Over 420 million children live in conflict-affected areas. Conflict greatly disrupts education, with long-lasting negative effects even after peace agreements are signed. Northern Ireland (NI), Kosovo and Macedonia are settings of protracted conflict in which the primary conflict-related groups remain largely segregated, particularly across schools and neighbourhoods. As a result, the overt conflict in each setting has continued to affect children born after the peace agreements, or in the ‘post-accord generation’.
The Helping Kids! lab has conducted comparative research in primary schools in each of these settings. We study how majority and minority children in separate education systems develop an understanding about conflict-related groups. We argue that sharing across group lines can be considered an antecedent of later peacebuilding potential in children.
All three settings have education systems divided by group background (NI: Protestant/British, Catholic/Irish; Kosovo: Albanian, Serbian; Macedonia: Macedonian, Albanian). Our trained experimenters visited primary schools and played child-friendly games on a laptop or tablet. These games asked children about their recognition of and preference for images, symbols and names associated with each background in that context. Additionally, the games measured participants’ contact with, attitudes about, and sharing with outgroup children.
Social identity development theory (SIDT), which acted as a framework for this research, centres on children’s ethnic identity development having four (potential) phases: undifferentiated, ethnic awareness, ethnic preferences and ethnic prejudice; the shift between these phases is informed by social context. Across the three settings, our findings supported these phases. In each setting, participants were evenly split by gender and background (NI: 529 pupils; 263 male, 266 female; ages 5–11 [M=7.8, SD=1.76; 46.4% Protestant, 53.6% Catholic]; Kosovo: 219 pupils; 108 male, 111 female; ages 6–10 [M=8.07, SD=1.33; 54.3% Albanian, 45.7% Serbian]; Macedonia: 199 pupils; 107 male, 92 female; ages 6–11 [M=8.40, SD=1.41; 44.2% Macedonian, 55.8% Albanian]).
In each setting, children readily recognised the social cues associated with conflict-related groups. For example, in NI, children identified poppies as British and shamrocks as Irish; in Kosovo, children consistently categorised murals and pop artists as Albanian or Serbian; and in Macedonia, children distinguished celebratory foods as Macedonian or Albanian.
Overall, the more aware children were of conflict-related group markers as belonging to one group versus the other, the more children preferred ingroup symbols. That is, children with higher awareness of group symbols also expressed greater preference for ingroup images, supporting the link between ethnic awareness and preference in SIDT. Children who preferred ingroup symbols shared fewer resources (that is, stickers) with outgroup children. Children who reported more positive experiences with and attitudes about outgroup children, however, shared more resources with outgroup children.
The Helping Kids! lab will continue to identify antecedents of children’s peacebuilding in divided societies. Fostering positive outgroup attitudes and opportunities for outgroup helping may have promising, long-term implications for more constructive intergroup relations. Through discussions with families, schoolteachers and administrators, non-governmental organisations and government officials, we hope our findings can inform public policies that aid children living in conflict-affected areas around the world. As a result, our findings may help inform peacebuilding interventions in schools and communities, with the long-term aim of fostering more cohesive societies.
Published on the BERA Blog.