Case study: Essence of Learning in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh

Key learnings on integrating educational and psychosocial support into child-friendly spaces in crisis settings

Rohingya children participate in Essence of Learning activities in one of Caritas’s child-friendly spaces in Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh. © UNHCR/ Antoine Tardy

What is Essence of Learning (EoL)?

EoL is an innovative, child-centred learning approach that integrates educational and psychosocial support — through structured activities, drawing and play (using recycled materials as learning aids)— to restore and enhance the learning ability of vulnerable children, particularly in conflict or crisis settings.

The EoL approach responds to evidence regarding the negative impact of toxic stress, trauma and instability on children’s nervous systems and brain development. Research shows that trauma and/or living in crisis situations can block a child’s ability to process emotions, build connections and learn. In order to regain their ability to learn and proceed in their cognitive and emotional development, these children must first be supported to reconnect with the foundational cognitive skills that are required for effective learning.

EoL supports this process — improving preparedness, responsibility, resilience and learning capacities of children affected by psychological stress, shock and trauma — by blending structured learning and play with psychosocial support that is tailored to the appropriate age, ability and needs of the child, as well as the context in which the programme is operating.

LEFT: Rohingya children practice a ‘finger poem’ activity, where touch and spoken word are used to encourage self expression and reconnection with the physical senses— a connection that is often lost in children who have experienced trauma RIGHT: The same group of children build structures and roads using recycled materials as part of a self-led play activity. Both images in Caritas child-friendly space in Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh © UNHCR/Antoine Tardy

For example, EoL uses:

  • Physical movement and expression — reconnecting children who have become disconnected from their bodies in response to trauma, upheaval or sustained instability, with their physical senses;
  • Easy tasks, such as simple counting exercises, based on the appropriate age and learning ability of the child, to build confidence and a sense of achievement;
  • Self-paced learning that avoids over correction, whilst establishing a clear and reliable structure within which the child feels safe and supported to develop their own agency over their learning and development;
  • Easily accessible recycled materials, to create learning aids, toys and decorations for the learning space (that are easily replicable at home), at little to no cost.

Implemented by Caritas, in collaboration with local partners, EoL has been introduced in 10 country programmes since 2001 — Bangladesh, Cambodia, Chechnia, Gaza and West Bank, Kosovo, Lebanon, Moldova, Romania and Switzerland — reaching a total of 32,000 children.

EoL in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh

In 2019, Bangladesh is host to just under one million Rohingya refugees, who have fled violence and persecution in neighbouring Myanmar; 55% of that number are children (UNHCR, 2019).

A Caritas child-friendly space sits on the brow of a hill in the densely populated Camp 4 extension of Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh © UNHCR/Antoine Tardy

The majority of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh reside in the Kutupalong refugee camp complex in Cox’s Bazar. In this setting, where children and youth are currently unable to access formal accredited education within the national system, there is often limited access to safe spaces — where they can express themselves and access the support they need to continue their emotional and cognitive development.

In response to the huge need in this context, Caritas has opened 11 child-friendly spaces in the Kutupalong Camp — through a partnership between Caritas Luxembourg, Caritas Bangladesh and Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS).

EoL has been integrated as a key component of Caritas’s child-friendly space model — in partnership with Caritas Suisse.

Key learnings on integrating educational and psychosocial support, through EoL, into child-friendly spaces in crisis settings

In the process of developing their child-friendly space model in Kutupalong and integrating the EoL approach into that setting, Caritas has identified the following key components for success:

  1. Advocacy and community engagement

Gaining acceptance and building understanding for your approach — with donors, partners, implementing staff and the community you are serving — is a long term process that is crucial to the sustainability and success of any innovation. The need for building trust and understanding is particularly acute when providing educational and psychosocial support to a community’s children and young people in already challenging crisis contexts.

Rohingya children begin EoL activities in one of Caritas’s child-friendly spaces in Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh © UNHCR/Antoine Tardy

Meaningful engagement with the community that you are serving (particularly parents and community leaders) is especially important.

Start early and meet often: Caritas has conducted weekly sessions with parents and community leaders since the creation of their child-friendly space programme in Kutupalong, to build awareness around the EoL approach, as well as the wider services the spaces provide. Through building trust and understanding of the approach being taken, Caritas has seen a steady increase in the numbers of children attending their child-friendly spaces, as well as increased engagement by the community.

Understand the community, their concerns and needs: Building understanding of your approach within a community also requires developing a close understanding of the community itself. Caritas has spent significant time and energy developing their understanding of the cultural, religious and social concerns of the community, in order to address these in their advocacy and their approach. For example, at the beginning of their engagement with the community they found that negative perceptions around dancing and singing, related to religious beliefs, needed to be addressed for the community to trust and feel comfortable with this aspect of the EoL approach in Kutupalong.

Build ownership and create formal feedback channels (for parents, community members & implementing staff): The above efforts have gone hand in hand with Caritas’s work to engender a sense of ownership of the child-friendly spaces by the wider Rohingya community. This work includes the creation of a management committee that is made up of staff, parents and community members — providing a clear channel for feedback on the running of the child-friendly spaces, as well as an opportunity to engage the community in the management of the spaces.

In addition, Caritas has integrated community members into the staffing of the child-friendly spaces — recruiting Rohingya volunteer caregivers, who support EoL facilitators during sessions, and psychosocial case workers who conduct community outreach and follow up with children and their families. There are currently 44 Rohingya volunteers working across the 11 child-friendly spaces in Kutupalong. These volunteers were selected by the Rohingya community themselves and put forward to Caritas, further ensuring a sense of ownership over the management of the spaces. The long term goal is for the volunteer caregivers to be trained to become facilitators themselves, as the community gradually assumes more responsibility for the child-friendly spaces programme.

Don’t forget to advocate and build understanding amongst implementing staff, partners and donors: Developing understanding does not end with with the community you are serving. Ensuring implementing staff, partners and donors have a clear and in depth understanding of the EoL approach has also been a crucial piece of the puzzle for Caritas. This step required a detailed process of identifying the essential and non-essential elements of EoL, in order to clarify the core principles underpinning the programme that should be shared with wider stakeholders.

2. Adaptation to context and children’s needs

One size does not fit all: EoL by it’s very nature, as an educational and psychosocial support approach, has adaptation and flexibility at its core. Not only does the approach need to be adapted to the context in which it is operating, but space needs to be given for activities and curricula to be adapted to suit different age groups, learning abilities and individual children’s needs.

Rohingya children aged between 4 and 6 years old watch a ‘table theatre’ activity where the EoL facilitator encourages them to use their imaginations as she acts out a play using only two wooden balls as characters and a scarf covered box as her stage. © UNHCR/Antoine Tardy

In Bangladesh, as Rohingya children and youth do not currently have access to education within the national system, the approach had to be adapted to fit that contextual reality. Similarly, ensuring that activities were suited to the learning level of children attending the child-friendly spaces, some of whom have never had access to formal schooling or early childhood development support, was critical. For example, Caritas is in the process of adapting the EoL activities for the 12–16 year old age group, assessing how they can best fulfil their needs.

Documentation of adaptations: Consistently documenting and reflecting upon the adaptations that are made is also important, not only for continued learning within the organisation and between different contexts, but also for facilitators and wider staff to learn from each other and feel confident in delivering the programme.

Follow up and onward referral: As well as ensuring psychosocial support is integrated within the child-friendly spaces, through EoL , Caritas highlights the importance of developing a robust case management and follow up component, especially for children who are experiencing difficulties. In Kutupalong, Caritas has ensured that this component includes a clear path for onward referral to other services, for example, when dealing with sexual or gender based violence (SGBV) or other concerns outside the remit of Caritas’s psychosocial support staff.

Community outreach is also a large part of the follow up process, with Rohingya volunteer caseworkers working together with Caritas caseworkers to identify and follow up on individual cases with children and families, as well as offering information on other services provided by partners.

3. Training

High quality, consistent and targeted training have been key components for success for Caritas integrating EoL into its child-friendly spaces in Kutupalong refugee camp. This includes training of the facilitators and volunteer caregivers working with EoL, on the EoL approach and psychosocial support (including the identification and referral of children for additional support), in addition to training of psychosocial support caseworkers and volunteers.

EoL facilitators, Bina and Aklima, in one of Caritas’s child-friendly spaces in Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh “At first I was very overwhelmed, wondering how I could manage this group of children, but with my EoL training I feel prepared— we have had maybe 20 training on EoL as well as other important things like WASH, safeguarding, psychosocial first aid and child protection. The big reward is seeing the children change, physically and mentally, you can see them moving past their trauma”. © UNHCR/Antoine Tardy

Build in continuous, structured training: One off trainings are not enough. Caritas has taken a systematic and long term approach to training all staff (volunteer and paid) engaged in the child-friendly spaces. Structured training that establishes a clear connection between the EoL theory and tangible examples of activities to undertake with the children has been important for EoL facilitators and caregivers. In Bangladesh, multiple EoL trainings have been given by experienced mentors, providing regular feedback and guidance for staff on different teaching strategies and exercises, to ensure ongoing engagement of children with different needs. Ongoing observations of sessions by mentors and management have also been an integral part of the long term development of facilitators.

Work with partners and other agencies to extend your training programme and facilitate onward referrals: In addition, Caritas has worked with partners and other agencies who are experts in other areas to ensure staff get high quality training. For example training in psychosocial support has been provided by JRS and training in case management systems and referrals have been conducted by IOM and UNHCR. Part of Caritas’s commitment to ongoing training for its staff in the child-friendly spaces, as well as supporting effective referral onto other services, has been to ensure that focal points from each CFS are engaged with the camp management structures, as well as child protection task forces and working groups, so that they can remain informed and more easily partner with other actors working on educational and psychosocial support for children and youth in Kutupalong camp.

Documenting training helps support staff in the longer term: Documentation through training manuals and recording observations and mentor feedback in a systematic way are important ways of ensuring that knowledge and learnings are captured and disseminated across teams. Caritas is currently exploring a digitised approach, using tablets, to record feedback and observations of sessions, in addition to case notes about children.

4. Implementation

LEFT: Boys act out their washing routine, as part of activities that combine important skills, such as hygiene, with play and self expression RIGHT: Recycled materials, such as plastic bottles, bottle tops, cups, fabric and wood are used to produce toys and learning aids for EoL activities in the Caritas child-friendly spaces in Kutupalong refugee camp © UNHCR/Antoine Tardy

The EoL approach identifies the following key principles for implementation of supportive, effective child-friendly spaces:

  • Learning happens when a child feels safe and supported by responsive adults;
  • Every experience can lead to learning, a wide range of different options are needed to stimulate children’s curiosity;
  • Self paced and self-led learning allows children to develop their own agency;
  • Facilitators/teachers should model behaviours want to see;
  • Thematic learning should thread through planning;
  • Bring lived context to the classroom;
  • Using recycled materials provides an important opportunity to be creative and interactive with limited resources
  • Continuity of structure and forewarning of change is important;
  • Welcoming and well-ordered learning environment with multi functional materials;
  • Assistance for children who are disengaged or disruptive.

HEA Learning Series

Insights from the Humanitarian Education Accelerator (HEA)…

HEA Learning Series

Insights from the Humanitarian Education Accelerator (HEA) — a programme led by UNHCR, designed to generate evidence, build evaluation capacity and guide effective scaling of promising education innovations that support children living in protracted crises.

Humanitarian Education Accelerator

Written by

Education Cannot Wait-funded programme, led by UNHCR, generating evidence, building evaluation capacity and guiding effective scaling of education innovations.

HEA Learning Series

Insights from the Humanitarian Education Accelerator (HEA) — a programme led by UNHCR, designed to generate evidence, build evaluation capacity and guide effective scaling of promising education innovations that support children living in protracted crises.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store