“Adults must talk to their children. Together with the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), we have developed strategies to help,” says Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Tromsø, Jon-Håkon Schultz.
The Arctic University of Norway is one of the northernmost universities in the world. It is located in the Norwegian city of Tromsø, where it is light 24 hours a day from mid-May until well into July. In winter, it’s dark all the time.
Professor Jon-Håkon Schultz works in the university’s Department of Education. His research team has been collaborating with NRC for years, and together they developed the Better Learning Programme for schools.
The programme, which combines psychosocial and educational methods, helps teachers to support children who have been traumatised by war and displacement. The children learn to use various coping strategies so that they can take control of their fears.
Now, in these difficult pandemic times, Schultz and NRC have worked out a new strategy. The goal is to tackle children’s new fear: Covid-19.
Children who have experienced war and conflict, and who are now struggling with the fear of Covid-19 as well, will get help to think other thoughts so that they have enough energy to play and do their schoolwork.
Scared of dying
In NRC’s recent study of stress among children in the Middle East – which focused on Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine – many of the children we interviewed said that they were afraid of dying of Covid-19.
“The survey showed that levels of fear had gone through the roof. As many as 88 per cent of the children told us that they felt stressed because of Covid-19,” says Schultz. He continues:
“Children are especially vulnerable for two reasons: they lack the cognitive ability to understand complex causal relationships, and they lack life experience. This can lead to children being much more frightened than they need to be.”
Unfair on children
Persistent high levels of stress are a threat to children’s development. In fact, there is evidence that so-called “chronic” or “toxic” stress can disrupt cognitive development and lead to illness. Some studies even indicate that chronic stress can cause epigenetic changes in our DNA and affect future generations.
“Don’t misunderstand me: Covid-19 is dangerous, and it is reasonable to be worried – and sometimes even scared. But these children are constantly afraid of dying. It’s unfair for children to be ten times more frightened than they need to be,” says Schultz.
“The reason why children become so scared is that the adults have not taken the trouble or the time to talk to them about it. Or they may not have enough knowledge about Covid-19 to share.”
And this is where NRC can help, the professor explains:
“Among other things, we train teachers how to initiate conversations with their students to dispel their fears.”
What can adults do?
When children only get parts of reality, they use their imagination to fill in the missing parts. Then misunderstandings can easily arise.
According to Schultz, adults have a responsibility to find out how much children understand. Adults should enter into a dialogue with the children to clear up any misunderstandings they may have and dispel unnecessary fear.
“This does not mean, for example, that we should say ‘Covid-19 is not dangerous’,” says Schultz. “An important aspect of dialogue with children, whether in Europe, the Middle East or elsewhere in the world, is that we should not give them false hopes.”
“You need to stick to the truth and reality. The thing about children is that they tend to put together their own stories – which are far worse than reality – simply because they lack the life experience and cognitive ability to understand complex contexts.”
Dramatic number of children out of school
The Covid-19 pandemic has caused the greatest disruption to education in history. Nearly 1.6 billion schoolchildren and students in more than 190 countries have been affected, according to the UN.
NRC and the University of Tromsø are working hard to make it easier for children to receive an education, either through online teaching, or by helping students return to schools when they reopen. Most schools in the Middle East are still closed.
“When schools are closed for longer periods of time, children and young people start doing other things, such as getting involved in child labour,” says Schultz.
“They have to work to make money for their families. It could be that a family has no choice. Sometimes both parents have lost their jobs, housing costs have gone up, the family is unable to pay the rent and is evicted, and food prices have tripled.”
The Covid-19 pandemic is affecting the entire world, with both a human and an economic cost. But those who live with conflict and displacement are particularly vulnerable.
Schultz thinks for a moment before saying:
“Consider this: here in Norway, we saw that it wasn’t so easy to get all the children back to schools when they reopened. It is actually a big job to make it happen. In Norway, we saw that head teachers had to actively tell parents that ‘it is safe to come back, we have plans in place to prevent the spread of infection’ and so on.”
He shakes his head:
“This only intensifies in countries that have many more problems than we have in Norway. My biggest concern is that many of the world’s children may not return to school at all.”
Children get “healthy” from school
When it comes to children who struggle with stress in their everyday lives and perhaps also with traumatic stress, researchers know that it helps to go to school. Being in the classroom reduces their stress levels. They are stimulated to natural recovery.
“Before the Covid-19 pandemic, we saw a positive trend in education worldwide. In recent years, more and more children and young people have been able to go to school. This has gone hand-in-hand with a reduction in world poverty,” explains Schultz.
“But now, not only has that trend reversed, but the number of children receiving an education has dropped dramatically. Due to various countries’ disease prevention regimes, many children today are no longer allowed to go to school. For these students, the consequences are dramatic.”
“This means that it is vital for NRC to ensure that there is some kind of alternative to regular school. This also includes encouraging and helping children to return to schools when they reopen.”
From a national to an international effort
We are all concerned about the Covid-19 crisis. We ask ourselves: “How long will this pandemic really last?” One thing that may help us is to help others.
Norwegians are proud of their volunteer work. When something is difficult, it helps to face it with others – to show the “volunteer spirit”. When the pandemic broke out, the Norwegian health authorities called for a national dugnad, or effort, to reduce the spread of infection.
Schultz speaks of an “international dugnad”, to which everyone can contribute – including by supporting NRC’s work so that even more children can be helped:
“It is about making a voluntary effort to help society,” he explains. “It’s a little harder to encourage volunteer work when the focus is something you can’t see so easily – like a virus.”
But the beauty of making a collective effort is that it can make us feel good.
“Here in Tromsø at least, it makes us feel good to cooperate with NRC. This cooperation feels especially meaningful right now. While we are safe and secure here up north, NRC is at work out there in the world – where things are happening.
“Together, we help children who are struggling with fear and trauma. Those of us on the research team feel like we are part of an international effort.
“That gives us hope.”