Video Personality

Extracts from “A Childhood Too Short: Poverty, Violence, and Child Development in a Brazilian Shantytown” by Matthew Bush, post graduate of the Institute of International and Development Studies at the Graduate Institute of Geneva. 2017.

Casa Semente is an education project based in an infamous shantytown called Jardim Gramacho in Rio de Janeiro, and one of the projects in Brazil implementing our APTO Model.

Casa Semente

My first day at Casa Semente in 2014 was an exhausting but fun day; when I first walked into the gate I was surprised to have countless children run towards me and the other volunteers I had arrived with to leap into our arms. Despite never meeting me before, they were very excited that I was there, wanting piggyback rides and calling me “tio”; which means “uncle” (I learned that all staff and volunteers at Casa Semente are referred to “tio” or “tia”). After introducing myself to the children and playing in the yard for a short time, it was time to get to know the program itself. 

The program back in 2014 was relatively simple and consistent on a day to day basis: they would arrive around noon, eat lunch, divide into groups based on age, have 2 hours of either free time or some pre-prepared lesson (usually oriented around health or social values), walk to a judo studio nearby for 90 minutes of judo lessons, return to the house to shower and change, and then leave around 5 pm. On special days, they would have a visitor come in and share what they do with the children as well as impart some advice. During my time there, a wide variety of visitors came to the NGO including health care professionals, athletes, and actors. This schedule would change as needed if there were issues with staff shortages or dangers in the community that day, but would more or less be the same. In addition, this complete schedule was only run two or three days per week, as those were the only days that Lorena could bring volunteers and open the center. Lorena’s primary vocation is as a dentist; therefore, there are many days where her work would not allow her to go to Jardim Gramacho. On days she could not make it, Casa Semente would sometimes open the doors for a few hours so the children could play and maybe have a small snack with the help of the two volunteers who were residents of Jardim Gramacho. 

After Casa Semente began to integrate Apto into their pedagogy, they had to drastically alter their strategy, curriculum, and daily schedule in order to meet their goals. I asked Lorena about the process of transitioning from the looser structure they began with in 2014 to the one they use today: “We realized we were doing well on the human development side, but they still couldn’t read or do math. So we adopted a methodology to engage them in Portuguese, math, science, and art. We also keep them moving a lot with activities. We found that this has been working; the boys don’t join the drug gangs and we haven’t had a single pregnancy.” With new and specific objectives and mind, Casa Semente moved beyond simply providing a safe space and developed the pedagogy I witnessed in 2016 of school reinforcement classes aiming at full literacy and competence in mathematics and science along with instruction in social and life skills in the context of their environment, all taught in an engaging, fun manner. Under the new model, children arrive at the center at 12:30; first hanging up their backpacks and jackets on a series of hooks inside in order to create a bond a responsibility with their personal objects. They then all wash their hands, are served lunch, and brush their teeth, just as they did before. It is after lunch that the current pedagogy takes a significant departure from the old one of 2014. 

The center now has four different thematic spaces: the language and communication room, the science and technology room, the logical reasoning room, and the arts room. Every day, the children are divided into three groups according to age and rotate through these rooms for 30 minutes each (they’ve found that it is difficult to keep their attention for longer than 30 minutes, especially since they are just coming from school) where they engage in learning activities and games related to the theme of the room.

Also, today the center is open and provides this full curriculum all five days of the week due to the fact that one private funder has given enough money for Casa Semente to pay two full-time social workers to run the center. This way, Casa Semente can be open for full operation even on days where Lorena cannot make it; which was not possible in 2014. Unfortunately, due to a shortage of staff, the teenagers in the community are only allowed to attend Casa Semente three times per week whereas children under the age of 10 can attend every day. 

On my first day back at Casa Semente in 2016, there were 33 kids between the ages of four and nine, 5 permanent staff, and 4 volunteers. I shadowed the group of 6-7 year old children as they rotated through the rooms. They began in the language and communication room where they played a series of games oriented around the letter “E”, most which were competitions to see what words beginning with “E” they could say and memorize. In the science and technology room they were taught how plants grow through an interactive activity. Their day in the art room was free time to draw whatever they pleased, and when they went to the logical reasoning room I did not get to witness what they did because I left the group to see how they handled disciplining the children after a boy in the group was causing trouble despite several warnings. In previous years, troublemakers were to sit in a chair off to the side in isolation for at least 15 minutes; however, I was surprised to learn that when children do not obey their teachers they are no longer simply relegated to detention. Although they are still separated from the group, they are brought to a room where one of the volunteers will supervise an alternative activity; in this case, the boy was given a puzzle to do, which he calmly did during the remainder of the 30-minute session. When the children had completed their final rotation, he was asked by the volunteer if he understood why he had been removed from the group, to which he responded “Porque não obedeci tia Laís” (“because I did not obey aunt Laís”). He was then allowed to rejoin the group and was kindly asked by the volunteer to remember to apologize to Laís when he returned. At 16:00 the children re-gathered into one large group where they were given a snack, showered, changed into a fresh set of clothes, took from extra food, and went on their way home. The entire process of snacking, bathing, and leaving takes about one hour for all the children to complete; every time one of the children leaves at least two volunteers walk them to the door to let them out and gives them a hug goodbye. 

After the children leave is when the evaluation component of APTO comes in effect. Each day ends with an hour long meeting with all permanent staff and volunteers. Each member fills out a recap of their day including what they did, what the objective of the activity was, what materials they needed to do it, and what the outcome of the activity was. In addition, they would complete an evaluation form for every child in their group where they would score the child on a scale of 1 to 3 (1 being poor, 3 being exemplary) on their level of participation, leadership, cooperation, and completion of each activity they had that day as well as marking who received a timeout at some point during the day and evaluating their overall mood that day. Volunteers and staff are responsible for the same group of children every day; this way it is easier for staff to notice changes in the children. After they complete their evaluations, the staff then go in a circle where they each share a highlight and a lowlight from their day. Lorena explained to me that they share a highlight in order to keep morale high in the group and share a lowlight as an opportunity for others to give feedback or ideas on how to handle it next time. The remainder of the meeting is committed to discussing major events or ongoing issues that happened in the center or in the community. When I asked Lorena what she meant by “major event” she specifically mentioned gunshots and sexual assault; when events like these happen in the community, they will report what happened as well as how the children responded to it. On the first day I was there, they spent this part of the meeting discussing a special needs teenage girl in the community who was raped behind an abandoned building down the street just the day before. She stumbled to the door of Casa Semente just after it had happened and they let her in to take care of her. During the conversation, they acknowledged that they need to do more to help but that their current options were very limited and they still did not know who the rapist was; they agreed to talk to some of the mothers in the community and continue the discussion in future meetings. Once a month, all staff and volunteers gather for an extended meeting where they analyze overall trends in their daily evaluations to see how they are doing and what needs to be changed. It was at one of these monthly meetings where they found a positive relationship between gunshots happening in the community and incidents of violence at the center, leading them to believe that when children witness or hear violence in their community, they are more likely to act violently at Casa Semente that day. 

Through utilizing APTO, Casa Semente has gradually adapted their pedagogy to adhere to a certain order of operations when it comes to child development. Since they had been collecting and analyzing data regularly on the children, they discovered a linkage between a child’s selfesteem and investing capital in child development. When Casa Semente first began, they allocated a portion of their funding towards buying things for the children that they believed would assist in their development such as books, school supplies, and even two computers for the center for them to use; however, for years they found that these investments yielded few tangible benefits primarily because the children would not treat these items very well, constantly ignoring, losing, or breaking them. As they continued to analyze data they were collecting using Apto, they saw a positive relationship between improvements in the children’s self-esteem and emotional well-being that they observed through their field notes and how well the children utilized the things they were being given, such as clothes, books, and toys. “When the children had no self-esteem, they thought they didn’t deserve things,” explained Lorena, “they didn’t treat the things we gave them well, they used to break things. Now they take very good care of their books and toys”. Since they recognized this relationship, they have made improving the children’s self-esteem a priority in their pedagogy, believing that the child’s emotional health first will maximize the utility of the capital they invest towards the child’s development. Lorena explained that most of the ways in which Casa Semente attempts to improve the self-esteem of the children are rather small: “We just always congratulate them when they do well and when they see that they are able to do a good job they…they believe in themselves more…All the time we talk to the mothers, and it’s important to tell them that their children are doing a good job. I think it’s important for the parents to hear that their children are doing good things and are working hard because then that can reinforce that idea in the household and then the mothers can also tell them what good jobs they are doing. It’s just these small things with the family, children, how they are treated in the house that can help with the self-esteem gradually, simple things” 

In addition to providing constant, positive feedback to the children, Casa Semente also started hosting science, literature, and arts fairs a few times a year where they invite people from the community, as well as guests from outside the community, to come and see some projects that they children have recently been working on. Lorena claims that these fairs are a tremendous source of pride for the children: “During the literary fair and science fairs when they (the children) showed what they produced…I think it’s incredible for their self-esteem because the people stopped and listened to what they did and they say ‘that a good job!’ it’s beautiful. The Children say ‘It’s great, I can’t believe I did that’. And it makes a big difference. And in that moment where people from another place come to listen to them and see them I think they feel special and feel like it’s like a good conclusion to their work, something they worked so hard on…I think it’s very good for their self-esteem and motivates them in their work.” 

Creating and fostering an environment of affirmation and positive reinforcement at Casa Semente while encouraging parents to create a similar environment in their homes has had a transformative effect on several of the children that I observed between 2014 and 2016. Some of the children who were the most disobedient and difficult to manage in 2014 were some of the best behaved children in 2016; Lorena attributed this largely to their improvement in self-esteem. Overall, the goal of Casa Semente in adopting APTO is to see an increased percentage of children move into a life where they will have the knowledge and agency to make life choices, unbound by the many obstacles that exist in Jardim Gramacho. Casa Semente has not been using the APTO methodology for long, but has already seen improvements particularly in the areas of literacy (half of the children who attended Casa Semente in 2014 were illiterate, very few are today), cooperation and personal conduct, and communicating and controlling their emotions. 

Given that the program is only 3 years old and the oldest children in the program are still only 16 years old, Casa Semente has yet to see any of their participants through secondary school. Therefore, we have yet to see what the long-term impacts of the programs are in terms of how prepared the children are for young adulthood, how many can and will move on to higher education, and how many will have options outside of Gramacho.