The cognitive and emotional stimulation program in Guatemala significantly mitigates the impact of two years of missed schooling due to the pandemic on the academic performance of minors

From July 17th to 19th, the Guatemalan country hosted the results-sharing sessions of the project “Improving the academic performance and quality of life of vulnerable children in Guatemala: Comprehensive program of cognitive and emotional stimulation, development of school gardens and strengthening distance learning in the face of the COVID-19 challenge“. This project was implemented by Fundación ETEA – Development Institute of Universidad Loyola, in collaboration with Fe y Alegría Guatemala, and funded by the Andalusian Agency for International Cooperation for Development (AACID).

One of the project’s lines of action focused on the implementation of a cognitive and emotional stimulation program for vulnerable minors in the suburbs of Guatemala City. Specifically, two initiatives were simultaneously implemented: promotion of reading and the NeuronUP program. The latter consists of activities aimed at stimulating attention, social skills, language, reasoning, and information processing abilities. Throughout the sessions, Pablo Rodríguez, a researcher from Loyola University, explained that “during the first year, students participating in the NeuronUP program significantly improved cognitive flexibility, and levels of hostility decreased. Additionally, the cognitive and emotional stimulation program effectively mitigated the impact on academic performance, particularly for the two years without schooling due to the pandemic.” Furthermore, he emphasized that “the programs have been particularly successful with the child population exhibiting attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and dyslexia.

On another note, Michela Accerenzi, the regional coordinator of Fundación ETEA in Central America, addressed the implementation of school gardens, arguing that “over 70% of participating children were experiencing food insecurity, according to data from the predecessor project. Moreover, a relationship was found between food insecurity and attention tasks and executive functions, especially after the deterioration of children’s nutritional conditions following the pandemic.” For this reason, an initial study of the nutritional conditions of the beneficiary schools’ students was included in the project, along with promoting dietary diversity through school gardens. Consultants Mónica Cajas and Marcela García presented the study results, highlighting that the rural population suffers from significant rates of underweight, while high rates of overweight and obesity are also detected in the marginalized neighborhoods of Guatemala City. They provided center-specific recommendations to improve student nutrition. Ana Lucía Linares, project coordinator from Fe y Alegría, stated during the sessions that “thanks to the gardens, skills such as teamwork, leadership, and organization have been strengthened, involving teachers, students, as well as parents in land preparation and garden care tasks. It has been impressive to hear how each center designed its method for garden care and to see how participating students are capable of recognizing seeds and plants before they bear fruit. The gardens have already yielded three or more harvests, and the students are happy to have tasted them.

The project’s third component was presented by José María Barroso, a researcher from Universidad Loyola, who focused on the process of strengthening pedagogical skills. By combining the teaching staff’s experience – through the design of an “Atomic Plan to Transform the World” – with learning and teaching styles and the “Dreams of the Educational Community,” the PRISMA method was applied to conduct a scientific analysis to design a trainer training program. This program lasted for seven months, during which 44 teachers were trained, and they, in turn, replicated the training for the rest of the teaching staff, reaching over 400 teachers. José María affirms that “this has led to improvements in students’ reading and mathematical comprehension, who have benefited from the new educational methodologies, as assessed in a sample of approximately 400 students. This has strengthened the educational action of the FyA centers, as well as education in Guatemala.

Sharing a very positive view of the achieved impact

These results-sharing sessions, held both in the auditorium of Universidad Rafael Landivar and in multigrade schools in Chiquimula, have allowed for the exchange of impressions about the activities carried out and the benefits obtained from them.

Joaquín Ibáñez, a Loyola researcher and coordinator of the cognitive stimulation program, expressed, “It has been truly rewarding to share the process with teachers, students, and families. Their interventions have left me with the feeling that the impact has been very positive, which fills me with great joy. I found it particularly interesting to hear the opinions of the children who participated in the stimulation program and to know that they feel they have improved their skills. Moreover, it has been joyful to see that the project has been useful and that there is interest in expanding it to more schools and age groups, making cognitive stimulation more widespread for increasingly larger groups. We hope to continue collaborating with this great project.

The project is in its final stages, and for the next month of October, sessions are planned in Sevilla and Córdoba (Spain), where technical and teaching staff from Fe y Alegría will participate to disseminate the final results and present the methodological guide of the project. This is intended to allow other Andalusian cooperation actors, as well as education and psychology professionals, to benefit from the lessons learned.