by David Werner

Child-to-Child is an innovative educational process in which school-aged children learn ways to protect the health and wellbeing of other children, especially those who are younger, more vulnerable, or have special needs.

Child-to-Child was launched during the International Year of the Child, in 1979. The approach is now used in more than 70 countries. Many early Child-to-Child activities were developed and tested in Project Piaxtla, in Sinaloa, Mexico, the villager- run community health program which gave birth to the books Where There is No Doctor and Helping Health Workers Learn. Later, PROJIMO—the villager-run community rehabilitation program that grew out of Piaxtla—adapted the Child-to-Child methodology to help schoolchildren and teachers be more welcoming and inclusive of children with disabilities.

Many of the early Child-to-Child activities focused on helping children learn simple but effective measures to help their younger brothers and sisters with common health problems such as diarrhea, respiratory infections, and poor nutrition. At times these interventions can be life saving. More recently the methodology has been expanded. Programs have been developed that target such diverse areas as environmental protection, tree planting and recycling of garbage.

Child-to-Child is an approach that helps children learn to think for themselves, make their own observations and draw their own conclusions, and then take collective action for the common good.

In Latin America the Child-to-Child approach is valued not only as a way of imparting useful, health-protecting information to children, but also as a way of introducing a more liberating approach to learning into the school system. It is an approach that helps children learn to think for themselves, make their own observations and draw their own conclusions, and then take collective action for the common good. For this reason it uses “discovery-based learning” methods where—in keeping with Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed—the teachers or facilitators draw ideas out of the learners rather then pushing them in. The goal is to transform the educational system from its conventional function as an instrument of social control, into one that fosters critical thinking and helps students learn to become agents of change in the construction of a fairer, more inclusive society, with equal opportunities for all.

The building of a more inclusive society requires an “awareness raising” that facilitates an increased consciousness in schoolchildren of the need to welcome and involve children who are “different,” be it for reasons of race, religion, poverty, disability, orientation or any other condition or situation that might be feared or misunderstood. Therefore, when developing Child-to-Child workshops with groups of teachers and schoolchildren, it is important to include disabled children, street children, and other children who are often marginalized or excluded.

We hope that the example of this Child-to- Child Workshop in Morelia—where “normal” children and disabled children learned to interact and appreciate each other’s needs and abilities—will serve as an example of the way schoolchildren can play a exciting role in the mainstreaming and successful inclusion of children who are different.

Before describing the Morelia Workshop, it may help to look briefly at the present socio-political situation in the state, the complexity of which provides both the opportunities and obstacles for introducing the potentially liberating pedagogy of Child-to-Child into the state public school system. (For additional discussion on “The Paradoxes of Educational Reform in Michoacán,” see Newsletter from the Sierra Madre #58 at Newsletters/NL58.pdf.)

Background situation in Michoacán

In keeping with the goal of educational reform, the purpose of the workshop was to explore possibilities for collectively responding to a number of urgent interrelated needs in the state. Even more than most other states of Mexico (except for Oaxaca and Chiapas), Michoacán is in a protracted state of crisis. Historically it has long been one of the nation’s poorest states, with a large socio-economically marginalized indigenous population. In recent years, like much of Mexico, its population has become increasingly polarized due to a combination of local, national, and global factors:

  1. The North American Free Trade Agreement, through lifting of protective tariffs on imported surplus produce from the United States, has bankrupted millions of Mexican farmers. This has led to a mass exodus of rural families. Some have become squatters in nearby cities, and others undocumented workers to the US. Most villages have shrunk in size, with half or more of their residents now living and working in El Norte. Many who remain in Mexico receive money periodically from relatives in the US. I was told that in Michoacán some 60% of the income of rural families comes from relatives in the North. But this income is divisive. While some families receive generous assistance, others receive little or none. This polarizes the community further, and leads to a subclass of destitute people, with growing rates of crime, drug use and trafficking, and social unrest.

  2. The escalation of drug trafficking has also contributed to social division and dysfunction. Currently in Mexico the drug trade is said to generate more money than oil—which is renowned as the country’s most lucrative industry. Michoacán is now on a par with Sinaloa (where I have worked in the mountain villages for 40 years) in its dependence on el narcotráfico. This brings some money to the area, but at a great social cost. In the last few years in Michoacán there has been a pandemic of violence and corruption, with a plethora of killings and recently even beheadings.

  3. The migration pattern has complicated an escalating drug problem. Farmers have long grown opium poppy and marijuana as cash crops. But with the movement of so many people to and from the US, many young persons pick up drug habits (and HIV) while in the States and bring them back to Mexico. Today the former habit of glue sniffing has largely been replaced by such drugs as cocaine, crack, and amphetamines. Such habits are costly, especially for unemployed or underpaid youth, and hence lead to delinquency, gangs, and violence. Moreover, drug use is now spreading to younger children, in some areas even to kids in primary school.

Socioeconomic polarization led to an increase in poverty, which in turn has generated two forms of poor nutrition. Some suffer from not getting enough to eat, and fall prey more easily to acute infectious diseases such diarrhea and pneumonia. Others suffer from eating too much, especially junk foods and sugared drinks that lead to chronic conditions such as obesity, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and stroke. A large number of children are either too thin or overweight. Ironically, the more seriously affected children in both these categories mostly come from the poorest and poorer families, respectively. Reportedly, with the substantial amount of money being sent to poor families from the US, the incidence of severe under-nutrition in young children has dropped. But the incidence of chronic problems due to unhealthy diets has increased.

One of the challenges of education, both for children and adults, is to help them analyze and learn to cope with this combination of problems, and then to work together to improve their situation. This is one of the reasons that in our Child-to- Child workshop—first with the teachers and then with the children—we began with collective “Community Diagnosis.”

Structure and itinerary of the Workshop

Each of the 3 days of the workshop was quite different:

  • The first day was for adults only, who learned and practiced different Child-to-Child activities with the idea of facilitating them the next day with a group of children.

  • The second day was for children (non-disabled and disabled) and adults. The adults facilitated, using the activities they had learned and practiced the day before based on the “discovery-based” enabling methodology. Then the children demonstrated the activities to the entire group (teachers, parents, children), pretending they were teaching a classroom of children, and using the same discovery-based, participatory methodology.

  • The third day was an evaluation, involving both children and adults from the previous days. It included a discussion of ideas for “scaling up” the process so that the activities they had learned could be introduced throughout the school system. A more detailed description of the three days is as follows: