Social and Emotional Learning in Crisis and Conflict Settings
While social and emotional learning is important for all children and youth, for those in conflict and crisis, it is critical. Research from the developed world and emerging evidence in crisis-affected countries demonstrates that the harmful effects of toxic stress—severe, prolonged, or repetitive adversity that can affect brain architecture during childhood—can be stopped or even reversed when children are exposed to safe and predictable learning environments and have positive, nurturing relationships with key adults, such as caregivers and teachers, who actively participate in explicit social-emotional learning (SEL) activities.
Despite this growing evidence, SEL is an emergent field in the international education space, with best practices and even terminology still being defined and standardized. Here, are the basics.
What is SEL?
Defined in various ways, SEL helps children and adults acquire and use the “knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary 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 and emotional skills can also be referred to as soft skills, 21st century skills, or life skills.
These “soft skills” are not fixed traits as once believed, but can be taught and learned in school and other environments. SEL may be delivered in stand-alone classes, integrated into school curricula, or conducted in after-school or non-formal settings—as long as it takes place in a safe, caring environment with facilitators who are themselves healthy and able to role-model SEL skills.
Research from Harvard’s EASEL Lab defines three domains of SEL competencies: cognitive (cognitive flexibility, response inhibition, attention control, and working memory), emotional (emotional knowledge and expression, emotion and behavior management), and social (basic social engagement).
Activities that focus on these domains help children and adolescents develop into adults who are pro-social, cooperative, and able to resolve conflicts peacefully.
Effective SEL programs are inclusive, gender-sensitive, and carefully adapted for social and cultural appropriateness in specific contexts and for specific age groups. As important as the explicit instruction of social and emotional skills, teachers, educators, and other school personnel need to be able to model these abilities and reinforce skills with classroom and school-wide policies.
Particular lessons might involve, for instance, learning to identify emotions in oneself and others, learning to manage stress through breathing or movement, developing cooperative problem-solving techniques, or practicing conflict resolution through role-play.
Why Is SEL Important?
SEL is a proven pathway to enhanced equity and learning outcomes; it affects both individuals and societies in the short as well as long term. While social and emotional skills are important for all children, they are absolutely critical in unpredictable and stressful environments of crisis and conflict.
Research from the developed world, and emerging evidence in crisis-affected countries, demonstrates that the harmful effects of toxic stress can be stopped or even reversed when children are exposed to safe and predictable learning environments and have positive, nurturing relationships with key adults, such as caregivers and teachers, who actively participate in explicit social and emotional learning activities.
SEL helps children heal from experiences with tragedy and violence, puts them on a path for self-reliance by promoting skills that help them succeed in school and beyond, promotes equity and healthy relationships, and increases the community cohesion and stability that can empower individuals to resist violent extremism even in difficult circumstances.
Implementing SEL Programs
What follows are three recommendations to begin incorporating SEL into your programs.
Include skills-based SEL in all educational programming, with special attention in crisis-affected contexts. Clearly define and measure progress in learning social and emotional skills. Programming should include both formal and non-formal settings.
One example of such an approach is brain games. These quick, play-based games have been designed to build the cognitive functions necessary for learning. Conducted three times a day for 10-minute spans (for a total of 30 minutes per day), three days a week, brain games can lead to improved classroom-level processes, fewer disciplinary issues, and children having better self-regulation skills. They are a useful tool for relationship building and calming or energizing the classroom.
Also vital are “soft skills,” or the broad set of skills, behaviors, and personal qualities that enable people to effectively navigate their environment, relate well with others, perform well, and achieve their goals. USAID’s studies have found that evidence and practice support the theory that a common set of skills can lead to positive outcomes in multiple domains of youth’s lives, including sexual and reproductive health, violence prevention, and workforce success.
Learn more about key soft skills for positive youth development
SEL programs need to reach beyond school to encompass the social ecosystem of teachers, families, and communities, as adults are the linchpin to ensuring SEL success. Questions to consider when involving members of this larger ecosystem include:
- Who are the relevant actors and what role do they play in the setting?
- What skills, competencies, attitudes, habits, knowledge, and support do they need?
Where relevant, the programs should also consider the national, provincial or district, and local education ecosystems—including policies and practices—as they relate to SEL outcomes. Consider what the micro-contexts and micro-climates are in learning settings that influence the experience and need to be addressed.
Ensure four main ingredients for implementation of education in crisis-affected contexts.These include the provision of and access to a safe, supportive learning environment, both in and out of schools; care for the wellbeing of teachers and other key caregivers, in addition to training, so that they can create a positive environment and model appropriate behaviors; the implementation of high-quality, contextualized SEL interventions, with feedback loops for learning and adaptation; and a system to collect and exchange learning regarding what works—as well as how, where, for whom, under what conditions, and at what cost.
In order for education professionals in the field to establish these implementation essentials, the following prerequisites are necessary:
- Needs assessments to understand the local social and cultural context
- Teachers and other caregivers taking a pivotal role in the assessments and entire program cycle, since they are the experts in the local environment
- A socio-ecological approach: For a safe and conducive environment, all adults who teach and care for children should be involved. Only when adults are well themselves can they teach and model healthy behaviors to children.
- Adaptation of curriculum and methods to the local context and culture, different age groups, minorities, and the marginalized, including the differently abled.
- Gender and social inclusion considerations.
- Safe spaces, strong adult/youth relationships, experiential learning, and addressing skills in combination are some guiding principles for building soft and life skills among youth.