Interview with Bernd Ruf

Bernd Ruf

Since many years, the Friends of Waldorf Education are engaged in the psychosocial stabilisation of children and adolescents after wars and natural disasters. Where have the Friends been active over the last few years?

In 2006 the emergency pedagogic department came into being after an encounter with children that were traumatised by war in the context of the Lebanon War.
After a first experimental project in the crisis region, the teams carried out missions in the earthquake area of Sichuan in China (2008), in Indonesia, following an earthquake on Sumatra (2009), and in Gaza after the military operation “Cast Led” (2009-2012). In Haiti a trauma pedagogic project was established after the severe earthquake of 2010. In Kyrgyzstan a mission was instated after civil-war like conflicts in (2010), in Japan a mission was carried out after the threefold catastrophe (2011) and in Kenya after the great famine (2012). In 2013 emergency pedagogic missions were carried out in China after the earthquake, as well as in Lebanon, were the team worked with Syrian refugees.
Emergency pedagogic relief was also provided for children in Bosnia and Herzegovina after the flooding in 2014. At present, the Friends are active in the Philippines, were the Typhoon Haiyan raged in October 2013, and in the autonomous region Kurdistan in Iraq, were they first worked with Syrian refugees and later with internally displaced Iraqi refugees, and in the Gaza Strip after the military operation “Protective Edge” in July/August 2014.

Mr. Ruf, you are the founding father of Emergency Pedagogy. Please illustrate the concept of Emergency Pedagogy.

Emergency pedagogy acts in the psycho-social domain and aims at the psycho-social stabilisation of children and adolescents in war- and disaster areas. This means that we work with pedagogic, Waldorf educational and experiential educational methods as well was with art therapeutic elements and related therapeutic forms to help children to overcome the traumatic events, to accept them and to integrate them into their biography. This is an important element in the process of coping with traumatising experiences.
In practice, the methods we use have the purpose to free children from paralysation by bringing movement back into their life, for example by jumping up and down with them and thus stimulating their body. We have children clap their hands, we let them have fun and we help them replace their negative experiences with positive ones. Many children even lose their bodily perception after a traumatising event, for example they lose control over their hand movements. We offer sculpting exercises to the children in order to re-introduce their fingers as part of their body. Through sculpting figures, such as animals or flowers, the children experience the fact that they are more than victims- they are able to form and shape their environment and they are able to be creative.
Whenever we work in the context of a war, we introduce activities, which establish trust in fellow human beings, as war connotes man-made violence, which for many children results in an enormous decline of trust, which we try to counteract. Last but not least I would like to mention the non-verbal means of expression which painting offers and through which children can articulate themselves without the use of speech and thus can distance themselves from what they experienced.

What consequences can a traumatic experience have for an affected person? What symptoms can occur?

I would like to exemplify the consequences of a traumatising experience on the basis of the simplified schematic progress of a trauma, because a psychological trauma generally progresses in phases. After the shocking experience, the traumatising event, an acute phase of one or two days occurs in which bed wetting, extreme nervousness and nightmares can be normal reactions to the abnormal event. In the following four to eight weeks, individual post-traumatic stress reactions, such as panic attacks, self-harming behaviour and many more, can happen. These are also all totally normal reactions to the experienced traumatic state of emergency.
With some affected people the symptoms abate. Others however develop psychological illnesses, which can manifest as long-term post-traumatic stress disorder (which includes the post-traumatic stress disorder) and can have severe consequences for the individual’s biography. Besides the reactions already mentioned, a misbalanced rhythm, such as sleep disorders or the disorder of eating rhythms can be observed. In traumatised children, a lack of focus, as well as aggression, hyper-activity, but also listlessness can be observed. Some children verbally and socially shut themselves off from their surroundings. The list of symptoms is a never ending one.

How exactly is an Emergency Pedagogic Aid Mission carried out? How do you help people cope with their traumata?

In congruence with the characteristic progress of a trauma, we send a team of trauma pedagogic experts to the crisis region within the first four to eight weeks after a disaster. This team consists of experts from medical-therapeutic professions, the fields of Waldorf education, experiential education, arts therapy, and many more. Depending on the local circumstances we put up Child Friendly Spaces, we work in kindergartens and schools or in refugee camps. Our trauma pedagogic work is highly rhythmitised and ritualised in order to keep the children grounded and provide orientation for them. This also creates trust, because when traumatising experiences happen, chaos, insecurity and a lack of orientation manifests itself.
The actual work starts with the gathering in an opening circle in which all children take part. After this, the children are separated into age groups. In these groups they paint, sing, perform rhythmic exercises or trust exercises. The goal is it to get the children’s body back in balance. As already mentioned, an important factor is the predictability of our activities. Because the underlying structure is always the same – opening circle, workshops, concluding circle – the children know what to expect.
When working with the children we also recruit local experts. Besides insights into the practical work, they also get theoretical education on psycho-traumatology, emergency pedagogy and background information on the methods used.
A third element of emergency pedagogy is the work with parents, because they themselves are most often than not traumatised and need help. On the other hand they are often overburdened by their children’s trauma-induced behavioural changes and need advice and assistance when helping their children cope with the traumatising events.

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Friends of Waldorf Education – Emergency Education Registered Association (Notfallpädagogik e.V.)
Neisser Str. 10
76139 Karlsruhe
Tel.: +49721/3548 06-144
Fax: +49721/3548 06-180
E-Mail: notfallpaedagogik(at)