NGO Initiatives to Support Children’s Education: A Better Global Way Forward

By Rose Cardarelli

At a Refugee Camp in Greece.jpeg

My 2017 visit to the refugee camps in Chios, Greece, provided a powerful inspiration to find better ways for international organizations to support children’s education in post-conflict situations. Even though the United Nations is committed to ensuring that children have access to a quality education, it is estimated that 262 million children are out of school around the world.1 Save the Children notes that half the refugees worldwide are children who have left everything behind to escape conflict; many of those children have experienced profound physical and emotional traumas and will miss years of school, severely compromising their futures.2 So we must act, collectively and quickly.

The severe traumas experienced by refugee and migrant children require a variety of traditional and non-traditional educational services to help them endure and survive their situation. But the good news is that many dedicated organizations across the global community are responding to this massive calamity. This crisis demands a cooperative humanitarian response aimed at providing education with accompanying psycho-social support specifically designed to meet the challenges facing today’s refugee children. What is needed is a coordinated effort that maximizes all available resources and capabilities and addresses issues of access to education for all children.

The Range of Approaches

Many educational approaches that currently exist can be offered as solutions for this immense and important crisis. 3 These include formal, informal, non-formal, accelerated, and essence-based education programs. 4 Formal education is typically traditional classroom-based education provided by trained teachers, whereas informal education happens largely outside the classroom—in after-school programs, community-based organizations, libraries, or at home. In the case of refugee and migrant children, education programs are often conducted by people who are not trained or certified teachers, under extenuating circumstances (disaster, conflict, or humanitarian emergency).

Informal learning approaches imbue a love of learning and are designed to re-engage children’s senses; they primarily complement formal education systems and should not seek to replace or supplant the formal process in the country of residence. Programs like the “Essence of Learning,” developed by Caritas, focus on reading support and navigating through the barriers that children have endured due to trauma. 5 Similarly, “We Love Reading” is a Jordanian effort that builds mobile libraries and trains local community members to facilitate reading circles, teaching children to read out loud, and building on a culture of literacy. 6 Their stories have been written by educators and have key messages in Arabic that speak to relevant life topics, which reinforces the educational value of the program (even though it is not intended to meet formal education objectives).


Non-formal education includes programs that do not generally have formal certification or use approved curriculum, but have more structure than informal learning and may be intended to accomplish formal learning objectives/outcomes. They may include activities such as swimming sessions, community-based sports programs, and conference style seminars.

Accelerated learning seeks to recover lost time by completing formal educational requirements using more rapid but still rigorous processes. Accelerated education efforts are flexible, age-appropriate, inclusive programs with protective practices that are specifically designed to provide access to education for children who have had their learning disrupted due to conflict and crisis. Accelerated education is intended to provide basic education in a focused and fast-tracked mode while integrating psycho-social well-being and life skills that are relatable to the student’s exposure to conflict situations.7 Obviously, accelerated learning is particularly crucial for refugee children, who may likely spend years away from their formal learning locations.

Essence-based education involves advancing a child’s essential self through engaging him or her in meaningful content, developing critical lifelong skills and dispositions, and meeting his or her fundamental human needs. 8 This is also particularly relevant for migrant and refugee children. Obviously, every solid program should include the social competencies necessary for academic progress in conjunction with the learning competencies required by the national curriculum of the host country. 9

“Essence-based learning is unique in the way that it simultaneously addresses and triggers many important aspects of the learner’s essential self: thinking, memory, emotions, ethics, aesthetics, the physical, and the senses—what is being learned—how it’s being learned, the learning environment, and the physical and emotional needs of the child.” 10

One example of essence learning for refugee children uses yoga to address the social and emotional needs of children suffering from post-traumatic stress as a direct result of the crisis and experiences they endured in their home country. Educators bring the benefits of yoga, being calm and mindfulness, to the everyday lives of children living in refugee camps to build up their self-confidence and strengthen their mind and body connection. The Qatar Foundation has established a program using yoga with refugees, and witnessed many positive results. 11 Complementary sports and recreational essence-based activities are also useful for instilling hope among refugee kids.

My Observations

I found that officials in Greece have mapped and identified the gaps affecting refugee children regarding formal and non-formal education, determined the number of children in school and those not in school, and identified their countries of origin to further develop educational strategies. According to the Greek National Education Sector Working Group, they currently have three specific objectives: to expand access to education for refugee children, to improve the quality of education for refugee children within a protected environment, and to strengthen the capacity of the communities and the Greek education system to support integration of refugee children in formal schools.

The Greek government’s plan is to provide education for pre-school children in the camps, transport primary school-age children to nearby Greek schools for afternoon and pre-integration classes, and arrange for secondary students to attend school in afternoon classes. The Greeks will also provide some vocational skill classes and it is their intent to hire additional Greek teachers and teacher coordinators to meet the evolving needs in their country. Members of the Greek National Education Sector Working Group are pursuing ways to increase access to education for refugees, improve the quality of education for refugee children in a protected environment, and strengthen the capacity of the communities and the education system for both refugees and Greek children to fully support the integration process. The approach I saw in action in Greece can be a model for other countries with high numbers of refugees who are striving to ensure educational objectives are met for all children.

An Accelerated Education Working Group, led by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and including representatives from UNICEF, USAID, the Norwegian Refugee Council, the International Rescue Committee, Save the Children, the Education and Conflict Crisis Network, and War Child Holland, is working in Greece to implement such programs where they are most needed. They are focused on achieving a more standardized approach to accelerated education using materials based on international standards and practices. They intend to do this by improving international and national policies and systems, strengthening the evidence base through research and knowledge management, and improving programming through development, promotion, and dissemination of guidance and teaching tools. Such efforts are proving to be quite effective. 12

My Recommendations

To develop a better way forward, I recommend a more focused international response. We all must be realistic about the capacities of the education systems, schools, and teachers in countries where large numbers of migrant and refugee children reside. They simply do not have the resources and infrastructure to accomplish all the work that is required. Even under normal conditions, most of these national education systems are challenged to accomplish what is needed for their own resident children, so they are far from able to accommodate extra stress on their systems. There is no doubt that this is an issue requiring international assistance.

Even with their paucity of resources, the nations that shelter these refugee and migrant children should retain formal education responsibilities. They know best what is required to prepare the children of their regions for success, and their efforts to maintain national standards for learning would only be undercut if others tried to provide competing, alternate formal education processes. I agree with the UN that national standards and outcomes must remain the goal for all organizations and everyone seeking to help refugee and migrant children to learn and prosper. Those standards should be set by national leaders and ultimately supported fully by other international agencies.

To help the nations where refugee children most need support, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and international organizations can assume a supporting education role. Using the same national education standards, NGOs that have the skilled personnel and resources to bridge the gap between the resident student populations and the desired outcomes should apply themselves to the populations most in need—those requiring catch-up learning to recover what they have so long missed. By focusing on accelerated education, the resources of the countries involved could remain centered on their traditional mission of formal education and all students could prosper. Perhaps most important, charitable organizations should also focus on informal learning approaches, which are suitable for such organizations given the more episodic nature of their support and the nature of their personnel skills.

The crisis in education for displaced children is hugely important to all nations and people and, while a challenging issue, my experience tells me that tangible solutions are within our grasp. Still, we need to act now and together. If organizations around the globe could work together along these lines, then the crisis of some 262 million out-of-school children could be eased and the well-deserved futures of so many of our fellow human beings can be restored. It would be tragic if the crisis affecting these global children worsens to the point of no return and spoils the futures and aspirations of generations to come.

About the author:

Dr. Rose Cardarelli is a former U.S. Army Medical Service Corps officer and Professor of Human Security. She obtained her Ed.M. from Boston University, her MHA from Baylor University, and her Ed.D. from The College of William and Mary. Her humanitarian work with refugees, migrants, and disaster relief has taken her to Greece, Haiti, Turkey, the UAE, and Jordan. She is a member of the Executive Council of Kappa Delta Pi and a member of the Association for Childhood Education International. An earlier version of this article was posted by the UNHCR on its Global Compact on Refugees page.


1UNESCO Institute for Statistics, “Results of the 2016 UIS Education Survey,” 2016, found at:
2See Save the Children at:
3See “Education Cannot Wait,” 2016, found at:
4These styles of learning are recognized and supported by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD); see OECD, Recognition of Non-formal and Informal Learning, found at:
7Rod Rock and Arina Bokas, “Disrupting Education: Capturing the Essence,” Brilliant or Insane: Education on the Edge, found at:
9Education programs conducted by the UN now focus primarily on ensuring accreditation and inclusion of all children within national school system processes. There are currently several UN organizations specifically mandated to assist in educating refugee children, including: the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO - which is technically the lead UN agency for education), and Save the Children, which promotes children’s rights, provides relief and helps support children in developing countries. UN officials believe that education programs should allow refugees the opportunity to transition to higher levels of education through integration into the available national system and they view accelerated education as an alternative to education rather than an informal adjunct process.
10Rock and Bokas.
11See “The Nature of Yoga Brings Mindfulness to Everyday Life,” found at: brings-mindfulness-everyday-life/
12See USAID’s “Accelerated Learning Program for Positive Living and United Service, Mid Term Evaluation Review,” found at:


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Photography credits

Top: chiosphotographer/
Other photos: courtesy of author