Learnings from the Field
Apr 2011 25

- Sumaya Saluja, Programme Coordinator

Blending Spectrum began in 2007, on the basis of 3 realizations:

  1. There was, and still is, a divide that sections young people into two, i.e. ‘privileged’ and ‘underprivileged’ sections.
  2. There are many organisations working on child rights but there exists to date, a lack of sharing of resources, on being able to learn from our collective successes and challenges from the field and the effective tools for implementation that exist amongst us.
  3. Young people have the time and the skills to be able to work with other young people on sharing knowledge, skill and resources.

It started out as a fairly simple process. We brought together young people from schools and colleges to work with urban street and slum children across the NCR at three locations - the New Delhi Railway Station, a home for the orphaned and the abandoned run by a partner NGO, and at the Nizamuddin Basti (an urban settlement of a community of rag pickers at large), which was inhabited by 30 families.

Over the past five years, we have progressively increased our involvement with these 250+ children, from providing material resources to help with clothing and shelter, to  getting the children into school and helping them with their academics and homework, to finally implementing a Life Skills based education model. The focus is on empowering the community to realize their rights through raising awareness on health, socio cultural and civic issues; building their communication, interpersonal critical thinking skills; developing self management and coping mechanisms while assisting the children in their access to and progress in formal schooling.  The approach has involved using interactive mediums such as theatre, dance and art, through a peer to peer educational approach. Three years into the programme, the Global Fund for Children came on board to support the programme as has the NGO Dream A Dream in 2010, as our Curriculum Development Partners.

We learned from the responses given and feedback received from the children and their parents and have developed a response based on what the community identified as their needs. With time and continuous interaction, our understanding of these issues have strengthened, as have our ties with the community.

In 2010, we looked at refining our monitoring and evaluation systems for the programme, including a student-based and youth-led evaluation of the programme. The process has been challenging, both within the organization and with our stakeholders and there are still many things we are trying to grasp. Securing multi year funding? Ensuring communications support to the community? Engaging in advocacy and policy work on Child Rights? Mapping behavioral change in children? Sourcing Ration Cards for families to get access to formal schooling in private institutions?

There are challenges, like everywhere else, but they also contain solutions and lessons. This is what I have learned from my work with 180 children and 70 young people over the past two and a half years on essentially, what works:

  1. If you’re working with children, make it FUN. They like the same things that you liked when you were their age.
  2. Give them the rationale behind an instruction you are giving them, like you do with adults. They might just listen to what you said. Plain do’s and don’t get a nod, not behavioral change and no child like to be infantilized.
  3. There are a lot of manuals and materials out there. What you need when working on Life Skills with children is to know the children first and then see what manual and approach works. No one manual has worked for us. Each year we have adapted our modules to the specific needs of the children we work with. A manual by itself is very different from a location and the context you are working in.
  4. Feedback forms with children don’t work immediately or in many cases. Individual interviews using media such as video or photography with and by people children are comfortable with and art activities, however, do. The strongest modus operandi to learn and no surprises there, is learning through playing.
  5. Don’t ask a child “aacha laga ya nahi? (“Did you like it or not?”). Simple questions will get you simplistic answers and they will usually always say “yes”. If you need feedback, give them time and different tools (creative mediums like music and art work well) to be able to reflect and do so individually.
  6. It is important to give both child and peer educators space and time to reflect on their learnings and for the programme team to understand what this learning has been.
  7. It is helpful to have someone minute/document during sessions/workshops, to ensure all feedback and questions are documented. It is understandable that you may not remember all the questions you were asked by the children you’re working with, but the children do remember, so it is important to have tools available that ensure that nothing is lost due to the understandable 40% retention of the human mind. Write it and don’t forget to follow up.
  8. Always be prepared. Children like lesson plans and learn from them better when you know what you are doing.
  9. Building trust takes time. They are used to be speculative and untrusting and you have to prove yourself to them. It’s ‘Guiltily until proven innocent’, so be patient and persistent.
  10. Don’t assume what children are capable of. Give them a chance to surprise you. More often than not, they are smarter than we field educators ‘assume’ them to be.
  11. The peer educator/volunteer’s behaviour, conduct and actions on location are more important than what they say. The children are observing you as soon as you step in.
  12. Follow up on the habits you wish them to develop. For example, if you want them to wash their hands then ask them to do so before and after every activity. One doesn’t need a separate activity highlighting the importance of washing hands, children learn best by doing.
  13. ‘Do, see, hear’ is the best approach for training volunteers or teaching children. For example, if the child is to draw a road, while he/she is colouring clarify the colours on a red light, zebra crossing etc, instead of beginning the workshop with a presentation from your side. Make the child an active participant, someone who can also lead the learning process.
  14. Smaller the group, more effective is the learning. 1 volunteer to 5 children is the maximum ratio that has worked for us.

You may already know all of this, the main point with working with children is that there is no one strategy or method that works. It begins with meeting, talking, but above all, listening. Once you do have a relationship with the children you work with, based on good communication and a foundation of trust, you’ll know what will work and what won’t and that will remain fluid as both you and the children will continue to grow and change. Above all, if you don’t understand something, a child has said or thinks, ask them.

Picture Credit: Dream Speak
A T shirt painting workshop at the Nizamuddin Basti with children and peer educators on our future aspirations for our lives. Copyright: TYPF/2011/IpsitaKhuthiala

1 Comment

  1. Shobhna says:

    Hi Sumaya,

    Having spoken to you about some of this on a prior occasion, I just wanted to tell you how comprehensive and readable this post is, and I’m sure it will be a great starting guide to those looking to go into this field. Love the ”checklist” of sorts, which is more people-oriented than most of these lists usually are.

    Keep up the great work! We’re so proud of you!

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