War, Mental Health and Academic Achievement of Palestinian Children
It is now over than six decades since the start of the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Since then, the Palestinian people have lived under high levels of military and political violence, and war. Thousands of the Palestinians have been killed and seriously wounded, and hundred thousands have been deported from their homeland. All aspects of Palestinians life including health, education, and the economy have been affected by the occupation. There is no doubt that the long lasting and ongoing military conflict has affected the mental health of the whole nation.
As it is mostly the case, children are the most vulnerable group to be affected by conflict and war. Their direct exposure to conflict and occupation can affect their physical and mental health. War will also indirectly affect children as it affects the mental health of others who are in direct contact with them, especially their care-givers (parents and teachers) which will potentially influence on the quality of their interaction. Growing up under such stressful and potentially life threatening conditions may create barriers for the child’s development which leads to future challenges on individual, family and community levels.
The mental health problems (emotional and behavioural problems) many Palestinian children develop due to the continued exposure to conflict and war can either be of an externalizing and/or an internalizing type:
- Externalizing problems are characterized by overt behaviours that seem to be directed towards others including difficulties with attention, disruptive and aggressive conduct, as well as to comply with rules and regulations. These children often seem to lack self-control.
- Internalizing problems are characterized by covert and self-directed behaviours that involve avoidance/withdrawal, fearfulness, anxiety, and depression.
The more specific mental health problem that children develop as a result of chronic exposure to military violence and war is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Children with PTSD show symptoms of repeated re-experiencing of images and nightmares of the traumatic event that initially triggered the condition, avoidance of situations and places reminding of the event, and increased anxiety that manifests itself in problems with concentration and sleeping. As a consequence, PTSD leads to distress or impairment in social, occupational or other important areas of functioning.
The mental health problems that Palestinian children suffer due to the continued and multiple exposures to violence and war could disturb their cognitive and behaviour competences (developmental resources) including: attention, concentration and memory – all a basis for academic learning and achievement. Their cognitive and behavioural competences become occupied with their sufferings and are devoted to struggling against and surviving their pains rather than with growth and mastery of developmental tasks.
This dysfunctional process leads to block the children’s effective engagement in the academic learning process as a result they will not to be able to achieve in accordance with their intellectual potentials. Their low achievement in school will in turn reflect negatively on their self-esteem, motivation and interests. This will lead to further deterioration in their mental health and academic achievement. With the lack of care and specialised intervention, the personal, cognitive and behavioural resources of many of these children will continue to be occupied by trauma and directed to protecting their remaining self-esteem and fight against their mental health pains rather than towards academic learning and achievement. This, gradually, leads to their mental withdrawal from academic school activities even when they are physically present in the classroom.
Children with mental health problem are not excluded from schools in Palestine which is positive and in accordance with the movement towards access to quality Education For All (EFA). However, their inclusion in regular schools is not intentional but more a result of the low recognition of mental health problems by the school system – and a lack of awareness of the importance of mental health issues and they can influence children’s academic achievements at the same level as physical health problems (and maybe even more). In spite of their physical “inclusion” is positive, the low communal recognition of the mental health problems continues to deprive children from effective interventions. This is not to say that the educational system does not provide services to the children with mental health problems but most available counselling programmes are not effectively addressing their needs.
Although almost all Palestinian children have been continuously exposed to military occupation, violence and war, many did not develop serious mental health problems or PTSD and are still able to function and achieve in school in accordance with their intellectual abilities. This indicates that exposure to such conditions may not be the only precondition for the development of mental health problems or PTSD. Then the question is why under such conditions some children develop mental health problems and suffer intensively leading to their academic achievement below their mental abilities, while others stay intact or recover in just a few weeks and continue to do well in school?
In answering this question and understanding more about this dynamic, we have to take into account the child’s other personal and external or environmental factors that may play a role in determining the impact of military violence on children’s mental health. These factors can have either a protective impact or produce an additional risk for the possibilities of children developing chronic mental health problems or PTSD after their exposure to military violence or trauma.
The personal factors that may protect children’s mental health are the individual strengths and resources that have been developed during the earlier years of a child’s life through the dynamic interaction with their surrounding environments. These strengths, such as self-esteem, self-efficacy, self-control, and healthy beliefs and value systems, help the child to regulate him/herself after the exposure to stress and restore balance between self and the environment within a short time and before any damage occurs to his/her mental health. Children with poor developmental resources will be more vulnerable and making them less able to self-regulate or achieve balance within themselves which will affect their mental health, especially if they also lack support from their caregivers.
The external determinants are the social support systems in the child’s immediate environment. Here we are taking about the family and the school as the most important immediate settings influencing the child. The quality of the social relations between the child and others in his/her immediate surrounding environment, including: parents; siblings; relatives; teachers, and; peers, can mediate between violent events and the child’s mental health. High quality social relation between the child and others characterised by warmth, understanding, comfort, support, encouragement, and acceptance can buffer or counteract the negative impact of the violence or trauma on the mental health of the child. This helps the child to devote his/her cognitive and behavioural competences towards the attainment of developmental tasks, such as learning and achievements in school.
On the other hand, low quality social relations characterised by harshness, ignorance, rejection, discouragement, and punishment do not only deprive the child from very significant protective resources but also compose an additional risk on his/her mental health.
The Palestinian children who enjoy good mental health despite the exposure to continued military violence and threats are those who enjoyed effective and supportive social relations in the home and in school.
As it became evident, the quality of the child’s developmental resources and the effectiveness of their social support systems play a major role in the discrepancy in the mental health status of children exposed to similar military violence. This, consequently, leads to the discrepancy in their academic achievement. So, to protect Palestinian children’s mental health and enhance their academic achievement, the application of inclusive education in schools should not only be restricted to the adaptation of the curriculum, teaching methods, teaching materials, and/or exams. It should also respond to the specific individual needs of vulnerable children through nurturing their developmental resources and strengths as well as promoting the effectiveness of the social systems the child is connected to. This can be practiced through creating a safe, caring, supportive, encouraging, and accepting school environment which enables children to manage stressful experiences successfully. Such environments will promote their readiness for academic learning.
In this context, school personnel might need additional training on how the quality of their interaction with the children can promote their developmental resources, and they need to be sensitised on how this can protect children’s mental health. In addition, teachers’ skills on how to act towards and interact with children under emergency situations should be enhanced. As peer social relation is an important protective factor, teachers need to create environments and conditions that intensify academic and/or recreational activities that strengthen children’s peer social relations. In the realm of inclusive education, teachers’ role also extends to sensitising parents about effective practices to child development under occupation, war and emergency conditions, especially how to react to the child after exposure to military violence. Besides, parents have to be sensitised about the crucial importance of warm, cohesive, understanding, cooperative and responsive family climates in protecting the mental health of their children from the impact of military violence. Last and most importantly, the occupation and military violence must end so that the new generations can enjoy good mental health and be able to develop their potentials to the maximum.
Mr. Safwat Diab is a Palestinian scholar and researcher based in Norway. He just completed his PhD at the University of Oslo and is currently affiliated with IDP Norway. He can be contacted via Email: