Helping children and adolescents navigate life and learning
In Nepal’s west, as part of a UNICEF initiative, children and caregivers are being equipped with social-emotional learning skills to nurture improved communication and well-being
Surkhet, Kathmandu: When Mamata Gautam first saw a social media post about a vacancy for a Community-Based Psychosocial Worker or CPSW, she felt drawn to it immediately. A student of Health from Surkhet District in western Nepal, the 22-year-old was excited by the possibility of working with children and young people to improve their mental and emotional well-being.
“Having gone through adolescence myself not too long ago, I remembered the struggles, and felt I could relate to them well,” Mamata says. “I wanted to give them that support that I had craved at that age.”
Mamata was among a cohort of 15 community-based psychosocial workers selected to facilitate the roll-out of a social-emotional learning (SEL) package in her home district.
The project is being piloted by UNICEF in partnership with the Transcultural Psychosocial Organization (TPO) Nepal, with generous funding support from the Z Zurich Foundation, in two municipalities in Surkhet – Birendranagar and Gurbakot.
The CPSWs were trained before being deployed across 11 government schools in the area, tasked with equipping children and adolescents – and their caregivers – with skills to understand and navigate their emotional needs. The students were divided into two groups: one comprising those between 10 to 14 years of age, the other with those between 15 to 19 years of age.
"We had different approaches for the two age groups, keeping in mind their levels of maturity and understanding,” says Ratna Lama, Programme Coordinator at TPO.
She explains how for the younger group, 13 sessions were designed around individual comic stories based on the adventures of ‘Shandaar Shanti’, translated to Nepali from the UNICEF and World Health Organization series of ‘Magnificent Mei’ comics. These addressed a number of socio-emotional skills areas, including emotion regulation, problem-solving, interpersonal skills and assertiveness, among others.
Mamata says the comic format made for a very unique, engaging medium to communicate these concepts to the children.
“They absolutely loved the stories,” she says. “The images and easy language really spoke to them.
For the older group, the project developed 19 sessions that covered some of the same skill areas as the package for their younger peers, but also added other age-relevant issues, such as child marriage and resisting peer pressure to engage in substance abuse. And instead of comics, these sessions relied more on discussions and storytelling, and other activity-based sharing, to encourage participants to speak up about their feelings, analyse their sources of stress, and find healthy ways to manage these.
“When we first started, they were very reluctant to speak up,” Mamata says of the students. “It was wonderful to see them slowly emerge out of their shells, trust the process and trust others with their emotions.”
It takes a village
In addition to working with children and adolescents, the project also has a component aimed at caregivers. Ratna says that this was a crucial inclusion, because the effort would have been “incomplete” without ensuring that the parents had the knowledge and the tools to create a supportive environment for their children.
“We want children and adolescents to speak up, but we also need their parents to listen,” she says.
For this, a one-day session was organized for parents of all the children participating in the SEL package roll-out, to convey to them the importance of and ways to bolster their young ones. A key aspect was nurturing positive communication, tips to manage conflict and help children through stressful times. They also learned ways to manage their own stress.
The response from caregivers has been very encouraging, say both Ratna and Mamata. “Many have come to realize just how important the simple act of listening can be,” Ratna says. “When we hear such testimonies of parents who have been able to connect to their children have open discussions about mental health, it feels like a real achievement, considering the stigma that has long surrounded such conversations.”
The students too, are full of praise for the initiative. Eighth-grader Bhrikuti is one of them, and says that she has enjoyed the SEL sessions immensely.
“I feel like I know myself better,” the 16-year-old explains. “And because I know why I’m feeling how I’m feeling, and I also know there are many others who feel the same way, it helps me to cope better.”
What’s more, Mamata says that the process of imparting these skills to children like Bhrikuti has also been therapeutic for her.
“It’s been a learning and reflecting process for me, too…. I have gained some really important tools to manage my emotions and to provide support to others around me.”
To ensure that young people are supported in improving their mental well-being, UNICEF and the Z Zurich Foundation have launched a global partnership spanning seven countries, including Nepal. The partnership seeks to equip adolescents and caregivers to care for their own and each other's mental well-being, as well as promoting positive connections that increase awareness, knowledge and action around mental well-being.