Importance of Social and Emotional Learning

The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly transformed children's lives in Bangladesh and beyond. Children have experienced some of the most significant shifts in their lives and daily routines, even though we have all been subjected to related challenges. They might have been in constant fear of their loved ones contracting the virus. A parent‘s job loss, lockdowns, and the unpredictability of the pandemic are just a few of the other factors that many kids may have dealt with over the past few years. Most importantly, their academic activities were disrupted in many ways. This includes daily peer interactions, assembly, play and activities, games, cultural activities, celebrations of special days, and other events that simply were no longer available.  It is no wonder that Bangladesh has been seeing increased mental health crises among children. Data gathered since the start of the pandemic has demonstrated a sharp rise in children of all ages seeking mental health care. In 2020, a published article demonstrated that Bangladeshi students aged 5-15 years were suffering from depression, anxiety, and sleeping disorder; an estimated 19.35 % had moderate and 7.2% had severe mental disturbances, respectively. 

After one and a half years of school closures, in-person classes resumed on September 12, 2021. Initially, most grades were attending between one to two days of in-person classes a week to ensure social distancing. However, full-fledged classes restarted in February 2022. Based on various reports and personal experiences of the researcher, the return to school after a long-term unplanned break was a dire scenario. It was observed that many students could no longer recognise the alphabets and numbers that they had learnt previously; some had lost their reading ability, and some others had forgotten the names of their teachers and peers. Most importantly, students were observed to be more disruptive during classes and had lost interest in regular learning at home, which is still a concern for parents and education specialists. 

Children may benefit from participating in Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) programs in order to manage better the overwhelming stress and emotional impact caused by COVID-19 and to better acclimate to the atmosphere of their schools. The provision of such support is best accomplished through the use of SEL programs. SEL is an educational approach that helps students achieve social and emotional competencies within the school curricula. It is a vital component of holistic human development that emphasizes learning to become compassionate and responsible individuals who can properly regulate their emotions, be resilient, communicate effectively, and develop friendships with others to adapt well to their surroundings. Numerous large-scale evidence reviews suggest that proper implementation of SEL can have a positive impact on a variety of outcomes in children. These outcomes include enhanced social and emotional skills, improved academic performance, positive attitudes and behaviour, healthy relationships with peers and teachers; increased school connection; reduced emotional distress; effective recovery from trauma and distress evoked by emergencies, conflicts, and disasters; lower levels of bullying; and decreased conduct problems.

BRAC Education Program (BEP) has developed an accelerated model, globally known as Accelerated Learning Program (ALP), to bring primary-level Out-of-School Children (OoSC) back to school and address their learning gaps. ALP utilises efficient instructional and learning strategies tailored to student’s cognitive development, allowing them to acquire grade-specific competencies in a shorter timeframe compared to traditional education settings. Due to its effectiveness in meeting the educational demands of people impacted by such situations, ALP has grown in prominence in regions affected by crises, conflict and other comparable problems. 

In Bangladesh, BRAC accelerated schools aimed to reintegrate OoSC aged 7-14 years and children who were facing barriers to accessing formal education into government/formal schools by bridging their learning gap and rebuilding their learning capacity. Additionally, this program also targeted to create opportunities for the students’ socio-emotional development through access to psycho-social support (PSS) and play-based pedagogy. This would ensure that their essential mental health needs were addressed. Providing intervention to the parents and community members was also planned in this program to ensure a supportive approach that harmonises the environment at home and school. 

To integrate Socio-emotional Learning (SEL) into the accelerated model, the BRAC Institute of Educational Development (IED) developed SEL content for the students, parents and community to support this model. Furthermore, to develop the capacity of SEL among teachers, training of teachers and staff was initiated. All parents, teachers, Members of the School Managing Committee (SMC) and Para Committee also received awareness sessions based on the socio-emotional development of children and positive parenting. As a part of the SEL integration into the accelerated model, Para-counsellors were also trained and appointed in each school to provide psycho-social support (PSS) to the students, teachers and parents. Over a period of 18 months,  the aforementioned interventions were provided to 35000 OoSC in 1400 one-room schools in 8 districts, namely Cox’s Bazar, Dinajpur, Habiganj, Kishoreganj, Lalmonirhat, Netrokona, Rangpur and Sunamganj under the BRAC accelerated model, which was funded by the LEGO foundation.  

BRAC James P Grant School of Public Health (BRAC JPGSPH) conducted a qualitative study in April 2023 aiming to understand the stakeholders’ perceptions of the SEL integrated play-based accelerated learning model from three implementing areas out of above mentioned eight districts. Findings indicate that the program has so far seen great success.

Rehana, a BRAC school teacher from Cox’s Bazar, expressed that the inclusion of SEL in the curriculum was very helpful for teachers and students. Teachers observed that due to the COVID lockdown, the students had become less attentive and irregular in their studies as they were out of school for a long time, and the students remained upset at the beginning of the reopening of the classes. 

Like Rehana, other teachers commented that the inclusion of the SEL in the accelerated learning model increased the effectiveness of the model and also helped the students greatly to learn their class lessons properly. With enhanced social skills students became capable of communicating effectively with peers and teachers, working in pairs and groups, and understanding the feelings of others, which led to a positive classroom environment and increased engagement and participation. After discussing about self-awareness, the students became more self-conscious and aware of their strengths which helped them focus more on their education. 

SEL has been shown to have positive effects on students, but there is also evidence that it can help teachers and the school as a whole. This includes teachers reporting less stress, better relationships with students, and increased confidence in their teaching. Being equipped with key SEL competencies made the teachers more capable of managing student behaviour and fostering a healthy classroom environment which led to a sense of fulfilment, job satisfaction and work-life balance. 

Engaging the parents and community members through SMC and Para Committee meetings also strengthened the SEL intervention by enabling them to provide consistent support and create a positive home environment for the students, which impacted their overall well-being and educational success. 

The United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) 4.1, and 4.10 are concerned with providing access to quality education and capacity building of teachers in developing countries by 2030. If we wish to increase access to quality education for all children in countries such as Bangladesh, SEL can be very helpful for children to learn social skills and emotional intelligence that they will use every day.  Even though the pandemic has been hard on the mental health of children of all ages, SEL programs are a powerful way for schools to help their children as they get back on their feet. Students can not only do better in school but can develop holistically through learning these crucial life skills.

Atiya Rahman, Nazrana Khaled, Md Reza E Rabbi and Sumona Hoque Ima are researchers at the Humanitarian Hub, BRAC James P Grant School of Public Health, BRAC University