A groundbreaking programme aimed at preparing children to cope with the impact of HIV/AIDS will soon be implemented in four of South Africa's nine provinces.
The Valley Trust, an NGO running a number of HIV/AIDS and poverty-related projects in the east-coast province of KwaZulu-Natal, realised that children would not disclose their concerns about AIDS unless they felt they were in a safe environment.
As a result, the organisation developed an initiative to train teachers to be more sensitive to the emotional needs of pupils, especially those affected or infected by HIV/AIDS.
The NGO launched the first leg of its "emotionally safe" programme a few years ago in 21 primary schools in Kwa Ximba in the Valley of a Thousand Hills, a rural community with a high number of child-headed households and teenage pregnancies, and plagued by HIV/AIDS, crime, alcohol abuse and poverty.
When first visiting schools in Kwa Ximba, the Valley Trust team found that a large number of children affected by HIV/AIDS failed to cope in schools that promoted cognitive learning but ignored the child's emotional development. Many pupils came to school hungry, suffered discrimination and displayed aggressive behaviour.
Because many pupils were orphans living in child-headed families, or did not have the money to buy school uniforms, they needed additional support from their community.
Teachers found it difficult to be receptive to pupils' problems, because many were demotivated and struggling in their personal and professional lives.
The NGO decided to develop a programme aimed at sensitising teachers to the emotional trauma facing children whose parents or family members had died of AIDS.
"Many children are in emotional pain and need teachers who value, respect and support them emotionally," explained Valley Trust project coordinator and trainer Belinda te Riele. "Schools need to be places where children feel safe enough to express feelings and emotions freely, learn and practice emotional and social skills, and develop self esteem."
The initiative works in close cooperation with the KwaZulu-Natal Education Department because, as Valley Trust director Keith Wimble noted, joint effort was crucial when "very few educators are informed about the [national HIV] policy".
The "emotionally safe" schools programme establishes a committee consisting of the principal, a pupil, teacher representatives and parents. Part of the committee's responsibility is to formulate an HIV/AIDS policy for the school, based on the health department's HIV policy.
"While, in many schools the national HIV policy would disappear in a drawer, often unread, we encourage school committees to customise the policy to their school's needs, and write it in language that is easy to understand," said Te Riele.
Another key point of the programme is fostering cooperation between educators, parents and communities. The programme offers counselling training to educators and parents, teaches caregivers parenting skills, and gives advice on how to mobilise communities to establish a network of care and support for children.
Teachers also learn how to apply for social grants to help those affected by HIV/AIDS.
"Emotionally Safe Schools" is a two-year programme based on an interactive approach to learning. During this period, teachers attend workshops, where they are trained to use a participatory approach to learning, as opposed to the traditional transmission approach. They then apply these learning strategies in their classrooms, developing a culture of values that include positive discipline, conflict resolution, emotional intelligence and cooperative group work.
Te Riele told IRIN that since Valley Trust had implemented its programme, the "overall environment" in the schools had improved, but added that "real behaviour change" took more than two years. "We are planting the seeds, but it is up to the teachers to take care of the plants," she pointed out.
Khethiwe Mncwabe, a teacher at Table Mountain Primary in Kwa Ximba, commented, "The programme gave us courage to talk about AIDS to learners - we are more aware of the needs of children affected by HIV/AIDS and have more respect, understanding and compassion in our classrooms."