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Sea change after tsunami

There are no chairs, tables, toys or board games. Lessons take place in narrow corridors. The only dash of colour on the walls is in the odd chart or map. But a revolution has struck Devanampattinam municipal school in the tsunami-hit Cuddalore district of Tamil Nadu, southern India.

"Now, we treat all children equally," says class teacher Ms Padmavathy.

To anyone familiar withIndia's overcrowded government schools, the remark is clearly radical.

"There are too many children," she says. "Normally, only the brightest or most talented pupils get any attention. But the tsunami has changed everything. Now, we seek out those who have been affected by the tragedy, support them emotionally and encourage them to express themselves."

The catalyst for the dramatic change in teacher-student dialogue was an intervention by a local non-governmental organisation working with the tsunami-hit fishing community.

Since January, the Academy for Disaster Management, Education, Planning and Training (Adept) has trained 200 elementary school teachers in villages in Cuddalore to give psychological first-aid to children and restore their confidence in the future. And there are already positive signs.

At a recent feedback session, a government-school teacher spoke of her attempts to get a traumatised six year-old to open up. The boy did not want to speak, sing, draw or play, so she took the class to a nearby nursery.

The child's interest was sparked by the plants and he began to ask questions.

Taking the cue, the teacher bought him a few saplings. Since then, each day he has been reporting on the plants' progress to the teacher, and the teacher tells stories about flora and fauna surviving in adversity. Today, the boy is back to his old cheerful self.

Getting pupils to school again was the first step back to normality, but in the early days many teachers did not know how to deal with grief-stricken children. Unwittingly, they added to the trauma by asking them repeatedly about the tragedy in front of relief workers and journalists.

Today, the problem is not in the classroom but when they go home and hear their elders talking about the tsunami to each other.

PJ Amlados, a social trainer for Adept, says: "Sometimes, the fear and insecurity return. The teachers want us to work with the parents as well."

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