As a child in war-torn Liberia, Foday Sackor did his best to concentrate on school — but he faced nearly unimaginable challenges.

“Teachers were either killed or fled,” said Sackor, who spoke at the fourth annual Psychology Day at the United Nations in April. “Students — small boys and girls — were being recruited as soldiers. Parents were afraid to send us to school, since the rebels could advance at any time.”

He and his family were constantly on the move, fleeing violence. Even after Sackor and his family made it over the border, times were still tough. Enrolled in school at refugee camps in Sierra Leone and Ghana, Sackor had to work long hours in the afternoons and evenings helping his mother to sell clothes to pay his tuition. Conditions in the camp were deplorable, he says, and diarrhea, malaria and other diseases were rampant.

Sackor’s life exemplifies both the educational challenges that many children around the world face and an all-too-rare outcome: Today he is pursuing a master’s degree in international affairs at Columbia University.

One of the United Nations’ eight Millennium Development Goals is to ensure that all the world’s children have access to education. At this year’s Psychology Day at the United Nations, speakers along with approximately 500 attendees explored ways that psychology can help meet that goal.

“As a refugee camp survivor, I hope that we take the Millennium Development Goals seriously and continue to support efforts that incorporate psychology and other schools of thought to help us find solutions in our quest for universal access to education,” said Sackor.

Jointly sponsored by APA and other psychology organizations, Psychology Day gives psychologists an opportunity to show United Nations staff, ambassadors and diplomats, along with representatives from nongovernmental organizations and students, how psychologists can contribute to solving worldwide problems. Deanna Chitayat, PhD, APA’s main representative to the United Nations, and Mary O’Neill Berry, PhD, representative from the International Association of Applied Psychology, co-chaired the conference.

“Psychology Day is about highlighting important global issues at the United Nations,” APA Past President Carol D. Goodheart, EdD, said at the conference. “It’s a time when we ask how our science and interventions can be used to inform and address the United Nations’ goals of promoting health, education and welfare across the globe.”

An unmet goal

As part of the Millennium Development Goals, all the world’s countries and major development organizations agreed to aim for universal primary education by 2015.

But the pace of progress today is insufficient to meet that goal, said Maria-Luisa Chávez, MD, chief of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) relations in the United Nations Department of Public Information. “Around 69 million school-aged children are still not in school,” she said.

Even those who are in school may not get an education, according to Barbara G. Reynolds, EdD, senior adviser in UNICEF’s education section. Some will drop out; others will study at schools of such low quality that they graduate unprepared for life.

Psychology has an important role to play in finding ways to ensure all children get the education they deserve, said Reynolds.

Psychologists could provide practical assistance, helping the development field understand how policymakers make decisions and how to influence that decision-making to better serve children, she said.

“We haven’t been able to do as well as Coca-Cola has in segmenting, understanding and targeting leaders,” said Reynolds.

Psychologists can also study how to motivate teachers — especially when it comes to identifying aspects of recognition and reward beyond salaries. And finally, the field also needs assistance figuring out how to expand education programs that work and put them into practice on a larger scale.

That last area is especially important when it comes to teaching reading and writing to children in poverty, said Maria Regina Maluf, PhD, president of the InterAmerican Society of Psychology and a professor at the University of São Paolo in Brazil.

Research shows, for example, that children who haven’t learned despite years of schooling manage to succeed when taught using practices based on the development of metalinguistic abilities, especially phonological awareness, she said.

“Academic research works have furnished significant knowledge on the different skills that are necessary for reading and writing,” said Maluf. “However, the results are still hardly taken into account by government policies.”

Technological solutions

Psychologists can also help governments and educators adopt new technologies that have the potential to revolutionize education around the world, said Pamela Ebert Flattau, PhD, a senior staff member of the Institute for Defense Analysis Science and Technology Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.

“The globalization of broadband technology and other information and communication technologies is making it possible for teachers and students to have access to instructional resources never thought possible,” she said.

Korea is one country that is already taking advantage of that potential, using technology to even out educational inequity. “Three-quarters of Korean children are engaged in after-school activities through for-profit teaching organizations,” said Flattau. “That poses a dilemma for poorer families.”

To ensure that more children can benefit from access to online instructional resources, the Korean government has made available a computer program children can use at home. The Cyber Home Learning System, which has won awards from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and other groups, assesses each child’s level of understanding of that day’s class lesson and then adjusts after-school lessons to meet the needs of children who need further practice in previously taught material as well as those seeking a more challenging pace of learning.

Psychologists could help advance such technological efforts by conducting internationally collaborative research in two areas, said Flattau. First, psychologists should assess whether distance learning strategies will work in developing countries, since assumptions about their effectiveness are based on student outcome studies conducted in the United States and other developed nations. Psychologists should also mount international studies to look at how teachers use computer-equipped classrooms effectively, especially to share best practices at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels of schooling.

The family’s role

Of course, teachers aren’t the only ones involved in children’s education. “Families play a pivotal role in their child’s learning,” said Florence Kaslow, PhD, co-chair of APA’s Committee on International Relations in Psychology and a private practitioner in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. In a keynote address, Kaslow offered what she called “a kaleidoscopic overview” of what parents can do to improve their children’s education, from at-home activities to lobbying at the national level.

When it comes to informal education, Kaslow said, parents and other relatives should play educational board games with children, form family bands, teach such life skills as baking and carpentry and demonstrate the importance of reading by reading to children and reading themselves.

Families can also play a role in children’s formal education, especially when it comes to advocating for change. Parent groups and school systems should jointly decide what kinds of discipline are permissible in schools, for example, said Kaslow, explaining that teachers in some countries still use corporal punishment. Parent groups should also be able to request special lectures for their children or themselves on such topics as HIV/AIDS, addiction and domestic violence. Kaslow also urged families to bring concerns to the attention of NGOs, the media and politicians at the local and national levels.

“Be aware of those who may not want your efforts to succeed,” Kaslow warned. “There are governments that don’t want universal education for all children because that means they will fight for other rights they don’t have.”

A case study

Pushback can come from outside the government, too, according to Andrew F. Simon, PhD, PsyD, an associate psychology professor at Seton Hall University.

Simon described his work with the Uganda Community-Based Association for Child Welfare, which aims to help children by empowering the women who take care of them. Part of that empowerment effort is to educate the women about their constitutional rights, including their right not to be pushed out of their homes and have all their possessions seized by in-laws after the death of their husbands.

“I did see resistance to what the organization was trying to do, both from elders, who are very influential members of the community and want to retain the culture that exists, and often the men involved,” said Simon. “The possessions are theirs, and they’re not ready to give that up.”

Psychologists who work with the international aid community need to be prepared for those kind of reactions, Simon said.

“As opposed to going in and enforcing rules, we have to work with what’s already happening,” he said, using the metaphor of an architect who waits to put in sidewalks until he sees where the grass gets worn down. “We have to forfeit some of our desire to dictate how things should happen.”

Two other concurrent workshops took place in the afternoon. One focused on innovative technology. In another, psychology professor Colette Daiuete, PhD, of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, Wismick Jean-Charles, another International Association of Applied Psychology representative to the United Nations, and another speaker discussed education in challenging places and situations.

For more information about Psychology Day at the United Nations, visit APA at the United Nations.

Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C.