Fostering Resilience During COVID-19 Through Social and Emotional Learning
Decades of research illustrate the benefits of social-emotional learning (SEL) for students in and out of the classroom, and SEL has become more prominent in low- and middle-income countries in recent years. Students with strong social and emotional skills foster more positive relationships, are more successful in school, and have improved mental health. In areas of instability or crisis, SEL programs positively impact learning and development while fostering emotional health and well-being. Critically, SEL builds resilience, providing students with the skills necessary to cope with adversity.
Since the onset of COVID-19, students are facing a wave of new stressors and challenges. With more than 90 percent of children having missed significant amounts of schooling, children around the world have experienced a loss of routine, inconsistent education, and separation from friends or family. Many have felt the impacts from loss of household income or increased social tensions. When students return to education, they may feel fear or anxiety regarding the pandemic, as well as stress related to new systems or structures required to maintain healthy learning environments. Students and educators will need to deploy existing skills in new ways and/or develop new skills to cope with or overcome such adversity and continue to thrive despite the difficult times they have experienced.
What is Social-Emotional Learning?
SEL is the process in which students gain the skills and competencies necessary to thrive academically, socially, and personally. It fosters the ability to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions. Social-emotional skills build upon one another, in alignment with children’s ages and development stages.
Numerous frameworks exist contextualizing social-emotional learning to different cultures, norms, and priorities. At times, SEL overlaps with life and employability skills or civic education (e.g. Kenya’s Basic Education Curriculum Framework or UNICEF India’s Comprehensive Life Skills Framework).
USAID identified social and emotional or soft skills as important, measurable learning outcomes in the 2018 Education Policy. More information about USAID terms, definitions, program quality principles, and areas in need of research and learning can be found here.
How SEL Skills Contribute to Individual and Community Resilience?
When considering the unique attributes of the education sector’s contribution to resilience writ large, the risk-informed integration of social and emotional skills instruction into education systems and programs directly contributes to building human capital, internal dispositions, and social capital that children and youth need to cope with stress and adapt to challenges.
Growing evidence demonstrates that SEL helps children and youth perform better academically and have higher educational attainment, thus greater individual human capital. At the same time, we know that educated populations, particularly those with a secondary level education and beyond, are better able to adapt or transform their behaviors and livelihoods in anticipation of or in response to adversity because they have higher capital assets, better earnings, improved productivity, and greater opportunities for paid employment.
Additionally, SEL explicitly or implicitly builds mindsets and internal dispositions, which can be reinforced through classroom and school-wide policies and practices. This can include building self-efficacy, strengthening personal aspirations, and fostering a sense of hope or purpose. Such midsets reduce the likelihood that children and youth will seek out negative coping strategies and enhance their ability to recover from shocks. Often SEL strategies build the resilience capacity of learners while also strengthening the well-being of educators and school personnel.
Finally, children and youth with strong social and emotional skills are able to build social capital and networks. This includes developing trusted relationships with peers, family members, teachers, and community members. When faced with adverse situations, students with these resources can rely on their social network for support. Evidence also demonstrates that individuals with higher levels of education have higher trust in others and are more likely to engage in social organizations outside their family. This can positively contribute to community and transformative resilience, by building trust and tolerance with other communities, and increasing civic engagement.
SEL and PSS Measurement and Assessment Tools in Education in Emergencies
Integrating SEL to Build Institutional Resilience
When SEL becomes an integrated part of the education system, it can be transformative.
The International Rescue Committee’s Healing Classrooms Toolkit, funded by USAID/OFDA, supports child well-being during crises. This integrated approach seeks to provide SEL skills while allowing children to thrive academically and socially. It further promotes healthy coping strategies to mitigate and repair the negative effects of toxic stress in crisis contexts.
In response to COVID-19, implementing partners have pivoted SEL programs using distance learning modalities to build resilience for children, youth, and adults learning at home during the pandemic. Education institutions and partners who have made similar changes to SEL programming should complete a Program Profile to share information on these transformations.
The U.S. State Department’s Injaz Project, implemented by Chemonics, supports education and psychosocial wellbeing for children in formal and nonformal school settings in northeastern Syria. Focusing on stabilization amid conflict, Chemonics uses SEL to strengthen resilience and reduce the influence of extremist groups. Since the onset of COVID-19, teachers collaborating with Chemonics have continued to provide SEL programming through a large video library using WhatsApp groups, Bluetooth, and a cloud-based sharing system. In addition to building learner resilience capacities, these networks and resources simultaneously strengthen the resilience capacities of educators and school leaders to sustain education during times of crisis.
Save the Children created the Children’s Resilience Programme, along with the accompanying Youth Resilience Programme to develop children’s coping skills. The program encourages cooperation, problem solving, impulse control, self-awareness, and seeks to instill positive expectations for the future. Since the onset of COVID-19, Save the Children has also released a Social Emotional Learning Distance Learning Activity Pack.