The Hidden Crisis: Rebuilding Refugee Children’s Social-Emotional Skills in Tanzania

Ton Koene/SV

Everyone is dancing. The music stops, and the staff freeze — except for Zahra.*

Alain, who got out on the previous turn, points at Zahra, “You’re out! You didn’t freeze!” Zahra joins Alain and the others who are already out.

What seems like a simple, playful game of “Freeze Dance” is actually a social-emotional learning (SEL) activity that targets skills like active listening, focus and impulse control. Participants have to pay attention and listen closely for the music to stop, then immediately stand still. These are among the tactics taught in the SEL training of trainers I recently conducted in Tanzania, where I met Zahra and Alain. Zahra, who is Tanzanian, is an Education Officer with the International Rescue Committee. Alain is a Congolese refugee, living and working as the Education Coordinator in the Nyarugusu refugee camp.

Participants in the SEL Training of Trainers in Makere, Tanzania

Since April 2015, thousands of Burundian refugees have flooded Tanzania, a country that for the past two decades has been hosting refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo. With these new arrivals, Tanzania now hosts nearly 250,000 refugees. More than half of the incoming refugees are under 18 years old and for many of them, this is the second or third time they have been forced to flee their homes.

The majority of the Burundian and Congolese children are living in tents or temporary shelters and have been through the kind of trauma that no child should experience, including seeing loved ones killed, hunger, and extreme poverty. Neuroscience research shows that children who experience these types of adversities can experience a toxic stress response that impedes brain development. But research also tells us this damage can be mitigated and even reversed through strong positive relationships and access to quality educational opportunities that include SEL.

Social and emotional skills allow children to be resilient, manage their emotions, control their impulses, build positive relationships, concentrate, play cooperatively with other children, and understand and follow simple rules. SEL restores healthy development that may have been stunted by trauma and helps children feel a positive sense of self and hope for the future. As a result, children are able to focus, learn and succeed.

SEL includes activities such as freeze dance or cooperative games that require students to work together. As a result, students’ basic cognitive skills improve, and they have more positive interactions with peers. After the activity, students discuss what they experienced, what they learned, and how they can apply those skills and strategies to their everyday life.

The training I led provided staff with the skills and materials to train teachers on SEL activities they could integrate in their daily work. Alain, like many others in the education field, was initially wary of the need for SEL and the feasibility of fitting it in to the already packed school day. However, research shows that SEL improves students’ reading and math scores, and by the end of his training, Alain urged us to include SEL twice in the school day. Every day he sees refugee students struggling to pay attention in class, emotionally withdrawn and aggressive with their peers. For Alain, SEL is a promising intervention to deliver better aid and improve children’s ability to learn and grow.

*All names have been changed

For more information on the IRC’s Education programs, visit our website.


The International Rescue Committee responds to the world’s worst humanitarian crises, helping to restore health, safety, education, economic wellbeing, and power to people devastated by conflict and disaster. Founded in 1933 at the call of Albert Einstein, the IRC is at work in over 40 countries and 26 U.S. cities helping people to survive, reclaim control of their future and strengthen their communities.

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