Social & Emotional Learning: The Pursuit of Happiness Beyond Basic RIghts for Education
Vaibhavi Awasthi – Student, Kautilya
Oscar Wilde was closer to the vulnerability of life when he said– “I don’t want to be at the mercy of my emotions. I want to use them, to enjoy them, and to dominate them.” A similar sentiment was felt when the world was under the diabolical behest of Covid-19. The pandemic’s aftermath impacted life in all its forms. India faced unique struggles during COVID-19, like frequent lockdowns & migrant worker’s crisis. However, one of its undermined struggles, the Education System- historically pushed under the carpet of financial budget, grabbed the attention when around 15 Lakh schools had to be shut down and 24.7 Crore students were forced to stay within the confined walls of their homes and 75 % parents of children between 5-13 years reported learning loss such as comprehensive reading & writing as compared to offline teaching. Parallelly, there was a fear that around 1 Crore girls could drop out of school as per the Right to Education Forum and that about 90 Lakh children were at risk of being pushed into child labor globally, including India. The pandemic demonstrated a significant setback to the strides made in education for India. Fortunately, the experience of the Gandhi fellowship allowed me to experience certain facets of the education system overcoming the pandemic, the nuances of which will be discussed below.
India’s immediate response to COVID-19 was to pull off hybrid methods of taking classes. However, with only about 22% of schools & households having access to the internet over a computer in India, learning was hindered. Children’s intelligence quotient being correlated to their emotional quotient, and such roadblocks began to cause a decline in the mental health of children. UNICEF’s State of the World’s Children 2021 report found that 14% of 15 to 24-year-olds in India felt depressed. Another survey by CSSL- CASS 2022 pointed out the prejudices children held against schools being safe spaces for them to express due to many underlying reasons- economic instability, rise in crimes against children & gender gap in a few Indian States.
The Indian Constitution mandates that education is a fundamental right for children between 6-14 years of age. However, it is often ignored that education is not merely to secure jobs or intellect but also for joy and to be able to foster a healthy learning environment. Acknowledging the need for Social and Emotional Learning (SEL- focused on holistic development through 21st CE Skills), a global concept was introduced in India. SEL pedagogy (way of teaching) was formally brought into existence in 1994 by Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), which laid out its five components- Self-Awareness, Self-management, Social-Awareness, Relationship Skills, and Decision Making.
The major steps taken were the foundational changes in National Education Policy (NEP) 2020, coherent with the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2022 Report, and the introduction of SEL pedagogy, upheld by the National Curriculum Framework (NCF) 2023, like the Happiness Curriculum in Delhi & Harsh Johar Curriculum- Project Sampoorna in Jharkhand, to foster holistic education. The National Council of Educational Research & Training (NCERT) also issued guidelines for schools to provide professional counseling assistance to both students and staff to deal with more sensitive issues.
Following the policies, educational institutes have set up mechanisms to initiate dialogues to address the development needs of the students. I witnessed such a change happening in one of the unconventional schools in Jharkhand, where a ninth grader- Kalpana, was bidding farewell to her favorite teacher- ‘Jason Bhaiya,’ who she confided in while she was living a neglected life around her brothers who had the privileges of all sorts and how Jason saved her life. There were a few other testimonies of students of a government school in East Singhbhum, expressing that they felt more confident in reaching out to the teachers who transformed Professional Learning Communities, which focused on imbibing SEL tools such as emotion check-ins. The teachers had become more empathetic to engage in a two-way communication channel, allowing the students to express their opinions and concerns without prejudice.
Applauded as another policy milestone, the Government of Maharashtra introduced Mitra Upakram – a breathing module for school children enabling them to handle their conflicts and focus on self-awareness through mindfulness. The program seeks to liberate 2.5 Cr students and 6 lacs teachers from mental blocks like depression, anxiety & anger while fostering peace and creativity. For students beyond the age of 18, Vipassana, a mediation technique, also encouraged by the ex-President of India, Shri Ram Nath Kovind, could be seen as a crucial tool beyond social or religious identities to overcome emotional instability given the rise in the number of suicides among students as a result of the toxic culture of peer competition.
Regardless of these contemporary education policies, fostering a healthy environment is no cakewalk but an uphill battle, as even now, there are incidents happening where children are being inflicted with trauma born out of socio-cultural conflicts such as caste/gender-based discrimination, child abuse, and sexual harassment. Within the periphery of a tribal girls’ school where I used to visit, the staff was worried about the girls exploring their sexual preferences only because the girls used to hold each other’s hands & lie in close quarters. The only solution they found was to ‘morally shame’ the girls who would hold hands. Similarly, in one of my interactions with the government teachers during training, a component of menstrual hygiene was brought up, only to be criticized because they resisted an open discourse with female students.
Such crucial setbacks highlight the need for heuristic, exploratory approaches fostering open dialogue and spaces for inventive ways of learning apart from the existing modus operandi of a rigid education system. Learning from state education departments like Delhi, Jharkhand & Maharashtra or teachers like ‘Jason’ who innovate & introduce cost-effective SEL practices in schools like Mitra Upakram or emotional check-ins can allow our children to grow within a wholesome education system. Education must bring students happiness and the ability to be more human. This change may let students turn their pursuit of education into a hopeful reality.
*The Kautilya School of Public Policy (KSPP) takes no institutional positions. The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author(s) and do not reflect the views or positions of KSPP.