Educating children in risk zones
Yvonne Bezerra de Mello
The experience of constant violence often contributes to learning difficulties and in the worst cases, disabilities and severe neurological problems. For example, extreme emotional trauma and neglect often leads to cognitive and psychological problems, which can result in school truancy, continued poverty and social exclusion.
Since the 1970s, I have studied cognition and the behavioural effects of violence in children and adolescents living in difficult circumstances such as countries at war, slums with urban guerillas and drug lords, refugee camps and children on the streets. This experience showed me that children affected by trauma do not respond to traditional teaching methods. They need to be taught using a different method if they are to understand and remember.
The Uerê-Mello Pedagogy
Between 1980 and 1998 I taught street-connected children in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In 1993 an event changed my life. Eight children from one of my street groups were killed by the police in the Candelaria Massacre. In response I started “a school without doors and windows” – the first Uerê school – under a viaduct in downtown Rio. The survivors of the massacre were the first students. After one year, 150 children were attending the school.
In 1998, I founded the Projeto Uerê NGO, in a house in the Favela da Maré complex. Uerê is derived from Erê, the word for child in Yoruba, a Nigerian language.
Based on almost 30 years’ experience, I developed the Uerê-Mello pedagogy to use in the school. The pedagogy was tailored to improve knowledge, learning and focus on children with learning difficulties caused by emotional distress. It offers disadvantaged children a chance to compete in equal conditions with children who are not experiencing distress because it takes into consideration the effects of violence and provides a path to escape the further violence that can result from poor education. It is worth noting that cognitive problems due to violence exist in all social classes and are not related to economic status.
The Uerê-Mello pedagogy is a classroom management strategy for teachers. It uses special oral exercises to help reconstruct mental pathways and strengthen brain connections which often get disrupted in children who are traumatised by violence and experiencing sensory-deprivation neglect. These oral exercises combine discoveries in neuroscience with a new way of teaching academic subjects, performing tasks, expressing feelings and reducing stress in affected children. The use of oral exercises, instead of written exercises, activates emotions, facilitates oral skills, and enables children to focus. In addition, it greatly improves brain plasticity, memory and coordination. Oral exercises help overcome the negative impact of violence on short-term memory by increasing correct information storage, improving cognition as well as resolving issues related to violence-induced trauma and blockages.
The Uerê-Mello pedagogy is successful because it provides an alternative to traditional teaching methods, which do not take into consideration the children’s exceptional circumstances. The intelligence of children experiencing severe emotional trauma is not affected but their learning capabilities are.
Children learn by connecting new concepts to pre-existing references that they already understand about their environment. This concept is called “pre-knowledge”. Without pre-knowledge it is impossible to make the proper connections because the brain needs existing references to store new information. Teachers therefore need to find a link to something interesting and to which the children can relate, in order to create an emotional experience that promotes learning.
The pedagogy helps teachers to understand the brain functions involved in learning and provides a framework with which they can understand their students better. Combined with the use of oral exercises, it is appropriate for all students and can help teachers find creative solutions to individual students’ educational dilemmas.
How we work
There are 12 steps, used in a pre-defined sequence regardless of subject, each with a specific purpose. The first six steps are designed to warm up the brain and develop a positive learning environment. For children aged 6-11 it is sufficient to use these first six steps for 20 minutes each day. With older children, these oral exercises take 10 minutes during each class subject.
Traumatised children have shorter attention spans, so Uerê-Mello classes are divided into shorter teaching moments. No explanation should be longer than 15 minutes, which is the memory span in most children and adolescents. Short sessions of oral exercises in all subjects have been shown to improve mental response and brain speed. They help to increase alertness and are useful for all children, especially those who have attention problems (e.g. due to disability, ADHD, hunger, tiredness, etc.). Nowadays, technology usage requires faster mental speed, so the new cognition, as I call it, uses oral exercises to increase speed in the children’s synapses and neuronal pathways. For both primary and secondary schools, the six final steps comprise usual school activities.
The scope of Uerê-Mello pedagogy
Many countries are affected by conflicts, terror and/or oppression. Constant exposure to violence increases children’s risk of developing mental health conditions. Brain regions responsible for emotion are particularly affected as well as areas associated with maintaining attention, execution functions and sensory processing. Many children become aggressors, acting violently toward others. They may enter a marginal life and live shorter lives. The magnitude of violence in many poor communities has often been underestimated, and governments do not always seem to take this problem seriously or find educational or social solutions.
Trauma in children growing up in contexts of conflict and violence, including children living on the streets, needs early identification. Providing them with access to appropriate learning methodologies requires changes in government education policies. From 2008 to 2015 I worked with Rio de Janeiro’s Secretary of Education and UNESCO to design the ‘Schools of Tomorrow’ programme to improve the ratings of 20 public primary schools in risk zones with the worst national test scores. The programme’s success led to other municipalities requesting it. In 2017, 293 schools in Brazil use the Uerê-Mello pedagogy and 12,000 teachers have been trained to use it. Due to its success, UNICEF has chosen the pedagogy as one of six strategies for action to end violence against children.
Training teachers in the Uerê-Mello pedagogy
Teacher training can involve either:
- 20 hours, with an on-site instructor, and later monitoring once a month;
- 80 hours training via e-learning (only available in Portuguese for the moment);
- an 8-hour (one-day) conference giving an introduction of the pedagogy.
The Uerê-Mello pedagogy book is being translated into English and will be available to buy in 2018.
Yvonne Bezerra de Mello is the founder of Projeto Uerê and the Uerê-Mello pedagogy, writer and children’s activist