Expert View

How can schools help in developing the socio-emotional skills of children?

Dr. Siamack Zahedi, Co-CEO & Director of Education and Research, The Acres Foundation

The National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 proposes that schools in India should aim at providing a holistic education to “develop all capacities of human beings – intellectual, aesthetic, social, physical, emotional, and moral in an integrated manner”. It is important to note the mention of socio-emotional learning in this message. Unfortunately, curricula and examination practices today do not effectively support such outcomes because of their one-dimensional focus on high-pressure competitive examinations that mostly assess for rote memorization of academic content. This has led to non-academic goals being deprioritized and side-lined by schools. However, more recently, there has been a growing interest among policymakers, educators, parents, and researchers, regarding the development of socio-emotional learning or SEL. This entails engaging students in learning experiences that build knowledge, skills and mindsets needed to succeed academically, but also nurture healthy social relationships, maintain positive mental health, successfully secure employment, and be actively engaged citizens.

While the inclusion of SEL into mainstream school curricula is still an emerging phenomenon in India, it is heartening to see attempts being made towards this end. Since there is no centrally mandated curriculum for this domain, and since there is no empirical evidence to suggest what makes an effective SEL program in the Indian schooling context, self-initiated institutions and educators have taken it upon themselves to design and try out different interventions. This has led to a great diversity of practices across schools, but with little scientific evidence backing their choices. While we wait for research to emerge in this domain in India, I believe it would be wise for schools to direct SEL curriculum and instruction related efforts based on the most widely researched framework in the world – the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning or CASEL. This framework consists of developmentally appropriate, and evidence based (albeit it in the international context) guidelines for schools intending to implement SEL programs.

CASEL research proposes that the building of knowledge, skills, and mindsets across five key competencies is essential: (1) self-awareness, (2) self-management (3) social awareness (4) relationship skills, and (5) responsible decision making. Individuals that are self-aware are able to identify their strengths and weaknesses. They can recognise their own emotions, thoughts, and personal values, and how these things affect their behaviour. Such individuals are able to self-manage or exercise impulse control, regulate stress, organize their thoughts and actions, and manage their emotions, thoughts and behaviours in ways that allow them to successfully achieve their goals. Students that build social awareness have the ability to empathise with, understand, and explore diverse perspectives as they interact with individuals from a variety of socio-cultural backgrounds. This will be critical as they seek to build relationship skills that will help them communicate, navigate conflict, and work effectively with others. Finally, students that learn to be responsible decision makers will have the capability to thoughtfully evaluate choices along with their consequences, and subsequently take decisions that are constructive for them and those around them.

While the five key competencies are what SEL program content should be organised around, international studies show that the curriculum will be most effective if its implementation is Sequenced, Active, Focused and Explicit or SAFE. Sequenced instruction implies that content and teaching practices must build in complexity and volume logically across grades in a seamless manner. Active instruction entails for students to be cognitively engaged in learning through project-based methods, collaborative work, and discourse, instead of traditional lecturing that we often see. Focused instruction means that the content under study is intentional and developmentally appropriate and driven by a set of learning objectives that have been established at the outset. Finally, explicit instruction requires schools to commit sufficient space in their timetables for the exploration of SEL content.

While designing an effective SEL program and implementing it as prescribed by research are extremely difficult achievements in themselves, it is important to bear in mind that even the best of programs will not be successful unless certain school-level supports are made available. Arguably, the most important support is a positive learning climate at the classroom and school level. Students must feel a sense of respect and non-judgemental guidance from adults if SEL-related learning engagements are to be driven by open exploration and honest discourse. The environment must facilitate positive learning mindsets that make students believe they have the capability to learn and change and encourage students to treat mistakes as a normal and essential part of learning. There must exist a strong sense of community and inclusivity, where shared social agreements are created in classrooms and students feel belonging and emotionally safe. Another school level support critical for the success of SEL programs is that the SEL capacity of school leaders and teachers themselves must be high. The adults in the school must model the skills, knowledge, and mindsets that we want students to build. In-service professional development must be geared towards supporting this need. Also, a commitment to continuous reflection and improvement of the SEL program based on student learning data is critical to ensure that the design of the program is based on evidence or proof of its effectiveness from our own school context. Finally, parent and school partnership is critical to reinforce and support transfer of SEL capabilities across school and home contexts.

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