Can WHO’s ‘Life Skills’ Counter the Effects of Bigotry on Schoolchildren?

The poison of communal hatred has now entered India’s schools. Children in the classroom are now speaking the same language of prejudice they hear on TV and in their homes. This is a tragedy that was waiting to happen.

Any schoolteacher willing to talk frankly about the topic, especially in north India, will give you examples aplenty. (It is worth noting, however, that none of the dozen or so teachers I spoke with in the National Capital Region about this issue wished to be named.)

A teacher from an affluent school in South Delhi said, “Yesterday I had to break up a fight between two Grade 4 kids, one Hindu and the other Muslim. The child from the Hindu family was accusing the Muslim child of being ‘an enemy’ because of his religion, something that the Muslim child was understandably very upset about. And these are kids who are barely 8 or 9 years old!”

Another teacher from a school in Gurugram spoke of how she had accompanied a group of students for an inter-school competition to a nearby school and how, for the space of almost half an hour, she could overhear senior school students in a nearby classroom loudly chanting, “Jai Shri Ram! Jai Shri Ram! Jai Shri Ram!”

The accounts sound surreal and would be hard to believe, except that I have personally experienced something similar while doing a workshop for students of Class 11, again in a private school in Delhi.

At the start of the session, I wished the students “Good morning”, and while most students mumbled a sleepy “Good morning” back, one boy returned the greeting with a loud “Jai Shri Ram!”

I stared at him for a few seconds and then remembered how a school principal in Meerut had responded in a similar situation.

“Jai Hind,” I said to him.

Undeterred, the boy responded again with “Jai Shri Ram!”

Once again, I responded with “Jai Hind.”

Unbelievably, the boy yet again said, “Jai Shri Ram!”

This time I said, “Listen, if you are going to say, ’Jai Shri Ram’, then you also need to say ‘Allah-o-Akbar’, ‘Sat Sri Akal’, ‘Hallelujah’ and ‘Buddham Sharanam Gachhami’, because India is a land of many religions. We are also a secular republic where all religions are accorded equal status by the Constitution of India, which happens to be the country’s governing document. I think it’s a lot easier to just say ‘Jai Hind!’, isn’t it?”

After a few very long seconds, the boy replied, “Jai Hind.”

It felt like a small win in the moment, but just about an hour or so into the workshop, another student in all earnestness asked me why we should be “tolerant towards Muslims”, seeing how their “ancestors plundered and looted our country for a thousand years”.

There is something very distressing about seeing young people put aside logic and common sense and instead, adopt a worldview based wholly on hate, exaggerations, half-truths and outright lies and misinformation!

A teacher from a school in NOIDA shared a wise insight. “The two years that children spent cooped up at home during the lockdown has done a lot of them a fair amount of damage, as the only value system they were exposed to was their parents’, which in many cases really wasn’t the best. At least when they come to school, they are exposed to other points of view and ways of looking at the world.”

As parents, caregivers and educators, it is well worth remembering that when proponents of Hindutva denigrate the basic human values enshrined in the Preamble of the Constitution of India – secularism, justice, liberty, equality and fraternity – they are, in fact, attacking the very idea of what it means to be a decent, kind and inclusive human being.

How, then, do we counter the rising tide of hate and bigotry that threatens to overwhelm our children? One viable way of doing so is by teaching them the ten core ‘life skills’ listed by the World Health Organisation (WHO) at the turn of the century, as essential skills for children to master. These are:

  1. Self-awareness
  2. Empathy
  3. Creative thinking
  4. Critical thinking
  5. Decision-making
  6. Problem solving
  7. Effective communication
  8. Interpersonal relationships
  9. Coping with stress
  10. Coping with emotions.

It is well-nigh impossible for bigotry and hate to take root in a child or young person who possesses the above. Think about it. A child rich in self-awareness and empathy will never fall into the trap of bigotry and stereotyping. He or she will understand that:

‘I am you
And you are me
And we are they
And they are we.

When I hurt you
Then I hurt me
When you hurt me
Then you hurt thee.

So let’s just stop
And let’s be kind
And not be harsh
And not be blind.’

Children who know how to think critically will naturally question a hysterical, hate-filled narrative and will use their own rational faculties to discern the input they are receiving. For kids to think critically, it is also imperative that they a) read a lot and b) read a wide variety of books. Reading is something that is unfortunately being elbowed out more and more by social media and screen time, but wise adults will do well to encourage the young to read more.

Children who are practiced in creative thinking will often be too busy being creative to be destructive. A young person who is engaged in finding new and better ways of being in the world often won’t have the time or inclination to hurt others or put them down.

Young people who have learned how to make decisions and solve problems are those who have also learned positive ways to find positive. They don’t blame others and wallow in self-pity, for they have learned how to transform their pain instead of transmitting it to others. Such young people will not buy into the narrative of victimhood that Hindutva thrives on.

Kids who have life skills also have good interpersonal relations because they have learned how to communicate effectively with others. These are kids who have understood that it is far better to live in peace than in a state of perpetual (real or imagined) conflict.

It goes without saying, then, that a child or young person who has some level of proficiency in each of the life skills mentioned above will naturally be one who has learned to cope with stress and strong emotions and will not get swayed by the fear and alarm that the right-wing systematically spreads.

The WHO’s Life Skills framework is an effective one that can help a child grow up to be a happy, peaceful, and intelligent adult. Let’s teach our children to become wise human beings, and not moral failures.

Rohit Kumar is an educator with a background in positive psychology and psychometrics. He can be reached at

Featured image: Ivan Aleksic/Unsplash