Social Emotional Learning: What Is It and Why Does It Matter?

“I could see that children were entering the classroom frustrated. They were unable to leave behind their home experiences before coming to class, and hence did not come with a fresh mind. No matter how interesting I would make the class, the children would not be able to focus,” recalls Aakanksha Agrawal, when teaching underprivileged children as part of Teach for India a couple of years ago.

Agrawal had diagnosed a problem that plagues millions of children around India – the inability of the classroom to take into account their emotional state of being. But, unlike most, Agrawal did not stop at recognising the problem; she decided to actively seek a solution.

“I began to start my classes spending 20 minutes asking children how they were feeling that day. Once the children had told me whether they were having a good day or a bad day, feeling angry or sad or happy, it would help me understand what ‘zone’ they were in, and deal with them accordingly,” she said.

SEL in classrooms

Agrawal’s approach bore fruit, as she observed that the children were far more responsive academically once they knew that their emotional selves would not be neglected. The “tremendous shift” she had noticed in the kids led her to explore the idea of managing emotions at a greater scale, eventually drawing her attention to Social Emotional Learning (SEL).

SEL primarily deals with generating awareness about emotions, and, according to Agrawal, helps to “manage and regulate feelings”. While SEL has long been a feature of academic life in the West, thanks to organisations like Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) and psychologists like Marc Brackett (who wrote Permission to Feel, one of the most comprehensive resources for developing emotional intelligence), Indian academia had no formal structure for incorporating SEL until the revamped National Educational Policy (2020) acknowledged its pivotal role in classrooms.

Also read: ‘Anxiety, Homophobia, Stress’: Students on Mental Health Concerns During Lockdown

“In India, the closest parallel to SEL have been things like life skills education. But something like SEL cannot function as a standalone class, because children will naturally lose interest in it. The best option is to integrate SEL into the process of teaching and learning, and not to view it as a distinct subject,” believes Agrawal.

Inspired by the pioneering work of the likes of Brackett, Daniel Siegel, clinical professor of psychiatry, and Lisa Feldman Barrett, a psychology professor whose book, How Emotions Are Made, completely changed her comprehension of emotions, Agrawal has formulated a strong understanding of SEL and now wishes to make it mainstream.

During the course of the pandemic, Indian education has been confronted by a generational challenge, and with schools either closing or moving online, children have been deprived of one of the most fundamental aspects of school life – meeting one’s friends.

“Due to the lockdown and classes going digital, children have grown irritated. A lot of people got in touch to tell me how their children have become quiet and reclusive – and not running around all day with enthusiasm as they used to do before. Kids now spend most of their time lying in bed,” says Agrawal, who was motivated by the challenge posed by the pandemic to kick-start a new project and spread the word about SEL.

‘It’s Not a Child’s Play’

Enter ‘It’s Not a Child’s Play‘, a weekly blog started in June 2020, where Agrawal explains SEL by addressing the most common yet puzzling questions around emotional behaviour and regulation.

How to distinguish between frustration, anger, and sadness? How should children deal with disappointment? How to handle stress and pressure? How to overcome jealousy and navigate grief?

These are just a sample of queries Agrawal clarifies in her blog, which are meant not just for children and parents, but also for adults struggling to cope with their emotions at this most unprecedented of times.

“Sometimes, even as adults, there are days when we wake up and do not feel like doing anything. But we don’t really talk about these things, because, as a society, we have been taught to shun emotions. But SEL looks to change that understanding; it is just as valuable for adults as it is for kids,” mentions Agrawal, whose blog has generated a lot of interest among different age groups – particularly in India, US, and Nigeria – for delivering what she calls “actionable items”.

“Plenty of blogs tell you what is wrong with our emotions, especially for children, but not many tell you what to do about it all. That’s what I try and do – provide simple solutions and advice that can make a difference when it comes to negotiating with emotions.”

“If we teach a child empathy, they will stop bullying other children. If we teach a child assertiveness, they will stand up for other children being bullied,” says Agrawal, citing how SEL can have practical benefits in terms of peer group engagement and association.

Agrawal’s aim is to take SEL to every classroom around the country, and, along with the Government of India, ensure that SEL becomes indispensable to the Indian education system.

In this regard, measures like all Delhi government schools resolving to introduce the “Happiness Curriculum” are crucial breakthroughs, but Agrawal is aware that there is a long way to go before political and educational administrations across India take SEL seriously.

Besides her blog, Agrawal is also working on making the most of social media to trump up traction for SEL, so that more and more people feel less and less shut down: “Right now, I am looking at Instagram to amplify my messaging around SEL, but soon, I want to get on Twitter, too.”

Intent on completing a master’s in SEL from abroad (no Indian institution currently provides a certified course on SEL), Agrawal has made it her life’s mission to make emotions essential by focusing on a concrete blueprint for SEL. Her blog is just the first step towards empowering emotions, giving them their due, and making sure that they can complement, rather than remain conflicted by, our ambitious, productive selves.

With more than five years of teaching experience already under her belt and a passion for making education and society more empathetic, Agrawal has emerged as one of India’s pioneers for emotional learning, set to inspire many others to blaze their own trails along the way.

Priyam Marik is a post-graduate student of journalism at the University of Sussex, United Kingdom.

Featured image credit: 愚木混株 Cdd20/Pixabay