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Enhancing the Wellbeing of Children in South Africa Includes Investing in Education Institutions

September 19, 2022

On the 7th of February 2022, children in South Africa officially returned to full-time schooling for the first time since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. On the eve of this re-opening, UNICEF published a press release regarding South Africa’s education system, describing that learners were estimated to be 75% to one full school year behind, by which point an alarming approximate of 500 000 learners had dropped out. This highlights the prominent story of South Africa’s schooling system, which continues to deteriorate with each passing year, failing many of its young children. 

Schools found in the South African education system have presented disturbingly poor academic performance compared to other lower-income countries. They are often thought of as hubs for violence, perpetrated against both learners and staff, and are characterised by crumbling infrastructure and overcrowded classrooms. These are ascribable to the abysmal years of colonialism’s selective development, and aggravated by apartheid policies of discrimination ensuing from 1948 till 1994, including the Bantu Education Act of 1953. South Africa’s education system continues to struggle under the ripples of apartheid’s legacy, with previously disadvantaged schools experiencing the worst of this tide. 

There are multiple factors that threaten children’s sense of safety and security. The surge in child abuse cases and teenage pregnancies seen during the lockdown, accompanied by the losses related to COVID-19, highlighted the importance of restructuring educational institutions into spaces that could potentially prevent the consequences of such traumatic experiences. Marumo Sekgobela, the Thematic Manager from Save the Children South Africa’s Health and Nutrition, said, “Watching a child turn into a mother is heart-breaking. Children need to be children, not birthing them. It’s particularly devastating to learn that many of the girls who gave birth last year were barely teenagers.”  This is especially concerning as teenage pregnancy places a lot of children at risk of mental health issues, with research showing that teenage mothers are twice as likely to develop postpartum depression.

The amount of trauma experienced by children reflected in this context presents a looming mental health crisis for children in South Africa, with a majority of young people experiencing mental health problems that remain untreated. There is potential and opportunity for South African schools to become places of protection against the harm of children, especially in terms of their mental health and wellbeing. There is potential to transform educational institutions into catalysts for positive mental health outcomes. 

However, that requires significant investment in the educational system that goes beyond the current funding. This is especially true in the early childhood development sector, which has demonstrated a noteworthy cry for financial and training support, as reported by the Early Childhood Development Census 2021. The census emphasised the need for the government to improve access to funding and resources for early childhood learning programmes, listing access to free play, further training for practitioners, and resource allocation and support as integral needs.  This case is not exclusive to the early childhood development sector; many of the educational institutions in this country, including primary schools, are currently under-funded. 

However, rewriting policies and implementing strategies geared towards creating safe spaces for children, alongside funding, could ensure that schools become a safe haven for children. The SHAPE programme was implemented by Sangath in Goa, India, building on a health-promoting school framework and an earlier health promotion study in schools, utilising teachers, learners and peers. This study expanded on the knowledge from previous studies on this topic, and addressed resource considerations by enabling the training of lay school health counselors – who were not teachers – to conduct the interventions. They incorporated both physical and mental health promotion aspects in an attempt to promote holistic health and wellbeing. SHAPE demonstrated the potential benefits of investing in the creation of safe spaces which aim to protect children’s mental health and wellbeing.

According to the South African Child Gauge published in 2022, educational institutions show great potential in creating safe spaces for children, as they already have infrastructure, are networked locally and provincially, and could better equip their staff to understand childhood development and learning. They are also pillars of their community and often well-connected to various community members such as learners, teachers, caregivers, community organizations and services – helping to ensure the holistic development of a child. Schools can also provide an optimal setting for children to thrive above their many challenges, as they are generally more accessible and less stigmatised than mental healthcare, and could thus provide an avenue for children to experience a sense of connectedness, which could in turn promote a sense of belonging, positive self-esteem, internal regulation of emotions and overall positive functioning

School-based interventions inclusive of teachers, mental health professionals, paraprofessionals and counselors can help ensure that these complex environments become environments where children’s mental health can thrive. Creating teams of workers would support learners living in dysfunctional family settings, create space for relationship building, and even improve learners’ mental health. Schools can be places of belonging, where children are able to be accepted, valued, included and respected – if we put in the time and investment.

Interventions should also be preventative in nature. Understanding that most of us carry trauma – and this includes children – we should  aim to cultivate spaces that are sensitive to the child’s various needs, including their context, age and developmental stage. The Child Gauge provides a few suggestions and strategies on how to create these spaces for children at ECD centres and primary schools, which encourage positive mental health and development.

ECD Centres

ECD centres can support children’s mental health and wellbeing by ensuring the promotion of functioning well during early childhood development. This can be done through the curricula and schooling environments, linking children at risk for developing behavioural problems with resources for support, as well as providing caregivers with information regarding apt services in order to expand their supportive networks. Early childhood development is a window of opportunity for the child’s cognitive, emotional, physical and social development. ECD centres can offer another space to help cultivate this opportunity, regardless of challenges in their personal environments. The IRIE Classroom Toolbox is an effective example. The programme is geared towards equipping teachers with the appropriate skills to support children in the classroom, in order to ensure functional development and positive wellbeing of both the child and teacher, through the provision of training workshops, practical learner assessments and in-class support. These efforts aim to decrease behavioural problems in children, increase socio-emotional competence, and increase self-regulation – which could make contributions towards children’s mental health and functioning.

Primary Schools

In primary school settings, the positive mental health of learners can be supported through the structuring of a nurturing  schooling climate, improving relationships between schools, and fostering respect and diversity.  The Life Orientation subject taught in schools all over South Africa is an excellent platform to foster holistic development, for example teaching learners how to understand emotional regulation. Primary schools can also involve parents and caregivers in initiatives directed towards mental health and wellbeing, while offering appropriate referrals for children showing additional mental health concerns. This will also require connecting schools to organisations and initiatives in order to build a suitable referral list. Kids Haven in Benoni, Gauteng, providing therapy for abused, neglected and discarded children are examples of organisations which can connect with schools in order to facilitate access to mental health services.

It should be noted that creating these spaces for children through educational institutions will not be a stroll in the park, as these environments, particularly in  the South African context, exist within an embedding of structural issues such as poverty, violence, and social inequality. Our educational institutions, especially those involving children, need more funding and a better support network to implement holistic interventions aimed at creating safe spaces for children.

As we progress towards a ‘new normal’ and  gradually tread towards post-pandemic territory, we will need to work towards repairing much of the damage caused during the pandemic. This includes children’s mental health and sense of wellbeing. Key sectors such as the Department of Basic Education and Social Development will need to collaborate with communities in order to kickstart movements on the ground. The Light at the end of this tunnel, positive mental health, needs to be protected at all costs, and creating these safe spaces for children to thrive and flourish is not simply a need – it is an act of revolution.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of SCSC.

Photo by Kiy Turk on Unsplash