her math class. Now in Krakow, where she and her mother relocated after the war in Ukraine started, she feels stuck in an equation she cannot solve.  

Sitting in classrooms where theorems and formulas cover the walls, instead of excitement, she feels nervous and a bit bored. While Marta may be the same age as the other Polish students in Grade 8, she is being taught material that she learned a year ago in Ukraine.  

Like many of her friends back home, Marta is impatient to become an adult. To her, that means going to university, studying and becoming a math teacher. Spending a year repeating classes at a Polish school feels like a major setback. Sensing her daughter’s stress, Marta’s mother began looking into other schooling options available to Marta as a refugee from Ukraine living in Poland. 

She turned to UNICEF-supported Sun Centre to see if they could help. There, she met many Ukrainian mothers who were facing similar issues navigating the Polish education system and, struggling to get their children access to an appropriate level of learning. Many mothers were going to great lengths to keep their children's education on track: investing in expensive tutors, sending them to study in other European countries, or even back to Ukraine. The staff were able to offer language support classes, refer them to municipality guidebooks and point them towards schools that had the capacity to accommodate non-Polish speakers.  

But how would these options impact her future opportunities and ability to return to Ukraine? There was more information that had to be gathered before being confident about deciding around schooling.


Caught between two systems 

“Some people don’t want to make decisions. They don’t want to start anything new because they are keen to go back at any moment,” says Joanna Markielowska, a deputy director of Sun Centre in Krakow. 

Polish and Ukrainian schools are designed differently and unsurprisingly, they are not in sync. Joanna has met many adolescents like Marta, who don’t want to spend two extra years at a Polish school and experience the stress of not being able to fully manage their academic progress.   – Opportunities for Ukrainian adolescents vary depending on how old they are, what city they settle in, and also when they arrive.  Numerous schools offer preparatory classes to give students from Ukraine a chance to stay in their grade with dedicated language support. However, the availability of this kind of support is unevenly distributed across the country.  

Many adolescents enrolled at Polish schools also continue their Ukrainian education online. “Most don’t want to give up the Ukrainian system in case they go back,” says Joanna.  

Interviews with Polish teachers, educational administrators and career counselors revealed that navigating the education system can be very challenging.  A major barrier is that language classes are taught in Polish. Furthermore, educational options aren’t articulated in ways that resonate with the concerns of refugees from Ukraine, who want to know how each choice would affect their professional and academic futures, as well as their ability to return home. 


Planting a decision tree 

But what if there was a resource that spoke their language? What if this resource helped them understand the options in their city that could match their level of education and help them towards their personal goals? What if it gave them insight into what each choice would require and lead to?  

To go beyond the “what if,” UNICEF worked with Common Thread, a global behavioural design firm, and partnered with Lanka.CX, a Ukrainian service design company, as well as Polish consultancy Service Sandbox, to ask teachers, administrators, parents and adolescents what they thought about the experience of making decisions about education in Poland. 

As a result, the team from UNICEF, Common Thread, Lanka.CX and Service Sandbox designed and prototyped a digital decision tree that allows Ukrainian adolescents to view their education options in Poland based on their specific situation and needs. It guides them in their language and gives them the information they need to make fully informed decisions. Each option includes testimonials from other Ukrainian adolescents to help them feel less alone in the decision-making process. 

The decision tree was designed as a mobile-first tool. With over 70% of Ukrainian adolescents accessing curriculum on their mobile devices, the team had to ensure this resource existed in a space that adolescents already find familiar and reach for constantly: their phones.  


Putting adolescents at the centre of the solution 

Poland offers a unique set of educational choices for adolescents – at the secondary level, they have three options focused on different skills and aspirations: Vocational study, technical study and academic pathways are all readily available and can provide different benefits, from earning while you study, to professional experiences as part of the course, to multiple opportunities for when you are ready to enter the working world. It is a level of agency that adolescents in many countries would appreciate. 

Yet how do young refugees and their parents make decisions about these options without this understanding? How can adolescents feel confident about making decisions about the next year of their lives when developments in the war might shift things a few months down the line?  

The decision tree tool gives young people a new vantage point to understand the benefits of choosing, for example, vocational study or technical-focused curriculums. This solution is currently being fast-tracked and can already be seen at the Spilno Hub website

This solution embodies UNICEF’s mission to give all adolescents access to the education that is their right. The app was created and tested with Ukrainian refugees, championing UNICEF’s commitment to keep services accountable to affected populations, which means involving them as much as possible in the decisions that affect them.

A tool for all? 

The tool may also have value beyond Ukrainian adolescents. The Polish education system has been going through a period of reform. Testing with Polish education staff revealed that Polish adolescents lack clarity about the educational opportunities available to them and would benefit from more and better information to help them make informed decisions about their future.  

This simple solution could empower adolescents like Marta and her Polish and Ukrainian peers to make informed decisions about their education, even amidst the complexity, and uncertainty they are facing. 


UNICEF works in some of the world’s toughest places, to reach the world’s most disadvantaged children. Across more than 190 countries and territories, we work for every child, everywhere, to build a better world for everyone.

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