Wellbeing programme and distance learning techniques
Innovative techniques to support Lebanon’s vulnerable children via an Integrated Wellbeing Programme and distance learning throughout this year’s COVID-19 lockdown
Amidst the ongoing financial and social crisis in Lebanon, and undeterred by the onset of COVID-19 pandemic, UNICEF and partners continue to work for the best interest of children in the most vulnerable areas in Lebanon. Here, the harmful effects of the multiple crises are expected to be most damaging for children already disadvantaged or in vulnerable situations.
With the first case of COVID-19 confirmed in Lebanon during late-February 2020, schools were closed by early March. As the country slipped into lockdown, non-formal education programmes were suspended, pushing children on the fringes of society further into isolation. In addition, while child protection services were restricted by the government’s decision to curb public gatherings, families are facing the economic impact and hardships of the compound effects of the strict quarantine measures delivering a loss of income and the continuous depreciation of the Lebanese pound and resulting inflation leading to a dramatic reduction of purchasing power.
Faced with a nationwide lockdown, UNICEF and partners now use innovative means to reach children with education, child protection and cash assistance services as well as health awareness and wellbeing support. Through existing non-formal education programmes, partners have engaged in the provision of the Basic Literacy and Numeracy (BLN) and Adapted Basic Literacy and Numeracy (ALBN) services using remote support to children and their caregivers.
UNICEF has continued to support the most vulnerable children across the country through an Integrated Wellbeing Programme which provides a holistic package of support services including education, child protection and social assistance. With a focus on high-risk, out-of-learning children, the Integrated Wellbeing Programme provides children with access to non-formal education as a possible pathway to formal education, in addition to child protection, psychosocial support and gender-based violence services as well as a monthly cash grant. Since the launch of the programme in July 2019, this Integrated Child Wellbeing Programme - co-funded by the European Union, Ukaid, France, Australia, Finland, Akelius, Netherlands, Switzerland, Canada and BPRM - has had a positive impact on the lives of more than 10,000 children in Lebanon.
Ghinwa Itani, Education Specialist at UNICEF says, “UNICEF’s Integrated Child Wellbeing Programme aims to reach out-of-school children aged of 10 and 14 years who have never been to school. They are the most marginalised in our society as they are children with special needs, children engaged in child labour and they are also those exposed to the likelihood of early marriage. The main focus of the programme is to meet the diverse needs of children in an integrated and holistic manner, through providing basic literacy and numeracy in education, psychosocial support services and child protection, and social assistance”.
The results are tangible. For 13-year-old Ahmad Firas Al Fares, and other boys and girls like him. Ahmad left school seven years ago, and started working at the age of nine. For him, the programme’s results are potentially life-changing. “Five months ago, I couldn’t read or write”, Ahmad says, “today I know numbers and letters. AVSI taught me to write”. Although he continues to go to work every morning, he reserves his afternoons for education and his new routine of distance learning. “If there’s something I don’t understand, I just send a photo of it to my teacher, and she replies the same way and provides me with the help I need”.
Ahmad’s mother, Wafaa El Youness, is vocal in her support of the programme and the life changing effects it is delivering. “My son didn’t know how to write before joining the programme, not even his name - he didn’t even know how to hold a pen. Now he can write letters, numbers, and I feel he has changed for the better. The lessons are sent to his phone where he opens the files and works on them. He now writes to his friends on WhatsApp about the programme too – and I’m extremely happy that my son can write his name”.
Similarly, 11-year-old Assaad left school while only 8, and has been working for the past year. “I’ve been enrolled in the programme for five months and have learned a lot. I’ve learned letters and numbers, and how to place letters at the beginning, middle, and end of words. The teacher sends files to my phone, I open them, complete the work, and then send a photo of my work back to the teacher.
“My brother and I help each other by correcting each other’s work”, says Mohamad, also 13. Now, I want to teach my little brother how to read and write. For me, education is the most important thing”.
During the lockdown period, UNICEF launched remote and online support to families and children in the form of health awareness messaging, psychosocial support (PSS) and engaging children in learning to ensure continued communication with the families and sharing of adequate information. Such support was done through short educational videos, group messages and voice notes, as well as by calling caregivers to check on their children’s wellbeing, learning progress, and to follow up on activities done at home. UNICEF also distributed a ‘PSS kit’ which includes story books, arts and crafts materials and supplies, and educational toys. Funded by the European Union, through the EU Madad Fund, this PSS kit was delivered to 6,500 vulnerable households with young children to engage the families in fun games that would alleviate the burden and stress form the lockdown.
As part of the EU-funded Integrated Child Wellbeing Programme, child protection partners continue to provide remote psychosocial support (PSS) to caregivers and children, child protection and gender-based violence (GBV) case management through a mixed modality approach that combines both remote and face-to-face support.
“The interaction with caregivers is essential to build trust and accordingly provide them with an opportunity to vent and address their own emotions prior to supporting their children. The programme is designed to empower caregivers with positive discipline tools and practical steps that enable them to better care for their children. This is also a timely opportunity to identify and refer at-risk cases that need immediate intervention whether through our programme or other sectors.” Says Jackline Atwi, Child Protection Officer at UNICEF.
Eliane Darham, a teacher at a UNICEF-supported non-formal education centre operated by partner AVSI, says, “We knew we couldn’t stop educating our children just because of the coronavirus, so we turned to distance learning. Using social media and mobile phones we are now able to carry out educational programmes with the assistance of parents. We set up WhatsApp groups and regularly send videos to the children along with voice messages to encourage them to interact, to watch the videos, and to answer the questions.”
While initial engagement was slow, as the programme gained traction both parents and children quickly saw its value. Mirna Jurdi, PSS animator within the programme notes, “[parents and children] realised they needed a free space to engage within, a space where they can also solve their own problems during the sessions. Parents soon started to integrate the programme within their own support at home. We’re also providing stress management sessions to parents – and to children too – all aimed at improving the quality of life [and therefore child safety] within the home”.
Remote support is provided online, through WhatsApp, social media, phone calls and various online platforms and offline through the provision of printouts, workbooks and supplies to children. The main purpose of the remote support modality is to keep children engaged in European Union-funded PSS and learning activities that will enhance their wellbeing and stimulate them intellectually, so they are retained in non-formal education programmes and are able to come back to the NFE centres once normal program implementation resumes.
Additionally, UNICEF increased cash benefits to mitigate the effects of the inflation and income losses and therefore provide a lifeline to families and children to ensure every child’s minimum needs are covered; to relieve the stress created by the economic pressure; and to maximize the educational and PSS support gains on every child’s wellbeing. Between September 2019 to April 2020 the consumer price index increased of 46% while the food price index saw an increase of 158%. Maxime Bazin, Humanitarian Social Protection Specialist at UNICEF says, “We know the first to pay the price are the most vulnerable children, whether refugees or from the host communities. In these conditions, integration between the services provided and social transfers are more relevant than ever to ensure results in children human capital preservation and wellbeing”.
For parents and caregivers, this cash assistance has provided immediate relief. “The financial support that we received was very important,” reports Jihane Badaa. “It helped me buy Fatima clothes, food, as well as personal items. She used to suffer from stress through being unable to able things – now she is different. She is far better than before. Without this financial support, I couldn’t have afforded to provide for her basic needs”.
Recognizing the added stress that the accumulated crises of the year 2020 are imposing on children in Lebanon, UNICEF and its partners are playing a crucial role in supporting the most vulnerable children through a series of key initiatives including the Integrated Child Wellbeing programme. With the evolving situation, UNICEF coordinates closely with partners to work together and follow referral mechanisms put in place to ensure that children continue to have access to essential services.