MARIA REGINA A. ALFONSO (Cartwheel Foundation Philippines)

HELEN R. GARCIA (Cartwheel Foundation International)

This case study describes how the Cartwheel Foundation’s early childhood development (ECD) programme implemented in poor indigenous communities in the Philippines evolved into an enhanced ECD model for psychosocial support. The approach uses a rehabilitative and preventive psychosocial framework that prioritizes building capacity among teachers and adults working with children, and draws from local practices to integrate the indigenous community’s heritage-based strategies for coping and dealing with stress. It is designed to promote the physical and emotional safety of children and safeguard the quality of learning in times of crisis.

Background and Context


The effects of war, terror, disaster, pandemics and other adversities on children and families call for an urgent need to integrate psychosocial support into early childhood programmes around the globe. In disaster contexts alone, about 250,000 children under the age of 5 die each year due to major calamities caused by climate change.1

The Asia-Pacific region is particularly disaster-prone: in 2009 it was home to 89% of people who suffered from natural disasters globally.2 Evidence shows that natural disasters create poverty traps. In the Philippines, for example, when the 2013 typhoon caused widespread devastation, poverty rates rose to 56% in the worst hit areas.3

Beyond economic vulnerability, the imperceptible damage of psychological stress caused by such disasters raises serious concern, especially among highly vulnerable groups of women, children, indigenous peoples and displaced segments of the population.4 Disaster-induced family separation, loss of safety and security, and feelings of discrimination may result in trauma that can harm social and emotional well-being. These social impacts can further lead to psychological problems of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or severe mental disorders.

The long-lasting effects of prolonged stress and exposure to extreme adversity in early childhood, as in contexts of recurring disasters or chronic neglect, are well-documented.5


Resilience . broadly defined, as ‘the ability to recover, perform and even grow or transform in contexts of adversity’ . is essential to overcoming the negative effects of adversity.6 Over four decades of resilience research across social disciplines have deepened the understanding of resilience as both a process and an outcome. Recurrent themes on the pivotal role of resilience in adverse environments are highly relevant in international development work.7 In particular, programmes that explicitly integrate psychosocial support provide the foundations for resilience and coping necessary to regain the overall well-being of individuals, build local capacities and draw restorative strength from supportive social networks in communities.

Psychosocial support is a scale of care and support that influences both the individual and the social environment in which people live.8 It includes care and support offered by caregivers, family members, friends, neighbours, teachers and health workers on a daily basis, and extends to care and support provided by specialized psychological and social services. According to the World Health Organization (WHO): ‘People will be more likely to recover if they feel safe, connected, calm and hopeful; have access to social, physical and emotional support; and find ways to help themselves.’9 WHO specifies that such support (both social and psychological) ‘should be provided to people in ways that respect their dignity, culture and abilities’.

Highly vulnerable groups such as women, children, the elderly and indigenous peoples in particular deserve priority attention in recovery programmes to prevent further social exclusion and widening inequality.


According to the World Bank’s definition, indigenous peoples (IPs) are distinct social and cultural groups whose identities are inextricably linked to their land and its natural resources; whose cultural, economic or political institutions are separate from those of the dominant society and culture; and who speak an indigenous language, often different from the official language of the country or region.10 Widely recognized as the most vulnerable and disadvantaged group, IPs constitute about 5% of the world’s population yet account for around 15% of the world’s poor.11 Approximately 70% of IPs live in Asia and the Pacific.

In the Philippines, there are between 14 and 17 million IPs . about 15% of the total population . belonging to 110 ethno-linguistic groups.12 Like their global counterparts, Filipino IPs are among the poorest members of society.

Disadvantaged by their remote, geographically dispersed locations, IPs suffer from social isolation and exclusion. They have limited access to basic infrastructure and social services and are often unaware of their fundamental rights as citizens.13 Most mainstream education programmes fail to take into account their language, culture and traditions. Consequently they have lower literacy rates, poorer health and higher incidences of child malnutrition than other population groups in the country.


The Cartwheel Foundation is a non-profit organization that runs educational programmes in IP communities in the Philippines. It was established in 1999 in response to an invitation by an indigenous community to set up a pre-school programme for their young children. This remote, hard-to-reach community had no access to basic services such as running water, electricity, education and health care. In 2009, Cartwheel successfully extended its reach and co-developed a culturally relevant early childhood programme for another Filipino IP population in a different province. Since then, Cartwheel has increased the coverage of its education programmes to include youth and adults in various indigenous communities throughout the Philippines.

A collaborative, community-driven process is central to the implementation of Cartwheel’s ECD programme.14 The ECD model comprises a culturally relevant early childhood curriculum that integrates the heritage, traditions and art forms of local indigenous communities. The curriculum is based on core literacy and numeracy content, which is custom-tailored for the community by local teachers and the Tribal Education Council (TEC) . composed of community elders, leaders and proactive stakeholders . with technical assistance from the Cartwheel team of educators. Local teachers are then trained and supported by the Cartwheel team to establish two levels of pre-school (ages 3.4 and 5.6) in a classroom that is also built also through the joint efforts and resources of the Cartwheel team, local teachers and the TEC.

A recent impact evaluation study of Cartwheel’s work in Tagbanua communities showed that children in the ECD programme (ages 3.6) achieved better learning outcomes in reading and math than children enrolled in non-Cartwheel early education programmes.15

Cartwheel’s Enhanced ECD Model: Building Resilience Through Psychosocial Support

In 2013, Super Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines. Over 17 million Filipinos were affected by the storm, including more than 7 million children.16 This catalyzed the creation of Cartwheel’s enhanced ECD model to support disaster or conflict-affected communities. The model aims to transform early childhood classrooms into healing environments to help children build resilience and thrive in adverse post-disaster conditions. Its resilience-based curriculum integrates psychosocial programming support into Cartwheel’s core ECD programme. The enhanced ECD model also draws lessons from the work of other international and local organizations in developing countries where marginalized communities have greatly benefitted from psychosocial support programmes imbedded in ECD programmes.

Cartwheel’s enhanced ECD model recognizes that a caring and trusted companion or adult caregiver is a critical anchor in a child’s formative years. The proximity of trusted adults, companions and attachment figures during life-threatening adversities have protective effects and aid in strengthening the resilience of children over time.17 In IP communities, care for adult caregivers is as important as care for children. Psychological distress from extreme poverty and social exclusion, coupled with a disaster situation, can significantly impair the capacity of adults in providing responsive childcare.


For the enhanced ECD model, Cartwheel developed the THRiVE method (Towards Healing and Resilience-Strengthening in Vulnerable Environments). THRiVE is a trauma-informed approach to psychosocial support that pulls from post-traumatic growth and resilience theories, including research on the most effective rehabilitative responses to trauma.

THRiVE uses culturally relevant, child-friendly physical and sensory-based activities to offer relief to both children and adults in acute or chronic stress situations, helping them build resilience over time. The method’s core process is developmentally appropriate and attuned to the natural ‘language’ of children (play, art, music and movement). It emphasizes body-centred activities combined with play, music, art, dance and mindfulness.

The curriculum is informed by evidence-based Eastern practices such as acupuncture, tai chi and yoga,18 as well as initiatives in other countries and regions which have demonstrated that art, music and dance have healing effects.19 Save the Children’s HEART programme (Healing and Education Through the Arts), for example, has found that the use of expressive arts builds self-esteem and resilience among children, develops their cognitive skills and promotes a love for learning.20 Central to the THRiVE method is the honouring of indigenous rituals and traditions in specific contexts, which leads to collective community healing. Culturally grounded rituals and traditions are intangible assets that contribute to resilience and recovery in IP communities.

The THRiVE method ensures that teachers and caregivers working schools or ECD centres are equipped to be a healing presence for children in adverse situations. The training programme provides basic information on the impact of stress on the brain and children’s natural responses to stress and traumatic situations. Teachers and caregivers gain the skills and confidence to accompany their students through their sadness, fear, anxiety and anger, and learn how to handle a class when these stress responses manifest in children’s behaviour or have an impact on their learning. Since the approach is not designed to be treatment for trauma, teachers and caregivers are also taught how to recognize children who may require more support and need a referral to a mental health clinician.



Cartwheel’s post-disaster response to Typhoon Haiyan prompted the integration of the THRiVE method into Project RISE (Re-Igniting Community Strength Through Education). Project RISE is Cartwheel’s overarching emergency, recovery and psychosocial support programme for disaster-affected indigenous communities in the province of Palawan who were left without food, shelter or means of livelihood following the typhoon.

The project began in 2014 and is scheduled to run through 2017. Its overall goal is to establish a collaborative and sustainable rebuilding programme for Tagbanua communities on the islands of Alulad, Cagait and Chindonan in Palawan. The project targets over 100 families who survive primarily on fishing, seaweed farming and subsistence farming, and have no access to alternative schools, health care or water supplies. Key components of the project include providing psychosocial support, building disaster-resilient structures and developing sustainable platforms for the delivery of basic services and governance.

Project RISE is divided into three phases. Phase 1, implemented in the immediate aftermath of the typhoon, began with initial community visits, 3 to 6 months after the typhoon, to rapidly assess the post-emergency response situation in the islands. Cartwheel provided emergency relief and psychological first aid, as well as assistance in the rebuilding of homes and boats.

Phase 2 introduced the enhanced ECD model. Cartwheel recruited psychosocial support volunteers, including teachers, church workers, Department of Education representatives, local government officers and humanitarian aid workers, who were then trained in the THRiVE method to build psychosocial support capacity through community visits. During these visits, volunteers conducted trainings of teachers and caregivers, with ongoing mentoring from Cartwheel. The enhanced ECD model allows the communities’ own coping strategies shape the design of the psychosocial programme and emphasizes local capacity building to ensure sustainability.

Phase 3 involves integrating the THRiVE method and care activities into pre-school classrooms and ECD centres, as well as education governance structures, to further strengthen community resilience and sustain a thriving learning environment. The transition to Phase 3 is currently underway.


The enhanced ECD model implemented in Project RISE aims to build resilience at the level of the community, the school and the individual. At the community level, Cartwheel’s goals include:

  • Establishing genuine connections with IP communities, in order to foster the trust and openness critical to uncovering psychosocial issues, coping skills and response mechanisms;
  • Identifying strengths, opportunities and protective processes within the IP communities;
  • Building on cultural rituals and traditions as foundations for anchoring activities in the curriculum, such as music and dance.

At the school level, Cartwheel has aimed to restore stability and normality to the pre-school and ECD environment through physical rebuilding and enhanced child-focused curriculum.

At the individual level, the programme encourages adults and children to share their post-disaster concerns, and supports healing and learning through the use of expressive techniques such as art, creative play and storytelling. The programme also helps teachers, parents and adult caregivers understand psychosocial symptoms, ensure mutual care and support, and build self-efficacy that will translate to a positive classroom environment and responsive parent.child interactions.


During the initial community visit, the Cartwheel team met with individual families and consulted with them on their post-disaster situation. Women reported having recurring dreams of the storm, anxiety in response to strong winds and trembling upon nightfall. They observed that their children had similar symptoms, in addition to expressing fear and sadness. Men were reported as being less accessible during the community visits, as they were busy rebuilding boats and fishing.

After several community consultations, psychosocial support training and visits from two Cartwheel partners . Cultures In Harmony (a group of Julliard-trained classical musicians) and the Art Department of the University of Asia and the Pacific . members of the community expressed a sense of hope and growing self-worth . as one respondent put it, ‘because you consider us important enough to come this far’. A level of trust was established with the psychosocial support teams. The Tagbanua community members have also introduced their own activities under the THRiVE method, illustrating an emerging sense of agency and self-confidence. For example, women have gradually revived weaving circles, and a weekly dance held on Saturdays has created new energy among the community.

Lessons Learned

Emerging lessons from Cartwheel’s ongoing implementation of the enhanced ECD model in Project RISE provide resilience perspectives and contextualized insights into the value of psychosocial support in disaster-affected IP communities. While the programme has yet to undergo a formal evaluation, early lessons suggest that the THRiVE method is a promising development tool for integrating psychosocial support in ECD programmes, and is particularly essential to disaster recovery efforts because of its adaptability to local healing practices.

Cartwheel is committed to upholding IPs’ right to self-determination and the values of collaboration and ownership. While evidence shows that adversity impacts IP communities disproportionately, Cartwheel’s 17 years of work with indigenous peoples demonstrate that they are able to draw strength from their cultural traditions, rituals, spirituality and sense of community . distinct resilience assets that allow them to cope, heal and recover. Community involvement is crucial to the success of all of the Cartwheel initiatives, and the organization always begins its engagement with community consultations and makes sure that community members are co-designers of the ECD programme. In the enhanced ECD model, wider stakeholder engagement strengthens the support base for psychosocial assistance.

A planned impact evaluation of the enhanced ECD model developed for Project RISE is expected to provide deeper insights into resilience strategies and the effects of integrating stronger psychosocial support systems into ECD programmes, particularly in vulnerable environments where inequality and deep pockets of poverty exist. While indigenous communities may have unique circumstances, current literature on education resilience and child-focused disaster recovery shows the relevance of these lessons to other contexts and communities facing adversity.

  1. Save the Children, 2009.
  2. UNICEF, 2011.
  3. GFDRR, 2014.
  4. World Bank, 2014.
  5. Center on the Developing Child, 2015.
  6. World Bank, 2013.
  7. Masten, 2014.
  8. ARC, 2009.
  9. WHO, 2015.
  10. Duchicela et al., 2015.
  11. IFAD, 2012.
  12. UNDP Philippines, 2010.
  13. IWGIA, n.d.
  14. Cartwheel Foundation, 2014.
  15. Tacastacas and Cartwheel Foundation Philippines, 2015.
  16. UNICEF, 2014.
  17. Masten, 2014.
  18. Van der Kolk, 2014.
  19. Varela et al., 2013. In Colombia, dance has been found to restore a sense of positive identity and show how artistic expression can be healing in the face of adversity from violent conflicts. Similarly, in Afghanistan, Cambodia and Gaza, the arts have played an important role in social healing and transformation.
  20. Save the Children, n.d. Pilot projects have been implemented in El Salvador, Haiti, Malawi,


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