Whatever It Takes

Shirisha* and Mary* were two of eight new children at the Back2Back India Hope Campus in June of 2019. Based on transcripts provided and information from family members, the girls were placed in third and fourth grade at the local English-medium school. 

By August, staff saw the girls weren’t just falling behind in school, they were also struggling emotionally and socially. The girls, fearful of answering questions aloud and unable to perform expected grade-level tasks, were moved to the back of the room by well-meaning teachers, as they hoped for the best. When staff realized just how much healing was needed, they decided, along with school officials, to homeschool the two girls in hopes of getting them caught up.

Together, six caregivers, a summer intern, and Back2Back staff, Hanna Firstenberger, were enlisted in the charge of providing homeschooling to Shirisha and Mary. Melissa James, Back2Back staff conducted evaluations for each girl and used their textbooks to create plan for all their subject needs. At the end of the two months, the team would reevaluate and move forward from there.

“I taught Social Studies and English, but after speaking with other teachers, we all felt the same way one month in – the girls weren’t showing the progression we’d hoped,” shared Hanna. Hanna, along with the other teachers, taught similarly to any school classroom – lecturing on subjects, carefully taking the time for explanation, and testing the girls’ comprehension. Both girls still struggled to relay information back after lessons.  

It was during this time, teaching styles for the on-campus school were being researched. Back2Back staff discovered the Reggio Emilia Approach (see italics for more information) and collectively saw an alternative that just might make the difference for the two young girls. “Reggio Emilia, like Trauma Competent Care, puts a lot of weigh into respecting and encouraging the voice of each child,” shared Hanna. Though Hanna and the other teachers felt they’d been doing what was right for the girls all along, they realized the behaviors of Shirisha and Mary were cries for help, not a lack of knowledge.

The Reggio Emilia Approach is an educational philosophy based on the image of a child with strong potentialities for development and a subject with rights, who learns through the hundreds of  languages belonging to all human beings, and grow in relations with others. Like Trauma Competent Care principles, this approach puts much weight into respecting and encouraging the voice of each individual child.

Classroom time with the girls changed drastically as the teachers kept this newly discovered teaching method in mind. They started every class session telling the girls they were smart, important, and chosen. And then they did something radical – they got out of the classroom to do the teaching.

Science lessons took place on nature walks where the girls would point out living and non-living things. They read a book about a tap-dancing elephant, and then together learned how to tap dance to Singin’ in the Rain. Slowly, Shirisha and Mary let their guards down and soaked up the information provided. Following the two months of homeschooling, the girls returned to school for evaluations, and were approved to return to the classroom by their principals.

Several days later, caregivers and staff gathered on the campus to see the kids onto the school bus and off to school, as is a daily custom. The day held an unusual buzz of excitement as Shirisha and Mary were among the children in their school uniforms. They climbed aboard the bus as everyone cheered. 

They arrived to the campus shy and unsure, but now Shirisha and Mary wake up every morning excited for school, to talk with their friends, and to showcase what they know. They are confident and surrounded by a team who is for them. They know they are capable, because a team of safe adults has shown and assured them – for your future successes, we will do whatever it takes. 

*In order to protect the children we serve, names have been changed in this story*