Children sit against a wall holding books

Going Beyond Building the School

| 4 Minute Read
Education | Advancing Quality Education | Education Systems Strengthening and Policy Reform

Children in conflict zones arrive at school with needs that are difficult to anticipate and complicated to respond to. How can we make sure education programs do not leave these children behind or, worse, exacerbate the conflict?

Aleze looked down the hill near the food distribution center as he ran the red dirt through his hands, again and again. It was wet and soft, and left a red residue on his hands as he let it fall slowly onto the stained ground. His father’s French faded to the background and the screeching sound of gunshots filled his mind. His head buzzed with the chaos: people running, the screaming, his own heavy breathing as the thorns of the bush pierced his back while he lay low to the ground, trying not to be seen. The burning smell was what he remembered most vividly, as the camp was set on fire just nights before. He dropped the dirt to the ground and broke out of his daze, as one of his classmates snapped a stick to write his assignment on the ground in the spot where his cousin used to sit next to him. The “school” that they sat in consisted of a circle of students taught by some parents who used to be teachers, who gave lessons from memory a few hours a day gathered in the center of the camp.

When Aleze first told me his story of surviving the Gatumba Massacre in Burundi and his three years in a refugee camp as we drove from Greenville to Charleston, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. But Aleze’s experience in the Gatumba camp is not unique — there are currently 27 million children out of school due to conflict in 24 affected countries and the numbers are growing. This means that approximately 28,300 people are forced to flee their home every day because of violence and that Aleze’s former reality is the day-to-day norm for the 2.6 million refugees who live in camps today.

27 million

children are out of school due to conflict


people flee their homes every day

2.6 million

refugees currently live in camps

The Need for Conflict Sensitive Education

Often more political than it may seem at face value, education can be both a divisive or unifying factor within conflict. Donors and implementers especially need to be aware of how aid interacts with conflict, and how this can contribute to unintended negative consequences and, in worst case scenarios, amplify the conflict more. What are sometimes understood as logical precautionary measures have severe negative consequences. Are services being provided within the safer areas where certain groups might not have access to them? Are we educating former child soldiers who have been brought into conflict, and if not, how is this affecting the stigma?  Are education services being offered in one particular language and how is this playing into the power dynamic? What curriculum are the children learning and where will they be expected to go after the conflict is over? Does this curriculum paint certain parties involved in the conflict in a way that will intensify tensions and how does this play into students’ own identity?

Often more political than it may seem at face value, education can be both a divisive or unifying factor within conflict.

How can implementers navigate these challenges? Existing frameworks can guide projects to answer some of these questions, but no one framework can answer all of them. The most apt framework may be the Conflict Sensitive Education (CSE) methodology. At its core, the CSE methodology is defined by recently released Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE) guidance note to ensure that education is contextually sensitive and appropriate. The guidance note prioritizes thinking intentionally about the purpose of education and ultimately using education to unify and build peace rather than exacerbate conflict. CSE is comprised of six principles:

  1. Assess.
  2. Do no harm.
  3. Prioritize prevention.
  4. Promote equity and the holistic development of the child as a citizen.
  5. Stabilize, rebuild, or build the education system.
  6. Development partners should act fast, respond to change, and stay engaged beyond short-term support.

Yet, some of these principles are complex enough to leave lingering questions even after implementing the CSE framework.

The Implementer Challenge: How to Utilize Frameworks to Better Implement Education in Conflict

In particular, the second, third, and fourth principles — do no harm, prioritize prevention, and promote equity and the holistic development of the child as a citizen — require further attention. Drawing on knowledge from other frameworks such as Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) and Positive Youth Development (PYD) could be the key to implementing better CSE programs and ultimately assisting in the de-escalation of conflict. These frameworks provide further guidance on promoting soft skills such as self-awareness and social awareness and emphasize the need for students to be able to accurately recognize their own emotions, thoughts, and values, as well as how these influence behavior, and how to empathize with others. This applied in a conflict education setting might look like students from different sides of the conflict recognizing how different aspects of the conflict have impacted them and how they feel, and being able to empathize with the student opposite them and recognizing that he or she is feeling the same feelings of anger, confusion, or loss.

SEL and PYD also have value to offer when looking at the broader context and being able to delve into how the environment enables or hinders these children and youth from being able to be independent adults. How is the conflict environment affecting these children and youth’s sense of identity? Incorporating skills development within conflict settings could change how children and youth perceive their own ability to affect change within their community as well as their resilience against being recruited into violent groups and could ultimately lay the foundation for equipping children and youth to choose their own path for their life.


By incorporating SEL and PYD into education in conflict environments, implementers have a real opportunity to not only effectively work within conflict, but to go one step further and create opportunity for students beyond the context of their situation. While protracted crises across the world will not end tomorrow or even next year, we need to prioritize educating children in these situations and re-think the way that we are doing it. Aleze isn’t the only child who has lived through conflict and he certainly won’t be the last — we can no longer put a Band-Aid on this issue. We must address and educate the whole child.