Enterprising School Leavers

Enterprising School Leavers
Learning Brief

Ekupholeni Mental Health and Trauma Centre

Reading groups: helping children overcome behavioural problems

Category: Enterprising School Leavers | Employment/education opportunities for particularly vulnerable groups | 5 April, 2014 - 06:00



Ekupholeni strives to reach individuals, families, groups and communities in distress and to engage them in a holistic process of healing, recovery and empowerment. Our work takes place in the Katorus township community on the industrial East Rand of Johannesburg. Katorus is huge, cut off from the commercial centres (cities, towns), and riddled with extreme violence. This township conglomerate is home to nearly 2.5 million people and is characterised by high levels of poverty, crime, violence, HIV/AIDS, sexual abuse, domestic violence, and gang activity. Young community members struggle with high rates of teenage pregnancy, school absenteeism/drop out, and drug, alcohol and substance abuse.


The children and young people are most affected by this negative social climate. Many experience chronic trauma from an early age, which impacts on emotional functioning as well as their ability to concentrate and learn. Due to a lack of recognition of trauma and its effects, these children often do not receive psychosocial assistance/counselling, and they thus spiral deeper into depressed withdrawal, internal pain, and isolation. This leads to an inability to assimilate learning content at school, which can result in serious learning problems that become more entrenched the longer they are left unattended.

Youngsters with learning problems loose interest in school, are often teased or bullied (by fellow pupils AND teachers), and experience multiple social trauma and behavioural problems. When they have learning and behavioural problems, we have found that it is particularly the ability to read that is most affected. Reading is a foundation for most other kinds of learning and it is vital to help children read at their age-appropriate level. Doing so not only has positive benefits for their academic progress, but also can help them build their sense of self-worth and self-confidence.

Many such youngsters experience emotional trauma and need special care and counselling, which Ekupholeni provides. Local schools and community members will refer children to us when these children display emotional troubles. But we have noticed that many of these troubles can be addressed by practically helping the children first learn to read with confidence.


In response to this need for remedial reading assistance, and also in response to the strong increase in referrals we get, we started a Reading Group (named “The Eagles” by the children attending the group). Children from the community, and from our existing life skills groups can attend the reading group, which is held once a week for 2 hours. An English-speaking psychological counsellor and two assistants who speak Zulu and Sotho run the group.

The group ran for a year as a pilot project, we assessed the impact and then made some changes to continue the important programme. Our monitoring strategy involves the facilitator taking weekly notes in the “group book”; recording the ability and willingness of children to read, engage, speak in the group; and observing and tracking each child’s personal development. We also consult with the teachers and parents about the child’s reading and behavioural changes.

Our reading groups aims to assist the children to read, but also to motivate them by “opening” them up to a whole new world through reading and using their imagination. This is a kind of kick-start into more self-managed education activities. It is not remedial schooling and is not aimed to replace the school’s responsibility for education. Rather, it is a supplement to help children who – due to severe trauma – lag behind educationally and socially. The reading group offers them a non-pressured, play-like environment in which to grow and overcome some of their challenges.


Starting the reading group

We obtained donations of children’s book from various individuals as well as from a book publisher, and we read the stories to the children. The counsellor reads the story in English and shows the pictures to the children. The children can ask questions in either English or their mother tongue and the two assistants will explain or translate. The group started with 5 children, but has grown to 35 regular attendees any many drop-ins.

Encouraging children to read on their own

Initially, the children merely listened to and enjoyed the hearing stories read to them, and looking at the illustrations. But some of them have gained confidence and they now want the book passed on to them so that they can read a few sentences each before passing it on the next child to read. They explain difficult words to each other and are very proud of their ability to connect writing and pictures. The facilitators merely guide the session and assist when needed.

Showing children where to find books

To encourage these children to read further and to go find books on their own, we took the whole group for a visit to the local public library in Alberton. The librarian explained the function of the library, and gave each child a book as a present to take home. The children were extremely excited and proud to realise that they could actually read the words on the pages of the book, and that they could take the book home to own. We hope to continue offering this service as a building block for the children’s sense of self-worth and self-confidence, which were negatively affected by their initial trauma and their subsequent difficulties at school.

Reading as a supplement to trauma therapy

The reading group does not replace psychological (trauma) therapy but is a supplement. It helps a child achieve a set reading goal, which increases their confidences. Reading adds an important life skill to the children’s repertoire and also helps them re-integrate into a productive and pro-social life at school, which can prevent them developing further behaviour problems.

We hope that the ability to read (in English mainly, although books in other SA languages are also available) will also awaken in them a greater desire to learn, study, explore, and create a more future orientated lifestyle, rather than a trauma-linked here-and-now way of seeing the world.

The reading group as an identifier of other developmental problems

During our reading group sessions we found that some children are completely illiterate, even though they are over 10 years of age. We had some of these we children professionally assessed, which revealed a mild mental handicap in one instance, and posttraumatic stress in others. We placed these 15 children in a separate reading group (named “Dragon Ballz”), that meets twice weekly for 2 hours. The sole purpose of this special group is to help these children learn to read from scratch.

We contacted a Foundation Phase teacher from a private school who helped guide our program staff on how to teach children to read. She also provided us with all the materials necessary to undertake this task. Then our staff ran the group independently – with the teacher a phone call away in an advisory position.

This group runs parallel to the Eagles but on different days of the week, and once a child masters the basic reading skills he/she can then shift from one group to the other. The children in Dragon Ballz have shown incredible progress, and we have received numerous complimentary letters from schools teachers who had previously classified them as “disabled” and “un-teachable” now thanking us for our support, and commenting on the children’s reading ability. In addition, most of their behaviour problems have disappeared and the parents are now highly supportive of the sessions and ensure that the children attend.


Why start a reading group?

We offer these reading groups in response to an identified need in our community

The service is offered on a totally voluntary basis

Who can join the reading group?

The children self-identify to join the group and there is no obligation attached to joining. We believe this helps with their commitment to the group and the reading activity.

Children of mixed-age are fine for this type of group, as the older ones tend to help the younger ones and are proud of this task. However, we do focus on foundation and primary school age children.

How to manage expectations?

The reading group must be a fun and non-threatening environment for the children.

Be very clear at the outset about what you can and can’t deliver. Parents and children need to know what to realistically expect from the reading group. Rather frame expectations more conservatively, i.e. reading simple sentences after 6 months is a great achievement for a previously illiterate child. It is unlikely that he/she will be reading whole books after 6 months.

What books to choose?

The books must be interesting, age-appropriate, and of good quality with lots of pictures. We found that animal stories work best at the start.

Who should facilitate the group?

One facilitator should be a native English-speaker if possible, as this helps with the correct pronunciation.

There should also be one or two facilitators that speak the children’s language/s to help assist with explanation and translation, especially in the beginnin

Natalspruit Hospital, Katlehong 1431

 011 6489820


In Short

The Ekupholeni Mental Health and Trauma Centre hosts a reading group for children struggling with behavioural and reading problems. In this learning brief they discuss how the group is implemented and offer some suggestions for other organisations starting a reading group on who can join, managing expectations, choosing books, facilitation, working with local schools, and monitoring the group.

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