Peacebuilding through education: Pioneering Parents and the dynamic influences of parents, children and schools in a post-accord society

By Celia Bähr, Danielle Blaylock and Laura K. Taylor

The number of children growing up in conflict zones increased by 37% over the last 10 years (Save the Children, 2019). This blog presents research that conceptualizes children as potential peacebuilders and explores how children can peacefully transform conflict-ridden environments. More specifically, Pioneering Parents explores how children’s intergroup experiences in schools can influence their families.

After a peace agreement has been signed, a common legacy in such ‘post-accord’ environments is divided social lives. For example, separate education systems limit children’s opportunity for intergroup contact and cooperation, both needed to establish positive peace. Shared Education, in which children continue to attend separated schools, but voluntarily come together for specific classes or events, offers one alternative. In Shared Education, the pace and content of cross-group encounters can be locally tailored, therefore protecting distinct group identities while facilitating cross-group social cohesion.

In Northern Ireland, the Shared Education Signature Project (SESP) was implemented in 2017. Pioneering Parents engaged with parents from this inaugural cohort at three time points to assess the impact beyond the classroom. These initiatives are important because over 20 years after the peace agreement formally ended the ‘Troubles’, a conflict between Catholics and Protestants, 94% of schools remain separate.

Pioneering Parents

Rooted in a social ecological perspective, family systems theory and extended contact theory, Pioneering Parents explored the dynamic relations between children and parents. That is, a majority of research has examined the impact of parents on children. For example, how parents influence children’s political opinions, or broader processes of family ethnic socialization in settings of protracted intergroup conflict such as Northern Ireland and Croatia. Pioneering Parents, however, studies how children’s emotional, cognitive and behavioural development can transform the family. This idea of developmental provocation, and the resulting family discussions, has been found to shape children’s political identity and youth’s constructive and destructive intergroup behaviours.

Shared Education is underpinned by the intergroup contact. A statistical analysis of 515 studies found a positive effect of intergroup contact on prejudice reduction. These direct contact experiences, facilitated through Shared Education, have been found to improve children’s intergroup attitudes and behaviours.

Shared Education also aims to operate through extended contact; that is, parental knowledge of their child’s positive intergroup contact positively influences parents’ own outgroup attitudes. Recognising children as influential change agents, Pioneering Parents therefore explores how children’s engagement with outgroup peers through SESP affects family processes and parental outgroup attitudes and behaviours.

Mixed Methods Findings

Pioneering Parents worked with some of the families in the first cohort of SESP. Two hundred and thirty-one parents of children in grades 3 to 7 (45% female, 55% male at Time 1) participated in a three-wave survey (October 2017 to March 2018); this included parents in SESP and matched ‘control’ schools. Fourteen interviews also were conducted.

Figure 1: Percentage of parents that are supportive of Shared Education

Overall, parents demonstrated a strong support for SESP (Figure 1). At Time 1 (the initiation of the first wave of SESP), over 94% of parents surveyed were in favour of Shared Education.

Parental support for SESP, however, was not uniform. Reflecting the importance of group narratives post-accord settings, parents who endorsed stronger competitive victimhood beliefs, i.e., that their group had suffered more during the Troubles than the other group, also expressed lower support for SESP. That is, a parental narrative of greater ingroup suffering was linked with lower enthusiasm for Shared Education.

Despite this potential barrier, parents’ own direct contact experiences, including those through educational initiatives, positively influenced their support for their children’s engagement in SESP. Some bespoke Shared Education partnerships also facilitated opportunities for the parents to interact. Participation in a Shared Education event at their child’s school and meeting parents from the other community positively impacted their support for SESP. Furthermore, parents who reported that their child had made new friends through SESP demonstrated higher support for the programme.

Compared to the matched schools that did not participate in SESP, parents from schools that did participate in SESP reported that their children had more outgroup friends. Longitudinal analyses across the three time points also indicated a linear increase in quality contact. That is, as children spent more time in SESP, parents reported that their children felt less nervous and found the intergroup contact more pleasant.

There were dynamic relations in the family. That is children influenced parents over time, and parents influenced children (Figure 2). For example, parent contact quantity at Time 2 was linked with higher child contact quantity at Time 3. In addition, child contact quantity at Time 1 predicted more parent contact quantity at Times 2 and 3. This pattern suggests that through SESP, children shape parents cross-group behaviour, becoming peacebuilding ambassadors.

Figure 2: Bidirectional cross-lagged relations between child and parent contact quantity across three time points

The qualitative interviews with parents shed light on future improvements that could strengthen the SESP (RQ5). Some parents reported a lack of school communication about SESP and the chance to take part. For example, one participant said, “[school communications] were quite poor, it didn’t exist. They do have a website but information like that isn’t really put on it.(P13, female, Maintained/Catholic SESP school) while another explained, “I don’t know any parents from the other school at all” (P9, female, Controlled/Protestant SESP school).

Despite these challenges, there was still deep enthusiasm and optimism for the promise of Shared Education. Parents recognized that Shared Education gives the “opportunity to meet other kids from other sides of the community” (P5, female, Controlled/Protestant SESP school) and to “to understand another group of people” (P12, female, Maintained/Catholic SESP school). Summarising the potential long-term impact of such programmes, one parent explained, Shared Education “is important because it is the young people that are going to be the policy and decision makers in the future” (P7, male, Maintained/Catholic matched school).

Conclusion and Implications

Pioneering Parents demonstrates that Shared Education has a profound peacebuilding potential. Our findings indicate that it not only improves children’s intergroup attitudes and behaviours, but also positively impacts cross-group interactions within the family. The practical implications for post-accord settings are far-reaching. Nevertheless, educational reforms must balance political realities. Reflecting a growing trend in public policy and practical interventions, Pioneering Parents shows how children may be peacebuilding ambassadors.

Acknowledgements: This research was funded by the Spencer Foundation (#201700161 Taylor). We are grateful for the engagement of school principals, Shared Education Coordinators, teachers and parents.

About the Authors

Celia Bähr is a psychology student at Freie Universität Berlin (Germany) and University College Dublin (Ireland). Throughout her studies she focused on international relations and conflict resolution, participating in the Model United Nations Program. She currently undertakes a research internship with Laura Taylor, deepening her interest in political psychology.

Laura K. Taylor (PhD) is an Assistant Professor, School of Psychology, University College Dublin (Ireland) and Queen’s University Belfast (Northern Ireland). Her research integrates peace studies with developmental and social psychology to study how to promote constructive intergroup relations and peacebuilding among children and youth in divided societies.

Danielle Blaylock (PhD) is a lecturer in Applied Social Psychology at Queen’s University. Her research focuses on intergroup relations, intergroup conflict, and social change; particularly those found within divided communities. She works closely with charities, educators, and governmental officials developing and evaluating effective programmes to promote more positive intergroup relations.

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