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Social and emotional learning in schools: Essentials for holistic development

© UNICEF Pacific

By Tani Ruiz

How can you create the conditions so that every young person thrives? This was the first question put to around 30 education experts at the start of a 3-day intensive brainstorming session led by UNICEF in mid January. The answer lies partly in applying what is known as social and emotional learning (SEL), a concept that has been around for many years, but which is now increasingly being adopted by schools – with some very dramatic effects on children’s behaviour, development and academic performance.

SEL is about teaching young people the skills they need to negotiate professional and personal relationships, solve problems, assume responsibility, make decisions after a period of reflection, and develop confidence and self esteem.  While it has always been known that these capacities are important for personal holistic development and success in life, it is only quite recently that schools have been recognized as  prime places for them to be taught, with pride of place alongside maths, science and the regular school curriculum. Researchers have found that what most effects learning are social and emotional factors, such as peer relationships, the classroom climate and students’ interaction with teachers.  Further, recent global research into SEL and the impact it is having in schools shows that teaching children social, emotional and cognitive skills raises academic achievements, and leads to higher test results and grades.  The combination of teaching academia, along with social and emotional aspects of learning, appears to be a sure winner: in brief, it is a quid pro quo for a child to flourish.  

The workshop on emotional and social learning, held in Bangkok, provided a valuable opportunity for UNICEF education specialists and some of their Ministry of Education counterparts from across the East Asia and the Pacific region to share ideas and experiences about SEL, raise concerns, and explore solutions.  
“We arranged this workshop for two reasons,” said UNICEF Life Skills Education Project Officer, Emmanuelle Abrioux.  “First, to increase understanding of social and emotional learning and its importance for schools; second, to develop some tools that will allow us in this region to assess how these skills are being supported in school improvement programmes, and to evaluate results, always with an eye to constant improvement in techniques and teaching.

“What we want,” she says, “is to encourage schools in East Asia and the Pacific to make social and emotional learning a bread and butter ingredient of the entire school experience.”

© UNICEF Mongolia

Over the past decade, social and emotional learning has been applied in some schools in the United States, and has been introduced nationwide in the UK’s primary and secondary schools.  Within East Asia and the Pacific, Singapore has launched a SEL programme, and some other countries of the region have incorporated some aspects of SEL into the teaching of life skills.

UNICEF and its partners have been introducing social and emotional aspects of learning through the growing network of ‘child-friendly’schools in this region.  Such schools focus on creating a safe and protective environment for children, through well-adapted facilities and child-centered teaching methods.  These schools are seen as perfect entry points for the practice of SEL, both approached as a set of skills to be taught in their own right, and also as a philosophy which permeates the teaching of any and all topics, be this in science or the humanities.  Workshop participants put together a draft tool - a survey on conditions of development and learning – that is planned to be used in child-friendly schools. It will assess the impact of social and emotional learning on students and what teaching and other approaches need to be fine-tuned.

The core social and emotional aspects of learning center around developing:

Self-esteem  Problem-solving
Communication Teamwork
Self management Empathy
Responsibility  Decision-making

However, there is no ‘one-size fits all’ method to teaching these skills.  Which issues under the SEL umbrella are critical and how they are introduced – the mode of instruction - needs be tailor-made to the country and the cultural context.  During the workshop, two videos were shown about how SEL had vastly improved the environments of two schools in the US that had been plagued by violence, truancy, and poor academic performance – all inter-related factors. While curtailing violence and ensuring the physical and emotional safety of students may be a priority goal of SEL in the US, in East Asia, the objective may well be more about nurturing an ambiance that gives children freedom to express their emotions and to take risks – especially in a context where ‘loss of face’ may prevent experimentation and frank discourse in public.

“The fundamentals of SEL are universal – having to do with the wiring and chemistry of the brain,” said David Osher, a Managing Research Scientist with the American Institute for Research and the workshop’s facilitator.  “How it is expressed and realized is always going to be historically and culturally specific to different nations.”

“What’s important is to make sure that people identify with what are the relevant goals, themes and challenges within their own country. The challenge is particularly great where people only want to emphasize testing,” Osher said. 

© UNICEF Thailand

Implementation of SEL in schools is very much a work in progress and still in its infancy in this region. “However, an increasing number of people and countries are starting to recognize that you’ll only get excellent exam results and better education if you attend to other things. Don’t forget, schools have always been about socialization,” said Osher.

Many issues have yet to be fully addressed. One of the questions raised at the workshop was how you manage the competition between time for academic instruction and social and emotional learning (given that scholastic time is limited). Another question was how you roll out SEL in schools that have very limited resources, taking into consideration the additional teacher training that will be required and time and resources needed for assessment.

“This questioning is healthy, it leads to a think through of some of the hard issues, and ultimately, it will result in a better and more comprehensive roll out of SEL,” Abrioux said.





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