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Children in West Kingston Heal with Help

© UNICEF Jamaica/2010/A. Hickling
Children with their teacher at a primary school in West Kingston.

Kingston, 22 June 2010 – Young children affected by the violence that prompted Jamaica’s State of Emergency last month have been coping with their grief in ways that are not traditionally used in the island.


Over the last couple weeks, as children returned to early childhood institutions throughout West Kingston – the epicenter 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 trauma.


Some teachers were using these techniques for the first time; they had never gotten on the floor to dance with them as a way to release stress, or encouraged them to express difficult emotions through drawings.


One hundred and fourteen educators from 59 early childhood institutions and two primary schools were equipped with the skills to help 1,850 boys and girls in the aftermath of the civil unrest. The training workshops were run by the Early Childhood Commission, with support from UNICEF, before schools in the affected communities re-opened their doors.


After the training, early childhood teacher Ms. Davies said, “I feel more equipped to face the children and parents on Monday morning. I have been able to develop a definite plan of action. I have always wanted to be in such a forum.”


It was a welcome respite for children who have been dealing with the sorrow left behind not only from the harrowing days of gun battles between security forces and armed civilians, but years of sustained violence. Two weeks later, many came back to school still haunted by memories of terror.


Children cried openly, others whimpered quietly or were unnaturally withdrawn. Ms. Atkins, a teacher at one of the schools, 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.” Ms. Atkins used dance therapy techniques to help him and his classmates work through their fears.  


Mr. Knight, a teacher of three to six-year-olds at another West Kingston school, said “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.” He relied largely on art therapy, which raised important topics he then discussed with the students in circle time.


The teachers themselves found comfort in the training sessions, a number of whom lost friends and relatives to last month’s violence and were not equipped with their own coping skills. Many teachers also 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 counselors and other human service professionals who are assigned to provide counseling to children in schools in the affected areas. 


The children’s recovery is not over. While attendance is slowly climbing, many children are still being kept at home. One week after early childhood institutions in West Kingston re-opened, average attendance was only 60 per cent.


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.


For more information

Allison Hickling, ahickling@unicef.org, UNICEF Jamaica

Tamar Hahn, thahn@unicef.org, UNICEF Latin America and the Caribbean





UNICEF is on the ground in over 155 countries and territories to help children survive and thrive, from early childhood through adolescence. The world’s largest provider of vaccines for developing countries, UNICEF supports child health and nutrition, good water and sanitation, quality basic education for all boys and girls, and the protection of children from violence, exploitation, and AIDS. UNICEF is funded entirely by the voluntary contributions of individuals, businesses, foundations and governments.


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