A simple, “Hello. How are you?,” is all it took for a grandmother in Southern Africa to realize that somewhere along the line, she forgot how to communicate with children.
Every day after school this grandmother runs a feeding program, serving meals to children along with a team of volunteers. The woman and her team used to just dish and give, overwhelmed with the number of children lining up for meals. The children would just eat and go.
One day, after participating in a social connectedness seminar with Synergos Institute, she encouraged her volunteers to say, “Hello. How are you?,” and something happened. Children started staying at the centre, and volunteers had a chance to connect with them, learning about their needs. This simple eye contact and acknowledgement allowed the team to engage with the children, showing them they are valued. Though the volunteers may not have the resources to meet the children’s needs, they connected them with churches, social workers and other external services and resources to enhance their wellbeing. When the lady provided feedback to the Synergos Institute she said, “As a mother and grandmother, I know this is how we should be talking with children, but we stopped.”
This story is one of many showing the power of connecting to children, acknowledging their value and the power of a simple hello. The effects of social isolation on children any where in the world is devastating, impacting mental, emotional and physical wellbeing. Finding ways to ignite and maintain meaningful, face-to-face relationships between children and their surrounding communities protects them from the effects of social isolation and encourages a nurturing environment that promotes childhood wellbeing.
The seminar described above resulted from the leadership and vision of Kim Samuel working in collaboration with Synergos Institute to design and develop specific programming that addresses social isolation and equips individuals and communities with tools to build social connectedness. Also, as part of this collaboration and with an organization called Regional Psychosocial Support Initiative (REPSSI), a toolkit has been released that helps practitioners to mobilize all members of the community to tackle social isolation and foster social connectedness.
The Journey of Life (JOL) Action Workshop series explores different topics related to childhood wellbeing such as dealing with death and community parenting. Using illustrations along with talking points and prompts, a facilitator encourages diverse community members to share and discuss their views on the topical illustrations. In the Social Connectedness Action Workshop, the facilitator first takes the group through exploring basic themes and definitions related to the topic. It gradually progresses in depth over the course of 12 pictures that encourage discussions on issues such as the links between social isolation and poverty and the alienating effect stigmatization can have on children. It also provides the opportunity to explore the importance of culture, religion and indigenous knowledge systems in overcoming social isolation. The workshop culminates in the creation of an action plan that identifies how to create a better sense of social connectedness in the participants’ respective communities.
The methodology used in the Journey of Life Action Workshops promotes deep listening and the sharing of knowledge and skills between people with different backgrounds. The goal of the workshop is to develop recommendations for increasing social connectedness in the lives of children that respect the perspectives and viewpoints of each person involved.
Synergos and REPSSI started training various practitioners, partner organizations and people that directly work on providing psychosocial support to children and caregivers on how to best use the workshop at the end of 2015. Now, the workshop is being put to practice in Southern and Eastern Africa. We spoke with Mandla Mazibuko, a representative at REPSSI in Swaziland as well as Marlene Ogawa, Programme Officer at Synergos Institute to discuss their experience with the Journey of Life Social Connectedness Action Workshop.
REPSSI works on building psychosocial support systems for children and youth in Southern and Eastern Africa. Though REPSSI does not work directly with children, the organization builds the capacity of partner organizations to integrate and mainstream psychosocial support and social connectedness into what they are already doing.
“In Swaziland, children find themselves isolated without care or guidance due to factors such as poverty, abuse and HIV/AIDS,” says Mazibuko. He explains how the JOL Social Connectedness Action Workshop promotes mutual relationships between people in the workshops as well as helps to identify services and resources to better assess and address social isolation in children. “This action workshop also determines the dignity of the individual. Someone’s dignity comes from the level they are socially connected to others,” he says.
As a trainer using the social connectedness workshop, Mazibuko appreciates how it acknowledges the links between emotional, cognitive and social domains of psychosocial support. “If we do more around the social domain, the other domains take care of themselves,” he explains. “I think you need to spend time and effort to understand who is around children in the social domain, who is supporting them, to whom are they connected to so when we come in we use their already existing social linkages to support them.”
Mazibuko explained how caring for others and a sense of community togetherness was deeply integrated into culture in Swaziland. “In the past we were serious about social connectedness but in the new family set up we are working, people, and social connectedness is neglected,” he says. As these social linkages shift form, researchers are looking at how endogenous care systems can be adapted and integrated to address social isolation in children.
Examining and adapting cultural practices to promote inclusivity is also included in the JOL Social Connectedness Action Workshop. Asking questions such as, “How can you adapt existing cultural practices to further strengthen social connectedness?,” and, “What cultural practices that support social connectedness have died or are dying out?,” prompt participants to discuss and suggest ways culture can support children in living more socially connected lives.
Ogawa points to research Synergos and various partner organizations carried out with support from the Samuel Family Foundation on the role Indigenous Knowledge Systems can play in assisting children in South Africa. She explains how cultural practices were traditionally significant in connecting children to their roots and being celebrated and acknowledged by their community. Though technological access increases contact with distant relatives, parents feel this increased use hampers social connectedness, reducing time to have conversations and do storytelling activities with their children.
“There is a disconnect because we don’t have conversations the way we used to,” says Ogawa. “Kids say they want to do those things, but their parents assume they aren’t interested.” She explains how this lack of connection along with economically stressed parents and children being exposed to violence and abuse severely affects the ability for relationship holding in a family unit.
According to Ogawa, building relationships is not only difficult in a family unit, but also one the most challenging aspects of translating research on social connectedness into practice. “After we did the research, we thought it would be a matter of just distributing information. The tricky thing with the context of social connectedness is that people know a lot of it.” She explains how mentors and partner organizations value the action workshop because it allows them to go past providing services to children and reflect on how to build and hold relationships with them, “really sitting down with them and having conversations. To look them in the eye,” she explains.
Ogawa stresses the importance of encouraging self-reflection and strengthening the capacity of trainers planning to facilitate the workshop as it creates, “a ripple effect of connectedness.” As part of skills connectedness training, trainers are encouraged to participate in a buddy system that allows them to explore establishing, maintaining and holding buddies. This can be translated into showing children and caregivers how to build and keep relationships as well as ensures they have regular, face-to-face contact with someone.
Strengthening individual capacity as well as caring for and supporting each other creates a favorable environment for continuing work in the community. For instance, Ogawa reflected on a social connectedness session with caregivers that shared their own stories as part of their reflections. Four women shared they were HIV positive for the first time in their lives. “They had never done it before, and part of their reflection was that they never felt it would be okay because of the same, humiliation and stigma elements.” Ogawa explained how the women felt disconnected and had low self-worth due to their HIV status, but they felt the session gave them the opportunity to be vulnerable and reflect on their connectedness. The women work directly with children affected by HIV/AIDS and the group reflection helped them to feel connected and supported. “The sessions can be quite emotional,” says Ogawa.
The emotional intensity of the training sessions is powerful, but also requires careful planning and attention to ensure people have adequate care to deal with any feelings that come up. Mazibuko emphasizes the importance of working with trained professionals that can support and manage the reactions of participants, particularly for those who have previously or are currently experiencing social isolation. “It is a wonderful action workshop that can have immediate results,” he says, but warns, “some people may react and they need somebody that can actually talk to them after the workshop, so people should be there to make sure people’s emotions are taken care of.”
Acknowledging and valuing individual experiences and emotions is also a core element in increasing social connectedness in children. “It’s about how you see people differently by understanding isolation and what it can do to a child who is always pushed aside and acts out. How can we bring the child in and connect to another adult but also to the rest of the children? What difference can that make in their lives?,” explains Ogawa.
Ogawa recalled a story one of the service leaders told about dealing with bullies in her school through building social connectedness. She explained how there were three bullies wreaking havoc at her school. Teachers were too overwhelmed with 60-70 students in their classrooms to pay attention to the students and as a result, they dealt with bullies by keeping them aside, excluding them from extracurricular activities such as sports and homework clubs. The service leader decided to bring them into the group, helped them with their school work and sat down with them and listened to their stories. The leader discovered that the children were facing difficult situations at home ranging from abuse to living in a child-led household. The children’s attitudes and behaviour changed positively and rapidly, garnering the admiration of teachers pleasantly surprised by the improvement seen in the children.
Creating fulfilling, meaningful relationships is essential to the social, emotional and physical well-being of children. The Journey of Life Social Connectedness Action Workshop, along with Synergos Institute’s Practitioner Brief provides practitioners with the materials necessary to work with communities to identify recommendations for overcoming social isolation in children. “It is really about acknowledging I see you, and you are a person,” says Ogawa.
Learn more about Synergos Institute’s social connectedness program