Giving a Voice to Children
BY EUNICE RUTH
As a nation, Sri Lanka has gone through many significant life events over the last 50 years including Tsunami and Easter attacks, among others. Accordingly, at present, Sri Lanka is facing another pandemic with the spread of COVID-19, which has impacted many people in different generations. Even though we had experience in mitigating and preventing several crises at the same time, the current crisis in Sri Lanka is different and complex due to multiple reasons. It’s beyond a pandemic crisis and also a socio-political crisis. Looking at it beyond a medical model, the situation demands us to use wider behavioural sciences; disciplines dealing with the subject of human actions, including sociology, social and cultural anthropology, psychology, behavioural aspects of biology, economics, geography, law, psychiatry, and political science.
Meanwhile, all kinds of major life events have affected the children mentally and physically. Also, it has made huge differences in their educational patterns. Convenor of ‘Voice For Children’ organisation and the Director of Institute for Research and Development in Health and Social Care, Sri Lanka, Prof. Athula Sumathipala noted that comparing the pre and post COVID-19 impacts on children, with all other pandemics, they were much different and due to the virus spread large gatherings and meetings are not allowed within the country, and because of that students in different ages and grades are frustrated differently.
The mental health of children has already been affected severely where their education is also affected due to missing almost two years of schooling. “The university students and other professionals who have trade unions will protest by informing us their problems, however, unluckily, children have no way to express their problems and in order to address their issues, we have formed this ‘Voice For Children’ organisation and we will be the voice of children,” said Prof. Sumathipala.
Impact on A/L students
Even though it has impacted everyone, the majority who were impacted were Advanced Level students who did not experience a single continuous assessment at school. “It is almost two years without completing the syllabus and they have witnessed both boredom and frustration of being at home for a long time and also the frustration of being away from school, education, and friends,” Prof. Sumathipala said.
He also pointed out that attempts were made to rectify the lack of education through distance learning and even it also brought up equity issues due to the digital divide. Meanwhile, to further complicate the issues, the teachers went on a trade union action by depriving the limited opportunity the children had. Illogically, however, the examination results at national examinations such as Grade 5 Scholarship Examination and GCE Ordinary Level conducted during the lockdown period have seen a general improvement, despite the lack of proper schooling.
Even though it is somewhat acceptable for some people, for us, it is a matter of concern that raises more questions than solutions, he added. “If students could perform better without schools, do our school curricular promote memorisation rather than the application of knowledge, do our exams test proper educational achievement or simple learning, do not both school curricula and national level exams have a place for socio-emotional aspects of learning including communication, collaboration, creativity and personality development which cannot be achieved by students studying at home,” asked Prof. Sumathipala.
Impact on brain development
COVID-19 impacts the early brain development in children, especially with preschool children and children between the age of one month and eight years old have been affected severely, and it is not just a delay, but a permanent impact, he noted. He also noted that children in poor socioeconomic backgrounds with minimal family or social support for psychosocial stimulation have missed 18 months without preschool education and other extra-curricular activities. This missed opportunity for the children in the early childhood period may cause a future impact.
“The issue in our culture is not that children come second, but how we make them ‘first’ may not be the ideal. We need to think of the quality of life of the children, the rights of children including protection and education, and also the right to voice. The things we assume as the best for them may not necessarily be the best for them or what they want. So we have to give an opportunity for children to voice themselves.
To talk about their issues, how they feel, and what they want,” Prof said. Therefore, the major aim of the organisation is to empower the children and obtain their views and opinions too. We need to take measures to make them involve and engage them from the planning stage as it will be more helpful in identifying their problems and views.
On the other hand, some children have already ended up getting addicted to computers, computer games, obesity, and problems related to vision. In addition, social interactions, sharing with peers, respect, and practice of traditions, and understanding each student as a member of a team can become a challenge for some as all the work is centred on an individual child at home. The organisation has some short and long-term objectives to address the issues of the children and also it is planned to implement an action plan soon.
The short term objectives of the organisation are to explore a systematic solution to the current psycho-social and education challenges faced by the children, parents, and the overall society as a nation, to consolidate a public campaign for all stakeholders to bring urgent remedial measures direct at addressing the significant negative impact on the future generation of our society, to propose and innovate contextual, variable and sustainable solutions to the deprivation of education that students face today. This will be achieved by recognising the diversity of the capacity to take part in the education process depending on the geographical, socio-cultural, economical variations.
Meanwhile, the long-term objectives questions as should teaching continue in the same classroom packed with 40-50 students seated next to each other and following a crash course, should an alternative cluster school with redefining of primary and post-primary schooling, breaking away from the existing system be decided, should crash courses be done with the same content and the same burden to students to clear the backlog, should we have a contingency plan for curriculum delivery during disasters as a must in education whether it is a flood, Tsunami, or drought, should there be a wider dialogue on a crisis plan in education, and should we need special task forces to empower the future of education amidst poverty-related barriers with or without disasters and pandemics, are our primary and secondary school education produce the right citizen necessary for contemporary Sri Lanka.
It is also planned to execute an action plan by initiating a few focus groups and in-depth discussions among concerned socially sensitive people and also to initiate a focus on in-depth discussions among a few diverse groups of children and to give them an opportunity to voice themselves, to talk about their issues, how they feel and what they want. However, we need to be mindful that children don’t think less but may think differently.
They may not have a well-developed vocabulary to express their opinions so that we need to help them by giving them an opportunity to express their feelings through drawings. In addition, in order to help the children to overcome their problems, parents/guardians should play a major role by requesting them to draw something or write a poem or a story on what they think about themselves and their situation now.
“Also, as an organisation, we have planned to organise two major events at Lady Ridgeway Hospital and Sirimavo Bandaranayake children’s hospitals, including donating drawing material. Also, we have decided to make a huge social media campaign where we get children to vocalise on the impact of no schooling, and also we have planned to ask children to send small video clips to mash them together, and publish on social media on how they feel being at home, what do you think the President and the country should be doing about it. “It will help us to understand their situation and so that we can act accordingly to support them both physically and mentally,” he added.
Meanwhile, Prof Sumathipala pointed that they have several challenges such as how they will distribute any such material to reach each and every child in the country, what is next after 1 October every year, and the long-term actions, goals, and missions for the children after that, and how best to plan the school reopening strategy, taking into account and differentially supporting the capacity of different schools, the capacity of teachers and parents in different schools, and COVID prevalence of different areas in the country.
Also, we expect wider support from printed and electronic media’s in conveying this message to the children and to educate the general public and parents regarding the measures which can be taken to support them. “We have also sent a letter to the President asking to postpone the Advanced Level Examination to 2022 February. Around 70,000 students are sitting for the exam this year and due to the COVID-19, they have lost their school education and assessment periods. It has impacted them and with this mindset, they will not be able to perform well in their exams,” said Prof. Sumathipala.