Bait Hanoon Prep. Boys “C” School- UNRWA. Children with their teacher practicing concentration exercise.
Read caption Children practicing concentration exercises with their teacher, in Palestine. Photo: NRC Palestine

Children’s nightmares of war

NRC Palestine|Published 20. May 2016
Since the 2014 Israeli attack on the Gaza strip, more than 100,000 children in Palestine have received psycho-educational support from NRC, helping them mitigate trauma symptoms and significantly reduce nightmares.

"The successful results show the strong impact it has on children and their well-being by reducing their nightmares, regaining lost learning capacity and strengthening their resilience," says Camilla Lodi, Education Programme Manager, NRC Palestine.

The results are remarkable. A study by NRC, in collaboration with the University of Tromsø, conducted among children in 45 different schools in Gaza shows the average night of nightmares was close to 5 per week, before NRC's Better Learning Programme intervention. After participating in the programme, the average nightmare frequency fell to close to 0.5 per week. The programme is a school-based intervention, combining psychosocial and educational approaches. "During the war, our area was heavily targeted by the Israeli shells. My family and I fled. On our way, we saw bodies of murdered people on the floor and many injured people crying," says Naji, a 14-year-old student at Muaath Ben Jabal Basic Boys School in Shajaia, Gaza. Both the school and the neighbourhood were heavily targeted during the Israeli operation and, afterwards, the children were in need of psycho-educational support.

"An eight-year-old child in Gaza has lived through three wars. Soon, an entire generation will have no memory of a life without the closure," says Camilla Lodi.

The children were severely affected by the 2014 war in Gaza. According to the UN Commission of Inquiry, 551 children were killed and 3,436 were injured. Children´s behaviour also changed considerably, as a result of the great psychosocial distress. The Gaza Community Mental Health Programme claims 51 per cent of the children in Gaza suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after the war.

"Research shows that when children and youth have been exposed to traumatic or psychologically wounding events, all kinds of stress reactions will be apparent. Some children and youth may withdraw from contact, stop playing and laughing, or become obsessed with stereotyped war games, while others will dwell on feelings of guilt, or fantasies of revenge and continual preoccupation with their role in past events," Camilla Lodi explains.

For Mohammed, a 14-year-old from East Rafah, the experience of war has turned into haunting nightmares. Over two nights a week or more, Mohammed suffered from the same nightmare, forcing him to revisit the war in his sleep.

"We are sitting at home and suddenly we hear the bombing, the shelling and the sounds of different vehicles. People are running away, and we start running too. We only take the motorcycle. When driving, I get the impression that the motorcycle is running slow. A plane fires a rocket that hits the motorcycle, and we are covered in dust. Then I wake up and cannot go back to sleep," Mohamed recalls at NRC's Better Learning Programme.

NRC's Better Learning Programme was implemented across 40 schools in Gaza and in the West Bank, from 2012 to 2014. Throughout 2014, the project was successfully up-scaled to 168 United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) schools in Gaza and ten schools in the West Bank.

"The goal is to help teachers and educational psychologists support children who have experienced trauma while, at the same time, empowering schoolchildren with strategies for calming themselves and self-regulation," says Camilla Lodi.

In Gaza, 5,000 teachers were briefed on the Better Learning Programme and more than 106,500 pupils received teaching on the programme between June 2014 and July 2015, in addition to over 2,700 pupils who received specialised intervention as part of the programme.

"The children in schools are craving a peaceful life, where they can freely play, learn and not be worried or fear the future," says Camilla Lodi.

Mohammed is one of the many children benefitting from the programme. He received four group counselling sessions, were he was taught deep breathing techniques, stress reduction and how to change the nightmare content. Mohammed also received four individual sessions. As a result, the nightmares ended and Mohammed became more involved in classroom activities and made new friendships.

Subsequently, the Better Learning Programme has the technical quality and evidence-based results to become an NRC trademark in the field of Education in Emergencies (EiE) responses.

"NRC intends to expand the Better Learning Programme to Syrian refugee children across the region in Jordan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey during the current year," concludes Camilla Lodi.

The children and 2014 war in Gaza:

  • In Gaza, 551 children were killed, and 3,436 were injured. 10% suffered from permanent disability as a result. In Israel, one child was killed and 270 children were injured.
  • 51% of the children in Gaza suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
  • 176 Ministry of Education and Higher Education schools were damaged, in addition to 83 UNRWA schools.


NRC's Better Learning Programme:

  • The 'Better Learning Programme's intervention was implemented across 40 schools in Gaza and in the West Bank, from 2012 to 2014.
  • The Better Learning Programme is a school-based intervention, combining psychosocial and educational approaches. The goal is to help teachers and educational psychologists support children who have experienced trauma, while at the same time empowering schoolchildren with strategies for calming and self-regulation.
  • The Better Learning Programme also reaches out to parents, to help them understand their children through a community-based approach.
  • In West Bank, an analysis of the 'Better Learning Programme, carried out in 2015, shows that 67% of the targeted children with nightmares reported a full recovery. Furthermore, 1, 28% of the children reported their nightmares decreasing to 2 or 3 times per week, and the remaining 5% reported their nightmares decreasing to 4 times per week.
  • Most of the children became more active academically and socially: 79% reported an improvement in completing their homework after the intervention; 52% reported feeling safe at school and on the way to school and, finally, 74% felt they were no longer isolated because of their problems.