“My children and I have been tormented by the loss we suffered during the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic [in India]. I am not mentally ready to deal with the impact of a third wave. How am I supposed to calm and console my children?” asks Bhupen, an auto-rickshaw driver and father of three students studying in a government school in New Delhi.

For children, mental health necessarily takes into account age-specific and life-course markers. To be mentally healthy encompasses a positive sense of identity, an ability to manage thoughts and emotions, a capacity to build relationships, and the ability to learn and acquire education. 

International organisations predict that the aftershocks of the pandemic will chip away at the happiness and well-being of children, adolescents, and caregivers for years to come–posing a risk to the foundations of their mental health. Both these organisations and the Indian government agree that the COVID-19 pandemic merely represents the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the poor mental health of children. 

These predictions are already being realised. Schools act as a safe space: they are a microcosm of the world that students are on their way to being a part of. The absence of physical schooling deprives students not only of academic opportunities, but of an ecosystem to form connections and relationships in. Over 33% of 5- to 13-year-olds and 50% of 14 to 18-year-olds reported poor or very poor mental health, during the pandemic and lockdown restrictions in India. “I believed that this was the end of the world, and we were not going to survive the pandemic,” said Aastha, a secondary student of a low-income private school in New Delhi. The State of the World’s Children 2021 found that around 14% of 15 to 24-year-olds in India, or 1 in 7, reported often feeling depressed or having little interest in doing things.

It’s no wonder then that with the onset of COVID-19, the popularity of Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) programs has grown exponentially. SEL entails the process “of acquiring core competencies to recognise and manage emotions, set and achieve goals, appreciate the perspectives of others, establish and maintain positive relationships, make responsible decisions, and handle interpersonal situations constructively.”  

The Sustainable Development Goal on Education (SDG 4) envisions that countries incubate education systems that not only bolster academic growth but give birth to sustainable societies of conscious beings of the future. In order to build this vision, it is of primal importance that learners “are exposed to three types of inter-related learning experiences: cognitive, social, and emotional and behavioural.” As the third wave of COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across India, we must gear up to develop an approach to address the fear and anxiety of children and their caregivers through an SEL framework contextualised to India’s needs.

But First: How Exactly Did the Pandemic Impact Student Wellbeing in India?

With the onset of the virus, the Indian government declared an early countrywide lockdown in March of 2020. One of the major impacts of the lockdown (and those that followed) was the full or partial loss of livelihoods, especially in urban India. As a result, millions of migrant workers across India moved back to their villages—a phenomenon that critically impacted the education sector. 

“We have travelled to three different cities in the last two years to find my father a job but we have been unable to. This [travel] has led to me not being admitted to any school. I fear I will never be able to go back to school,” shares Ankita, a 14-year-old student who migrated from New Delhi to Karnataka as a result of the lockdowns. In India, since the first lockdown in March of 2020, around 320 million children have not stepped into a classroom for over a year, while estimates suggest that lockdowns have cost students a tenth of their entire schooling.

The post-lockdown challenges affected livelihoods, food availability, health and nutrition, and access to public services, impacting students’ lives further. “My father lost his job during the lockdown restrictions. We were struggling to arrange daily food supplies for my family of five,” recalls Sumit, a student at a secondary government school in New Delhi. The situation at home especially worsened for adolescent girls and children. In conversation with PTI, Harleen Walia, Deputy Director of Childline India, notes that “out of 3.07 lakh calls received by the ‘CHILDLINE 1098’ helpline for children in distress across the country between March 20-31, covering the first week of the lockdown, 30% were about protection against abuse and violence on children (..) this comes to 92,105 calls.

In July of 2020, the Indian government launched Manodarpan in response to cater to the increasing mental health vulnerabilities of Indian children. Under this initiative, a toll-free helpline number, a dedicated website, and a handbook on 21st-century life skills necessary to survive a health crisis were launched. Counsellors at country-wide ‘Snehi’ psycho-social support centres helped children address pandemic-induced mental health concerns too.

Yet, much has changed since last year—India has witnessed two more waves of COVID-19, leading to unpredictable education policies, rendering these initiatives as only partial solutions. The continued uncertainty over examinations and reopening of schools over the last two years, for example, adversely impacts the mental well being of students already caught on the wrong side of the digital divide.

“There was so much confusion over whether our examinations would be conducted offline or online,” says Sahana, a secondary student in a government school in New Delhi. “One of our exams was also postponed at the last minute, making it very difficult to comprehend [our] reality [after a point].”

So, How Do We Design Social and Emotional Learning Policies that Help Indian Students?

Research shows that emotions can accelerate or stall children’s academic performance, dedication to their work, and behavioural traits. Studies further report that social and emotional health can have long-lasting effects on students’ large lives, impacting “high school graduation, postsecondary completion, employment, financial stability, physical health, and overall mental health and well-being.”

So, SEL cultivates a certain kind of holistic development during one’s childhood that can support them for life. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning framework delineates four major settings—Communities, Families, Schools, and finally, Classrooms—where SEL must be an ongoing process for a child. A report shows how the spheres of influence affect the child’s mental health outcomes. Building synergies between these settings is crucial when maximising the learning outcomes for a child. Overall, the key components of an SEL framework should build critical inquiry, focus, emotional regulation, and compassionate action to develop a balance of intrapersonal, interpersonal, and cognitive competencies.

An SEL framework majorly developed by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), which focuses on 5 core SEL competencies; courtesy of CASEL.

Given this increasing evidence of the effectiveness of SEL in classrooms, various frameworks, resources, and curricula have been developed the world over. In India, the National Education Policy, 2020 (NEP) delineates its vision of achieving holistic development for students by giving SEL its due credence alongside academic excellence. 

However, the implementation of the NEP is far from complete. While the mission of Early Childhood Care and Education—which focuses on foundational literacy and numeracy—has seen the light of the day, a nationalised SEL curriculum is still not a reality in India’s education landscape. Additionally, although the NEP lays emphasis on Continuous Professional Development (CPD) for teachers to improve their teaching skills, it falls short of including SEL training for teachers as a means to cater to a student’s socio-emotional needs. In the absence of a structured framework, there is often unequal support provided to both teachers and students.

That being said, SEL initiatives do exist, usually at the state level: these include the Uttarakhand government’s ‘Anandam Pathyacharya’ or ‘Experiential Learning Curriculum for school students, or the New Delhi government’s ‘Happiness Curriculum’, implemented in all government schools from nursery to Grade 8. 

Yet, due to these endemic issues of negligence towards SEL, even the much-touted Happiness Curriculum fails to meet the mark. During online schooling in New Delhi, the ‘teaching’ of the curriculum was limited to the completion of worksheets. “During the lockdown, our teacher sent [Happiness Curriculum] worksheets which had stories and activities, but they always felt like a task. We already had subject-specific worksheets to complete and these only added to the burden,” surmised Jaya, a Grade 9 student at a government school.

Completed Happiness Curriculum worksheets for Grade 8 students; courtesy of the authors.

As most of the worksheets were distributed online via a WhatsApp voice note or occasional Zoom sessions, gaps in digital access worsened the delivery of SEL classes—and so the curriculum only partially equipped students in processing their socio-emotional needs.

Moreover, while students studying in secondary classrooms had some means to engage in SEL tools and processes delivered by New Delhi government schools, there were no SEL programs in place for younger students. “My seven-year-old boy is violent and aggressive towards the entire family. We do not know what to do”, shared Manav, a father residing in a low-income household in New Delhi.

Our Way Forward As Educators: Eight Policy Recommendations for Effective, India-centric SEL

First, focus on addressing the stigma around mental health: to design a dedicated policy that focuses on social and emotional learning to improve the mental health of students, it is essential to hold open conversations on mental health. This is especially needed in India: as per the State of the World’s Children 2021 Report, India was the only country out of 21 where “only a minority of young people felt that people experiencing mental health issues should reach out to others”. To illustrate, a number of government schools in New Delhi have counsellors to support the children’s mental well-being. However, conversations with the student communities have highlighted the prevalence of reservations in using them due to the deep stigma surrounding mental health. Even if students want to approach them, poor communication over the availability of their services acts as an impediment. “Each school has a counsellor in place, but they haven’t been active during the pandemic. Sometimes as students mainly learning from home, we didn’t know whom to approach [for counselling],” recalls Madhvi, a Grade 9 student studying in a government school in New Delhi.  

Clearly, the Indian government’s recognition of mental health and physical health as two sides of the same coin—as well as the prevalence of social stigma associated with mental health issues—needs to underline any national policy for SEL. 

Second, identify an India-specific SEL framework: the education sector is presently replete with multiple SEL frameworks. So, as per the vision of the NEP, it is essential to identify a framework that caters to the suite of social and emotional competencies that diverse Indian students would need to navigate school, life, and work. Efforts should be made to translate the NEP’s vision into a centralised, empirically-grounded curriculum that is customisable for students at all levels, especially for those students who migrate between both rural and urban contexts.  

Third, ensure meaningful implementation of SEL in the school system: teachers are essential stakeholders in social and emotional learning as they are central figures in the socialisation of children. Training teachers to not just implement SEL, but also identify the needs of their students become essential in the effective implementation of a program.

To that end, school teachers’ have been bestowed with the responsibility of ensuring the successful implementation of the SEL curriculum under the NEP. Yet, little to no SEL training has been conducted for government teachers to comprehend their critical role. “We only receive tasks which we forward to students over WhatsApp. We have not participated in dedicated training on implementing such SEL programs in our virtual classrooms,” shared Mr. Kishore, Head of School at a government school in New Delhi. 

The dearth of proper monitoring and evaluative methods for SEL programs create further hurdles in building linkages between the available resources and the students. For example, the ‘Strengthening Evidence Base on school-based intErventions for pRomoting adolescent health’ (SEHER) program in Bihar, showed improved students’ attitudes towards gender equity, depression, bullying and violence when the intervention was delivered by a counsellor. In contrast, when the intervention was delivered by teachers, there was little effect.

This lacklustre implementation of SEL often has to do with the added work pressure school teachers face as a result of the pandemic. Administrative duties, which often take the forefront, have multiplied, while school teachers are frequently given other ancillary non-teaching duties. Teaching can clearly be an extremely stressful profession, particularly in schools with low resources, or those in conflict-affected areas. So, teacher training for social and emotional learning must be tabled keeping in mind these limitations to ease out bottlenecks in implementation. It is as important to cater to the mental health of teachers as it is to do so for students, as through their actions they model out social and emotional competencies and skills in a classroom.

Fourth, integrate SEL into the academic curriculum: as we prepare to refit education for the pandemic-stricken world, our focus should be on integrating SEL into the teaching of formal academic subjects—and not treating it as a standalone ‘subject’. Some teachers already do this in their classrooms. “I generally start the Zoom class [of any subject] with five minutes of a mindfulness activity. Otherwise, I send [students] a short WhatsApp voice note towards the end [of class for them to reflect on],” adds Mrs. Upadhyaya, a Trained Graduate teacher teaching in a government school in New Delhi. 

Fifth, build the investment of different stakeholders: it is challenging to implement SEL programs in a school set-up, as a number of stakeholders, such as school headteachers, staff members, teachers, students, parents, and government officials are involved in the process. The need of the hour is to invest in each of these stakeholders while formulating an SEL policy framework that can be easily implemented. 

As students navigate to shifts in their mindsets with regard to socio-emotional learning, and as students’ interactions with their families and communities have increased over the last two years, tools should be put in place to contextualise these needed learning experiences for both parties. This develops parent-educator partnerships which can be expanded to the communities students hail from. In terms of curating SEL experiences for students, governmental partnerships with Civil Society Organisations like the Labhya Foundation have helped bridge the gap by working with the government to create SEL programs across the public school systems. Such efforts might aid the development of a nuanced and context-specific centralised SEL policy. 

Sixth, monitor and evaluate SEL activities: New Delhi’s Happiness Curriculum does not monitor or evaluate the work and progress made by students implementing the curriculum in their everyday lives in any quantitative, measurable, or defined approach. Rather, it gives autonomy to the teacher or coordinator to identify and evaluate progress. Such individual evaluation might be influenced by teachers’ biases, prejudices, and belief systems. This leads to a missed opportunity to evaluate the impact of SEL and improve current program outcomes. SEL programs should include robust accountability rubrics embedded by design to monitor the effectiveness of programs. 

Seventh, leverage technology for SEL: Globally, digital technology is being used to implement SEL programs. For instance, digital games are launched centred around SEL competencies, and virtual teaching content is produced for SEL programs. The same can be considered in India—however, the effectiveness of such digital methods would largely depend on access to smartphones, internet access, and digital literacy.

Eighth, involve students in designing SEL programsI was good at cricket but over the last 2 years, I have hardly played any sport. I do not have the energy to do many tasks at home or finish school assignments,” shares Mridul, a student of a low-income private secondary school in New Delhi. Discussions on SEL programs cannot be completed without taking students’ voices and concerns into consideration. A major part of building long-lasting core competencies is through enabling student ownership over SEL and helping them find a platform where they can think out loud—to help students like Mridul address their mental health struggles better. This is the major missing puzzle in the SEL jigsaw.


All names in this article have been anonymised. | Featured image courtesy of Frederick Noronha (CC BY-SA 4.0).

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