by Tatenda Mawoyo
Tatenda Mawoyo is a qualified social worker and has a master’s degree in social policy and management. He joined ILCHR in April 2020 as a junior researcher and he was one of the project leaders of Project HASHTAG. Tatenda is passionate about working with adolescents and intends on working on a PhD focused on school climate and mental health. In this Q&A he discusses Project HASHTAG, multicomponent interventions, stakeholder input and program implementation under pandemic conditions.
Photo of Usasazo Secondary School by Wolff Architects
1. Would you mind giving a brief overview of both Project HASHTAG and the Thrive Together Strategy?
Project HASHTAG (Health Action in ScHool for a Thriving Adolescent Generation) is a multilevel school-based health improvement intervention to promote a healthy school climate, positive mental health, and prevent mental disorders. The intervention incorporates two strategies. The first strategy is Thriving Environment in School (TES), which involves a whole school approach to improve school climate.
In practice, this involved (1) n launch event to introduce teachers and students to project HASHTAG; (2) School Action Groups (SAGs) which was a committee comprised of teachers, student representatives and the HASHTAG facilitators that were responsible for coordinating the HASHTAG activities; (3) a mental health awareness competition; and (4) and teacher modules which were focused on self-care as well as strategies to engage with adolescents.
Thriving Together (TT) involved the provision of psychosocial skills to Grade 8 learners. The TT groups took place once a week, over the course of 6 weeks, for 90 minutes. Some of the skills that were covered during these sessions were mindfulness, awareness of feelings, problems solving, communication and assertiveness. In addition, the students were provided with comics that were designed by UNICEF to reinforce the key lessons.
2. How valuable are stakeholder inputs in developing an intervention?
Stakeholder inputs are of paramount importance in the development of any intervention. It is vital that interventions speaks to the needs of the participants and are applicable to the context. Whilst developing Project HASHTAG several focus groups and in-depth interviews were conducted with adolescents, caregivers, teachers, NGO representatives, school management officials and a Department of Education official. These interviews and focus groups helped to ascertain some of the needs of the adolescents and potential ways to address them.
In addition, to the focus groups and individual interviews, intervention development groups were also conducted with adolescents (adolescent advisory board and Grade 9 learners) and educators. During the intervention development groups some activities were piloted and the various groups provided feedback. For instance, the Grade 9 learners were able to reflect on their experiences in Grade 8 and provide guidance regarding the challenges they experienced with the transition from primary school to high school. The Grade 9’s reflected on how difficult it was for them to approach teachers and were appreciative that the intervention had a teacher component that dealt with ways to understand adolescents better.
3. Are multicomponent interventions more suited to LMIC contexts? Why? Why not?
In my opinion, multicomponent interventions  are more suited to LMIC contexts due to the potential of the synergistic effect . For example, the impact of the psychosocial sessions (TT) coupled with the school climate intervention (TES) is more likely to result in greater impact for the school and the learners. Also, a healthy school climate is likely to foster positive mental health of both the teachers and students whilst the psychosocial intervention is likely to result in less risk taking behaviour and improve school drop out rates. Therefore, multicomponent interventions become more attractive for policy makers, funders, and educators as one intervention is dealing with various components.
In addition, poor countries such as South Africa often have limited resources and multicomponent interventions can be more cost effective as one intervention can impact various outcomes. Lastly, institutions like schools are approached by numerous projects and I believe multicomponent interventions will have a competitive edge over single component interventions as they address various aspects.
4. The intervention has been referred to as “gender-sensitive”, what does this mean? Why is it important?
My understanding of gender sensitivity is ensuring that everyone has an equal opportunity to express themselves, regardless of their gender. This entails being aware of some of the gender barriers to participation, for equality and making a concerted effort to address them. Whilst facilitating TT, the facilitators were mindful of some of the stereotypes and addressed them during the sessions. For example, when introducing the importance of being aware of feelings the facilitators would debunk the notion of ‘men do not cry or discuss feelings’ by highlighting why it is important for everyone to identify their feelings. Similarly, when discussing what is in your control and what is outside your control, there were some problematic gender norms that were revealed when discussing rape (for example, it is in you control due to the way you dress) and the facilitators were able to address these norms.
5. What obstacles have you encountered implementing the Thrive Together Strategy under pandemic conditions? How have you attempted to mitigate these obstacles?
Due to social distancing, most classes were divided into two and they often attend on alternate days. This resulted in teachers having limited contact time with the students. TT was supposed to be incorporated into the curriculum so that the students would receive the intervention as part of their normal school day. Unfortunately, this was not possible based on the limited contact time. In consultation with the schools, it was agreed that the intervention would be delivered on the days that the students would not attend school. Overall, this seemed to work well, however, the attendance was not as high as previous school-based interventions.
According to the design of the project TES was supposed to lay the foundation for TT, however, because of the lockdown the timelines were adversely affected and some of the TES activities had to run concurrently with TT. For instance, the teacher modules were facilitated much later than anticipated. Based on the experiences of the facilitators, the teachers were more willing to assist after the teacher modules as they had better insight regarding the aims of the project.
6. Have there been any unexpected findings that have come out of the implementation process so far?
One of the facilitators had to contact a caregiver to arrange a make-up session for one of the learners. During this conversation, the grandmother proceeded to encourage the facilitator to continue with Project HASHTAG as she had noticed positive changes with her grandson. The grandmother highlighted that her grandson was very isolated and hardly interacted with other family members. However, since her grandson had started attending the TT sessions, she had noticed that he was more willing to interact and spend time with family.
As previously indicated, TT was attended by Grade 8 learners. Some the Grade 8 learners would share their experiences with their friends in older grades and this resulted in the facilitators being inundated with requests by older students to attend the project.