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Coming back after the world's longest school closure: Q&A with our partners in Uganda

Updated: Sep 23, 2022

Graphic with headshots of ParentCorps' Michelle Boyd and Makerere University's Dr. Janet Nakigudde
ParentCorps' Michelle Boyd and Makerere University's Dr. Janet Nakigudde

This past February marked a momentous occasion in Uganda: the reopening of its public schools after nearly two full years of being closed, the longest pandemic-related national school closure on record. Since 2013, ParentCorps has partnered with Ugandan mental health professionals to deliver ParentCorps to teachers and families. Together with Uganda’s Ministry of Education and Sports, Ministry of Health and Makerere University – Uganda's largest and oldest institution of higher learning – we are now building on evidence that shows ParentCorps is effective at promoting positive social-emotional skills, mental health, and academic child outcomes in a global context.

Last year, we began a multi-year partnership with three Primary Teachers Colleges, public colleges in Uganda that train primary school teachers. Specifically, we partnered with Tutors based at these colleges, providing the training and coaching needed for Tutors to support teachers in their classroom practices of social-emotional learning and family engagement. This month, Tutors will begin training and coaching a new cohort of teachers – a milestone in our partnership that coincides with teachers and students reintegrating back to school after historic hiatus.

We sat down with our longtime Ugandan partner, Dr. Janet Nakigudde – Clinical Psychologist, Professor and Behavioral Scientist at Makerere University – to help us understand what returning to school has been like for teachers, students and families in Uganda, and to hear firsthand how ParentCorps is helping teachers in Uganda meet this incredibly stressful and historic moment.

This month marks the beginning of a new school term in the first full year of schooling for primary grade children since the pandemic shutdown began in 2020. What are the successes and challenges educators have experienced coming back to school since the shutdown?

From the perspective of the children, they have not been in school for the past two years. And getting back into a structured environment was a challenge, whether they were old or they were very young children.

On the part of the teachers, the pandemic was a very stressful period. The majority of teachers were not earning, so that really stressed them so much. With their stress, they had to deal with children who had forgotten all school structures – how to behave, some had even forgotten how to read.

But also from the parents’ perspective you could tell that everybody was stressed.

How could they not be stressed with everything that’s been going on?

Yes. There are also children who lost their loved ones, lost their parents. If a family has maybe four children, then probably they are not able to stay together. The relatives have to divide them up. So we saw trauma in the children, and a lot of stress.

That is incredibly important for us to hold - the level of trauma that children and families and teachers have experienced over the last couple of years as they are trying to reenter the school system. Given this context, how do you think ParentCorps has landed for teachers in Uganda who have received your training and coaching support?

ParentCorps has come in at a time when I think it was most needed because the teachers are so stressed. They need to have support.

For the very first time for the teachers who enter this program, the teachers are getting to look at the children and trying to look at: Where is the behavior coming from? What is the cause of the behavior? Am I able to relate and engage with the parent so that we can work on this behavior so that we can support the child?

The parents are actually very happy. They feel they are important. They feel they have a role in the education of their children, which previously was not the case. If a teacher can engage a parent, they are both working towards the success of the child.

“If a teacher can engage a parent, they are both working towards the success of the child.”

When we talk about proactive strategies. Remember that the teachers are so stressed. They now have to get into an environment that ideally should be predictable. But it’s not even predictable because the teachers came back and they just didn’t know what to do and how to go about teaching children who have not been in school for the longest time. So when we ask them how this has helped them, they are so, so excited because ParentCorps has given them a structure within which to work successfully with the children.

But it has also worked on [the teachers’] stress levels. Knowing what is happening with this child, I need to put it into context. I have my basket of tools, I need to observe the child, and then come up with whichever tool I think is relevant and appropriate for the situation. I think it gave them structure and lessened their stress.

The Ministry of Education in Uganda gave an ultimatum that we should not have corporal punishment. There has been a void: you tell someone not to beat, but if you do not give them an alternative of what to do, then they don’t know how they should go about the situation. [With] ParentCorps we can say, “We have tools that can help you work through the misbehaviors of the children.”

And also the children are happy. I have been to schools and the children are so excited that the teachers are listening to them. The teachers are saying that the children have actually improved in their academic performance. Simply this is because they can relate better with the teachers.

I’m so happy to hear the ways in which we are meeting this moment. As part of our partnership, we've worked closely to translate ParentCorps, an early childhood intervention developed in the US, to fit a Ugandan context. What has that process been like for you? Any lessons you can share?

It has been a learning lesson for me all through. And somehow, every time we’ve been doing ParentCorps, I have had something to learn.

One of the challenges that we have is because we have classes that have about 120 students. Teachers have felt like [individual responsive strategies] have created additional stress for them because they have to pay attention to one child. And the teachers are like, “We don’t have this time. This is just one child, but I have 119 children I need to attend to at the same time.” So I think that one hasn’t been very practical.

But [whole class responsive strategies] have really worked very, very well. Even when the classes are so huge and the numbers are big. That does not take as much time. So I think that has really worked very well.

But most importantly, I think something that we really need to emphasize is that it doesn’t matter whether you have background information about behavior or whatever. What is important is to take the program as it is.

I think that’s such an interesting finding that some people have come into this program with no prior knowledge of mental health strategies and behavioral strategies, and they’ve been able to embrace the program.

Yes, and they are doing it perfectly well – which also shows us that we can scale it up. And we don’t need people with prior knowledge to do it.

That is a critical learning. We’re learning as we go.

I’m learning all the time.

The other point I will note is that commonly it has brought out a reflection of the teachers on themselves and how they grew up, and how they would want things to be better for themselves but also for the children they are taking care of – whether in their home or in the schools. I think people when they go through this program, they are much more mindful of their actions than they were before.

It has created self awareness in the teachers, but also in all of us. In me.

I was just going to ask you what you hope the impact of ParentCorps will be for teachers. It sounds like you’ve already answered that question, but I invite you to share anything else.

I hope that [the teachers] can actually take it up. Once they get the gist of how to do it, they actually enjoy what they are doing with the children. Even when teachers are so tough on the children, teachers also want to be cared for. It’s been so interesting talking to the teachers and having them describe how it has made an impact on them, how it has changed what they do in their homes.

“Teachers also want to be cared for.”

If there is nothing else that I have done in my research, I think just knowing that ParentCorps could actually become a household name for all the school teachers who get exposed to it, I think we shall have done a good job. I think we shall have arrived.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Michelle Boyd is a ParentCorps Specialist.

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