Protection through education

How providing teachers with psychosocial skills can heal conflict-affected children and support their progression in school

By Amanda Westfall
Zena (left) with her best friend since pre-primary, Genet Hailu, in West Guji Zone, Ethiopia. ©
05 December 2018

Zena Boko, a 16-year-old eighth grader in West Guji, Ethiopia, is determined to stay in school. In her region, ethnic conflict has displaced over 190,000 children, including herself, but through the support of dedicated teachers, she is receiving support to continue her education.

Zena Boko is an incredibly determined student with ambitious goals. She hopes to rise from poverty and move to the highest economic class, a feat that can only be reached through education.

“School is important to get knowledge so I can reach the highest (economic) level. As farmers, my parents are at a very low level and the only way to reach a higher level is to continue my education.”

Unfortunately, Zena lives in a region that is burdened by ethnic conflict, where displacements have surged this past year. In early May she came home from school only to find her home destroyed. She then fled with her family to a safer area, leaving their farm and livelihoods behind.

This year, the conflict has affected over 300,000 primary school-aged children in West Guji and Gedeo zones, with many homes and local businesses destroyed, schools damaged, and over 21 per cent of children still unregistered for school this academic year.  Zena, too, was displaced and out of school. But not for long. She was determined to continue her education, and could do so with the help of supportive teachers.

“I am one of the smartest students in school and the teachers know this. They didn’t want me to stop learning. So, when exams were happening, my teacher called to check on me because I was not in school.”

Zena Boko
Zena’s teacher, Mr. Mideso, with his Chemistry class.
Zena’s teacher, Mr. Mideso, with his Chemistry class.


She then returned in late May to take her final exams with the support of her teacher. Afterwards, she returned to her parents before coming back to start the new school year this late summer. She is now staying with supportive relatives who live near the school.

Zena’s favorite subject is Chemistry, mainly due to her supportive chemistry teacher, Mr. Mideso. Along with four other teachers at the school, Mr. Mideso took part in a UNICEF-supported training this summer that covered psychosocial support and emotional learning. He was given the skills needed to identify and support conflict-affected children and retain learners in school by creating a supportive and conducive school environment.

Providing psychosocial support

In their standard college courses for teaching degrees, teachers are not taught skills on emotional support and psychosocial needs of children, especially for those affected by conflict. But with funding from the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO), UNICEF partnered with Volunteer Services Overseas (VSO) to bring in skilled experts in psychology, emotional learning, psychosocial support, gender-responsive pedagogics, and classroom management. They conducted a professional 3-day intensive training for local educational experts (known as ‘Trainers and Teachers’) who then provided this same training to school teachers in conflict-affected areas. 

So far, the programme has reached 435 teachers (including 15 social workers) in conflicted-affected areas of Oromia Region. Many of these teachers have gone on to train other teachers in their schools, as well as bring what they learned to the communities, through meetings with the Parent-Teacher-Student Associations and community dialogues. Mr. Mideso further explains,

“When the students come to school they think about the conflict and the problems and pain it is causing. We are trying to change the students’ behaviors so they leave the problems behind when they come to school. It is about psychology and how we can emotionally help the students by identifying their different behaviors and responding to those different behaviors.”

Teachers across the region are implementing the new skills learned, including introducing collaborative activities such as group discussions, story-telling, art activities, and sports events. They are learning how to build “Child-Friendly Spaces” in their classrooms and encouraging mixed-group activities so students learn from others who have different ethnicities, genders, challenges, or disabilities. They are also learning to identify different emotions in children, and how to respond in a strategic and helpful manner for each child.

Creating a lasting impact

The programme is also building a foundation for skilled teachers in conflict-affected areas. Six Colleges of Teacher Education now have newly established Education in Emergencies Resource Centres that hold relevant and useful resources on psychosocial support and emotional learning, among other topics. All materials are accessible for the pre-service and in-service training teachers at the colleges, as well as for the practicing teachers from the neighboring schools.

Zena explains that she sees a difference in the support and teaching methods since last year.

“Before, there were many separate groups at school based on ethnicity, and a lot of bullying and insulting happening. But this year teachers are helping us. They say, ‘We are all one. We are all Ethiopians.’ I feel safe at school because of our teachers.”

When asked about what hopes she has for her future, Zena displays a huge smile as she explains her ambitious goal,

“I want to be the Vice Prime Minister of the country. I want to support the Prime Minister to bring peace, stability and growth for Ethiopia.” 

UNICEF and VSO, with the financial support of ECHO, continue to offer support to children in conflict-affected regions. The programme has thus far reached 8,576 children, with plans to expand the services to the Somali and Oromia regions in the upcoming months.