Focus Given to Psychologists’ Role in Universal Education

By Peter S. Kanaris, Ph.D.
June 26, 2011

New York – War, poverty, malnutrition and illness are just a few of the barriers and deprivations contributing to a lack of access to education for children worldwide. In observance of World Health Day 2011, the United Nations Psychology Day Conference was dedicated to the role psychologists play in achieving universal access to education.

According to UNESCO, 100 million primary school-aged children were out of school in 2008. The report found that 64 percent of children from the poorest households attended primary school. Forty-two percent of children denied access live in conflict situations.

Psychologists have applied behavioral science to meet the needs of all children by designing culturally relevant educational interventions and child care policies in diverse settings. In this way they contribute to the mission of the UN and the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals of access to education for all. Currently, we are reaching 88 percent of the world’s children.

Brazil presents an example of a nation that has had great success in improving access. Regina Maria Cordero Dunlop of the Permanent Mission of Brazil to the UN presented data on the Family Allowance Program. By offering each mother a small financial allowance for proving that her child is attending school, has been vaccinated against childhood disease and has met pre and post natal care standards, from 2004-2009 school enrollments increased from 6.6 million to 12.4 million. Malnutrition and child mortality have decreased. Ninety-five percent school enrollment has been achieved. Poverty has decreased from 25 percent to 5 percent.

Barbara Reynolds, Ed.D., senior advisor to UNICEF, said there is often stress between national development plans and the individual right to education. She pointed to data showing developed nations’ inner cities present the same challenges as undeveloped nations.

Reynolds spoke to what psychologists have contributed. Educational and cognitive psychology has informed methods of effective learning. They have facilitated psychosocial support with anti-bullying efforts and programs such as the APA’s Warning Signs of Violence initiative. They have provided counseling, helped to manage difficult behaviors and empowered learners and teachers.

Reynolds indicated that we have a “ways to go.” Psychologists can help with choices of quality education. She referred to this as “breadth vs. depth.” Other tasks include how to better target leaders, collaborate with teachers and manage failure and fatigue. She stressed that while there are many effective models we have not done well at replicating them. She issued the challenge: “How do we institutionalize things that are working well?”

Maria Regina Maluf, Ph.D., of Brazil, president of the Inter American Society of Psychology, spoke of the importance of teaching reading and writing to children of poverty. She said that if “democracy is the byproduct of education then illiteracy is associated with inequality.”

Pam Flattau, Ph.D., of the Science Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., spoke about the role of innovative technology. Most nations have technology plans. Broad-band is increasing information for teachers and students. South Korea has developed a Cyber Home System. Computer networks allow for individualized self-paced learning. She called it an “instruction revolution.”

Flattau said the benefit is both “improved learning and a tech savvy work force.” She said we are moving to a “world wide university” and “distance learning.” She challenged psychologists to research the answers to two vital questions: Does the conclusion generalize to different countries? And what is the right mix of teacher, student and machine?

The most inspirational speaker was Foday Sackor, a master’s level student of International Affairs at Columbia University and a refugee of the Liberian civil war. He told a moving account of emerging as a child from the horrors of war, losing family and home and witnessing atrocity. He immigrated to America, graduated from high school and the University of Maryland.

Sackor spoke of “holding your own hand while climbing the ladder” as a lesson in resilience. He saw the role of psychologists as helping children to overcome trauma that prevents them from concentrating on education. Sackor stressed that having a mentor that you can trust and who really cares is critical to recovery and to opening the door to benefit from education.

Peter S. Kanaris, Ph.D., is a clinical and consulting psychologist. His passion is in educating the public on the value of psychology. He serves as coordinator of public education for the New York State Psychological Association. His e-mail is:

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