War-handicapped Children:by Thérèse Brosse

Thérèse Brosse (1950) War-handicapped children: report on the European situation Paris: UNESCO

At the UNESCO Conference held in Mexico City in 1947, the Director General had been instructed to draw up a “plan of study and action on the educational problems of war-handicapped children”. Reports had already been produced by the Allied Ministers of Education and so this report built on existing work. It is perhaps important to stress that ‘educational’ was a translation of the French term which covered upbringing and not just schooling.

Key points

  • 250 million children are starving, 60 million in Europe and 65 million in China.
  • Children have been less affected by the events of the war than by consequent losses of stable relationships.
  • Children need a relationship with an adult in which they feel important.
  • Boarding out is not always the best way of meeting a child’s needs.
  • Self-government is a feature of successful residential care.
  • Children who had missed out on education during the war were the most motivated towards education, in particular, in practical subjects.
  • Adverse conditions have both direct and indirect impacts on the physical health of children, sometimes, as with unexploded landmines, with long-term effects.
  • Lack of facilities to deal with physical disabilities impacts on education.
  • There had been a peak in delinquency in 1943 on both sides of the conflict and involving more children with high IQs; some of this related to the specific conditions of the war.
  • Delinquency is best avoided by offering children satisfying relationships with adults.
  • Children who had only known wartime conditions sometimes rebelled against the expectations of peacetime.
  • Children might have collaborated with the occupiers regardless of whether their parents had, but this did not appear to have had long-term adverse effects on their relationships with other children.
  • Children subject to racial discrimination were the most damaged and were more likely to have gained a fierce attachment to their origins.
  • The war had brought the normal problems of bringing children up into sharp focus but had demonstrated children’s remarkable resilience; only 3% of those affected by the war appeared to have long-term problems.
  • Measures that improve education generally, parent education and the range of out of school activities are needed rather than special measures.
  • The difficulties created by the war will take a long time to heal and will require international co-operation.


In the Introduction, she identifies the links between a child’s upbringing, their health and social situation and argues that, while care needs to be taken in assessment, physical suffering is a clear indicator that a child will have suffered emotionally. She estimates that 250 million children in the world are starving, of whom 60 million are in twelve European countries and 65 million in China. The International Children’s Emergency Fund [UNICEF] is totally inadequate to meet that need.

She notes, however, that children have been affected less by the events of the war than by the loss of stable relationships, in some cases by the experience of intolerant ideologies and in most by the interruption of schooling. Peace had not, however, resolved these problems as the presence of foreign troops had been accompanied by rises in juvenile delinquency.

The urgent need is to resume children’s upbringing but this needs to be done with an understanding of children’s situations. In the first part of the report she will consider problems connected with the disruption of the social order.

In Chapter 1 Displaced children, she considers those moved to other countries and those displaced within their own country. Around 18 million were moved to other countries and 12 million displaced within their own country; however, only around 1½ million were considered to meet the International Refugee Organisation’s criteria. Fewer than half of these had received help, of whom half were less than five years old. Among those ineligible for help were large numbers from east Germany.

In Poland 58% of children had moved in the course of the war, some several times, and nearly three-quarters had lost a close family member. Children damaged by their experiences generally had an inferiority complex and lived in the past or the future but not the present. It was important to give them hope for a good future. However, living in refugee camps often reinforces the children’s sense of inferiority while making those living outside feel ‘superior.’

Among the children with particular difficulties were those brought to Germany from client states to be fostered and brought up as members of the Third Reich. Some whose parents had been identified had been returned home but social workers were unsure whether to leave those who were settled with their foster parents in Germany or to seek alternative care in their own country.

The most important thing is to give children some stability. Over one seventh of the homes in Europe had been destroyed and in 1946 over 20 million children did not have a home. For many this also meant they did not have a regular school. So provision for their accommodation had to be made along with provision for their education.

In Chapter 2 Orphans and homeless children, she defines an orphan as any child not in the care of one or both parents. 13 million fell under this definition in the various countries of Europe including a quarter of a million in Great Britain. Outside Europe figures can only be estimates. She then describes the processes various countries have adopted to deal with orphans, most involving the use of assessment centres.

She argues that children who have lost parents need an emotional link with an adult to ensure their ‘emotional health’, noting that breaking that link is more serious the younger the child. She stresses the importance of the adult making their relationship with the child important, mentioning a girl who stole because her adoptive mother did not give her enough attention.

She stress the importance of family life and then goes on to consider boarding out and residential care. She notes that Great Britain, the Netherlands, Czechoslovakia and the Scandinavian countries all favour boarding out. However, boarding out is not always successful, especially where the child presents physical or behavioural problems such as bed-wetting or the foster parents try to enforce standards which the child rejects, including using the foster family’s surname. Difficulties may also occur when the foster parents already have children or have another foster child.

She stresses the need for boarding out officers to be trained and mentions the difficulties that had been encountered with some children who had no experience of family life and with some foster parents who had assumed their obligations would be temporary. She questions the expectation in Great Britain (Volkov, 1948) that children may have a series of foster parents, as this will undermine any stability for the child and reports on the child who wanted to go back to an institution because there “no one seemed to be giving me charity and I wasn’t blamed for anything” (p. 40).

She then mentions the variety of children’s establishments that had grown up in the aftermath of the Second World War to meet children’s needs, noting that self-government was a common feature alongside efforts to reintegrate children into society. She also mentions a number of facilities to accommodate mothers and their children before concluding that children should be placed either in families or in residential communities organised on family lines.

In Chapter 3 Children deprived of schooling, she begins by summarising the number of schools destroyed during the war, well over half in some countries. In Warsaw she met a teacher who only had a blackboard on which she drew diagrams and maps because they had nothing else and in many schools they had nothing to represent their culture. Children who had missed schooling because of the war resented having to study alongside younger children who had not.

In many occupied countries education had been carried on in secret and, because these children were more aware of what they had lost, they were often the most avaricious for education, sometimes neglecting play and sometimes despising work which they had been forced to do for the war effort.

Children responded best to activity-based learning with one boy demanding to go back to a reformatory because they had workshops! A major problem had been the shortage of trained teachers.

In the second part of the report she considers problems connected with individual development, noting first that, rather than classify children by their needs, experiments before the war in England had explored meeting all a child’s special needs in one school.

In Chapter 1 Physical deficiencies, she notes that the war had increased the number of children suffering from physical handicaps whether caused directly by the war or indirectly by malnourishment of the children or of their mothers during pregnancy. Large numbers of children had been infected by tuberculosis. Physical deficiencies may lead to other disabilities and the need for temporary special education at the very least; this may lead to the further handicap of being regarded as ‘backward.’

Several countries had experimented with placements in the countryside or in summer holiday camps offering intensive programmes, though the children’s difficulties had sometimes proved too difficult for the staff. Some had experimented with all-purpose long term ‘open-air schools’. However, many children had chronic conditions for whom there was neither the space in hospitals to treat them nor the schools to educate them. Most provision, even in ‘open-air schools’, was intended to be time-limited and the idea of schools in hospitals had not spread from the US where it had been pioneered.

Turning specifically to the issue of children who had suffered physical mutilation, including by mines left after the war, many countries had no facilities for their care, treatment or education; some did, but they were often limited and part of a more general service for people with disabilities.

Those with sensory disabilities included those who had acquired the disability as a result of the war and those who had suffered because they had been denied support during the war. In many countries there were institutions capable of accommodating such children but they could rarely accommodate more than half of those who needed care and often much less. In addition, few of these children had access to specialist services such as orthopaedics and would therefore be less able to make full use of educational opportunities.

In Chapter 2 Psychological disorders, she begins by distinguishing obvious from less obvious forms of disturbance. There had been a peak in delinquency in 1943 on both sides of the conflict. This had been followed by a decline and then a fresh rise. With a caveat about the different ages for regarding children as offenders, she then presents figures from a wide range of countries to back up her assertion of a peak in 1943 and notes that there was a parallel peak in adult offending.

She points out that those convicted of vagrancy were almost always neglected children but there had also been a marked rise in the IQs of offenders, not least because offences which damaged the occupiers began to be seen as ‘good’. In the Netherlands, members of the Young People’s Resistance Movement had gone round pushing German soldiers into the canals, actions which, like burgling the Town Hall when it was occupied by the Germans, suddenly with the ending of the war became offences. More problematic was that using your intelligence to commit offences to survive had become acceptable.

Where children were subject to indoctrination by the occupiers, they became torn between two sets of moral standards.

While noting that family break-up is a prime cause of delinquency, she cautions that children may steal as a vagrant because they have run away from a bad family, or a bad residential home. She points out that too much and too little discipline can cause problems. She argues in this case that schools can act as alternative parents if teachers succeed in arousing real affection and admiration in children, describing a girl who had been to string of institutions until she ended in one where the headmistress took a real interest in her.

She concludes that children need “a personal relationship with an adult” and opportunities to experiment so that they can begin to feel competent to overcome difficulties and a relationship of mutual trust can develop between teacher and child. She stresses the importance of having a sense of fulfilment which has to have a pro-social outlet if a child is to turn from delinquency. But this can be very difficult where teachers lack facilities, where children have been abused or neglected or where they lack self-confidence in their abilities.

She surveys measures taken in the occupied countries and in other countries to reform the treatment of juvenile delinquency, noting in particular the success of the  Children and Young Persons Act 1933 but also the 25% rise in delinquency between 1947 and 1948. She commends the Minister’s response of seeking greater co-operation between the education, health and welfare departments. She also notes that the Scandinavian countries have raised the age of criminal responsibility to 15 and therefore deal with younger delinquents under welfare provisions.

She then turns to the less obvious forms of disturbance. One group are younger children who, having experienced one form of upbringing during the war, sometimes giving them greater freedom, sometimes placing different expectations on them, have rebelled against a new set of peacetime expectations. Some who had been brought up by their mothers found difficulty accepting they had a father when he returned from the war. Some who had suffered during the war were unprepared to accept teachers who had no similar experiences. Some had so few peer group experiences during the war that they were unable to cope with them after it. More difficult to deal with are the obedient, well-disciplined children who in practice never engage with anyone else; they are often practising a form of ‘escapism’ to avoid dealing with issues.

In Chapter 3 The influence of the war on childrens ideologies, she discusses the impact of collaboration in the occupied countries; in the Netherlands two-thirds were from families sympathetic to the German cause but a third were from families opposed to it. Though many had been to rehabilitation camps after the war, there had been no follow-up support in the community.

Children whose parents collaborated had often been scapegoated by other children and some had reacted by joining resistance movements. In Belgium there had been a major rehabilitation programme for former collaborators. More optimistically a project in Italy to bring together the children of parents from both sides had been very successful and those working with orphans from both sides had found that in only a few weeks animosities had ceased. Interestingly, the children most likely to be interested in international contacts were those who had been sheltered from the worst effects of the war. However, she wonders whether with the passage of time these positive outcomes will fade.

The most damaged children appear to be those selected for different treatment on racial grounds; they have sometimes reacted with even more fierce attachment to their origins.

In her Conclusions to the second part she argues that the war brought the normal problems of bringing children up into sharp focus; changing or destroying relationships or releasing people from conventional expectations are all destructive. At the same time the war demonstrated the considerable capacity for self-healing that children have, provided they have access to an adult who can be an anchor for them.

The war had deprived children of the security and protective affection of adults and the opportunities to experiment; they suffered emotionally in a wide variety of ways including being tempted to serve barbarous ideologies they did not really understand. More positively, it had shown that those caught up in these situations were capable of regret, were able to renew family relationships and were able to plan a more constructive future. Only in about 3% of cases had the war caused long-term damage.

In the third part she considers general solutions to the problems encountered.

In Chapter 1 Principal educational measures in diagnosis and treatment, she argues that the answers lie in general rather in than special measures, in seeing ‘education’ as something that goes beyond the classroom. But they must be underpinned by comprehensive assessment and diagnosis of the child’s needs. Most of these can be addressed within the normal school setting but some will need specialist provision. She stresses the need for research to underpin this work and, drawing on the work of Piaget, argues that education should free children to experiment and own their own learning, with the teacher stimulating and encouraging children and, where necessary, setting limits until children are able to manage those themselves. She argues in favour of self-government in part because of the success of the numerous ‘children’s republics’ that had sprung up in the aftermath of the war.

In summary, she argues for a focus on the psychological health of young children, on activity-based learning for primary school children and on making a transition during early adolescence to more intellectually demanding learning in later adolescence.

This will demand teachers who are less founts of knowledge and more people who understand themselves. But there is a shortage of teachers, in particular of teachers able to work with children with special needs. A temporary solution might be the employment of more people as teaching assistants. At the same time consideration needs to be given to parent education and the promotion of more out of school activities. Interestingly, discussion at the 1947 Scout Jamboree had revealed how many scout leaders were involved through their work in child care matters. So there may be opportunities to create synergy between various areas of work. This will demand specific initiatives to co-ordinate the different contributions.

In Chapter 2 Contributions of international organisations, she outlines the contributions of UNRRA, UNESCO, UNICEF, RIO, WHO, ILO and IVE. She also covers TICER (Temporary International Council on Educational Reconstruction), FICE, IUCW and the International Red Cross and the national Red Cross organisations, highlighting some of the recent work of each of these organisations.

In her General conclusions, she points out that Europe is only one part of the problem – hostilities are continuing in other parts of the world. She assumes that it will be a long time before all the problems created by the war can be addressed, that this will only happen within a holistic approach to children’s needs and that international co-operation will be needed to make this happen.


This book is what today would be called a meta-analysis. She did not have time to undertake direct research herself but visited or contacted as many people as possible who might have information relevant to her brief and then drew that together into this report. It is remarkable how many of the expert opinions on which she drew and how many of her conclusions were to be supported by later research.

For example, she stresses the need for children to have a relationship with an adult in which they feel important (Tizard, 1977) and highlights the problem of the foster parents’ natural children, and especially young children, which were later to be strongly associated with foster home breakdowns (Berridge and Cleaver, 1987), and the concerns expressed by PeggyVolkov (1948) about multiple placements which Wiener and Wiener (1990) later found were associated with poor outcomes.

She was wrong to link delinquency with broken families but her argument that delinquency can be avoided by providing children with satisfying relationships with adults is implicitly supported by Rutter’s finding that anti-social behaviour is associated with parental discord (Rutter, 1971). Her comments about the success of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 were later to be echoed by Cawson and Martell (1979) and for evidence about the increase in anti-social behaviour we need look no further than the fact that 60 of the 139 approved schools in operation at the end of the war had been set up during it (Committee of Enquiry, 1946).

She repeatedly argues for children to have an active say in decisions about their lives, something later demanded by children in care (Page and Clark, 1977) but rarely granted to them (Stein and Carey, 1986). However, in fairness, it should be added that no outcome research has yet found this to be a significant factor in successful care.

Her conclusions that the problems will be long-lasting and will require international co-operation to solve were too pessimistic; as we now know, children subject to serious adverse conditions will recover remarkably rapidly if they are given the appropriate care and attention (Clarke and Clarke,1976) and individual countries have been successful in creating positive conditions for children without paying any attention to international co-operation (Wiener and Wiener,1990; UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre, 2007). On the other hand, lack of attention to international research in the UK may well have been a contributory factor to the poor outcomes for children in the UK.

That may well explain this book’s fate in the UK; not only was John Bowlby, one of the other people commissioned to prepare a report for a UN body (Bowlby, 1952), already a well-known researcher but he also focused on research from English-speaking countries who had been on one side of the war. The idea that children on both sides of the conflict might have experienced similar problems from which people in the UK could learn was perhaps a step too far for an English publisher or a UK government to promote.



Berridge, D and Cleaver, H (1987) Foster home breakdown The practice of social work 16 Oxford: Blackwell See also Children Webmag April 2010.

Bowlby, E J M (1952) Maternal care and mental health: a report prepared on behalf of the World Health Organization as a contribution to the United Nations programme for the welfare of homeless children (Second ed.) Monograph Series No 2 Geneva: World Health Organization Previously published in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization 1950

Cawson, P and Martell, M (1979) Children referred to closed units DHSS Research Report No 5 London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office. See also Children Webmag December 2009.

Clarke, A M and Clarke, A D B (Eds) (1976) Early experience: myth and evidence London: Open Books See also Children Webmag May 2010

Committee of Enquiry (1946) Approved schools and remand homes. Remuneration and conditions of service. Report of the Committee (Chairman: Mr. B.J. Reynolds) London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office

Page, R and Clark G A (Eds) (1977) Who cares? Young people in care speak out London: National Children’s Bureau See also Children Webmag December 2008.

Rutter, M (1971) Parent-child separation: psychological effects on the children Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 12(4), 233-260

Stein, M and Carey, K (1986) Leaving care The practice of social work 14 Oxford: Blackwell See also Children Webmag July 2010.

Tizard, B (1977) Adoption: a second chance London: Open Books See also Children Webmag January 2010.

UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre (2007) Child poverty in perspective: an overview of child well-being in rich countries: a comprehensive assessment of the lives and well-being of children and adolescents in the economically advanced nations. Report card 7. Florence: Innocenti Research Centre

Volkov, P (1948) The re-education of war-handicapped children: some questions about re-education in loyalty. Paper presented to the UNESCO meeting of Directors of Children’s Villages from 4 to 11 July 1948 at Trogen, Switzerland. Paris, 20 July 1948 (UNESCO/ED/Conf.1/5)

Wiener, A and Wiener, E (1990) Expanding the options in child placement Lanham MD: University Press of America See also Children Webmag January 2010.

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.