Swati* is a Class VIII student at a government school in Bengaluru. She was looking forward eagerly to the new school year with friends when the pandemic struck. Schools and colleges were the first to close, not just bringing to a halt curriculum learning, but also robbing children of the feeling of being connected, of collaborative learning, teamwork, and peer interaction.
But today, Swati is able to navigate this situation that nobody prepared her for, thanks to the vital skills she has been learning through an unlikely medium: football. She learns about relationships, self-awareness, teamwork, listening to instructions, goal setting and gender norms. Her two-hour session begins with an icebreaker. Swati then plays the game incorporating street football rules, such as small-sided games, multiple balls, mixed or single-gender teams with no referee. Then, in a session called ‘reflection circle’, she shares her experiences: what she learnt, how she will communicate her learning to others.
Swati is enrolled with Dream A Dream, an organisation that uses sports and arts to engage and develop critical life skills among younger children. Founded a couple of decades ago by a group of people who wished to volunteer their time to engage children who were terminally-ill or abandoned, the project, during the pandemic, has a new agenda.
According to a UNESCO report, 28.6 crore children between pre-primary and secondary levels have been affected by the pandemic. Big tech companies jumped in, offering digital platforms to host free virtual classes. Ed-tech companies too seized the opportunity and muscled their way into our gadgets. Yet, not many responded to a loss bigger than academic learning — that of mental health. The pandemic has after all denied children a classroom experience that offers crucial social and emotional interactions that contribute to life skills development.
But there came to the fore a handful of organisations, such as Dream A Dream, which have been delivering the kind of programme often overlooked by the formal education sector — social-emotional learning (SEL). The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning defines SEL as ‘how children and adults learn to understand and manage emotions, set goals, show empathy, establish positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.’
“During a crisis like this, the social-emotional impact is usually long term. We experienced that during the 2004 tsunami, where our interventions with children were aimed at minimising the impact of the trauma on mental health. But this time, the interventions have to be preventive,” explains Suchetha Bhat, CEO, Dream A Dream.
But there are challenges. Swati’s family of four shares one smartphone between them. She had to get her parents to part with it for a few hours to attend online school. Then she had to convince her parents, who were daily wage workers, to recharge the phone. The hurdles were overcome, thanks to the life skills she learnt through football, and Swati was able to attend classes, a big win for a child with her background bearing the economic and social brunt of the pandemic.
Nalandaway, another organisation, uses visual and performance arts as a method to improve learning abilities and reinforce positive behaviour. When the pandemic struck, they reached out to over six lakh students from poor backgrounds studying in government and aided schools in Tamil Nadu who were due to write their Class X board exams. The pandemic had added to their natural exam anxiety.
Nalandaway came up with a 30-day Interactive Voice Response (IVR) story project called Take It Eazy. The students had to give a missed call to listen to a humorous audio drama, involving Pavitra, a 15-year-old girl, her mischievous younger brother Darshan, and Mala akka , the friendly neighbour. The purpose of the stories was to help children deal with stress, address emotions, and promote self-affirmation and mindfulness.
“We realised that over 90% of the students did not have access to a smartphone,” says Sriram Ayer, founder of Nalandaway. With the IVR technology already available, and the team just focussed on the scriptwriting and recording, all done on mobile phones from their respective homes. The organisation has launched nine projects since the lockdown, one of which reaches out to children directly with learn-at-home kits. Some 29,000 kits have been distributed so far.
“We have had several significant revelations. One was that interventions have to be non-digital as well because digital access is still a privilege,” adds Ayer.
Project Rangeet, however, has technology at its core. It delivers a Social-Emotional and Ecological Knowledge curriculum (SEEK), developed around the UN Sustainable Development Goals and was built for digital delivery on an affordable, easy-to-implement mobile platform.
Project Rangeet tries to tackle the issue of teacher competency and integrating SEL programmes in mainstream education. SEEK’s teaching-learning tools are designed to produce better primary school teachers, in alignment with a 2017 study by Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning that says teachers who possess strong social and emotional competencies are more likely to stay in the classroom longer because they are able to deal with students more effectively, and are less likely to suffer burnout.
“Teachers are overburdened and the pandemic has worsened this. While adapting to the new way of teaching, teachers are struggling to deliver their core subjects. Besides, schools are also wary of using extra screen time on SEL programmes over academics,” says Simran Mulchandani, one of the three founders of Project Rangeet, but adds that schools are slowly realising its importance.
Bhat agrees, but thinks that SEL’s growing acceptance during the pandemic is more a glimmer than a blaze of light. “I am disappointed that the focus everywhere is still on learning loss. The talk is all about ‘we need to finish the syllabus’. Instead, we need to focus on the well-being of the children once they return to school to avoid a mental health collapse. We need to reimagine our curriculum.”
To become part of mainstream teaching, SEL programmes perhaps need to follow a ‘hybrid’ model of education. Says Anantha Duraiappah, Director of the UNESCO Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development: “Contrary to views that online learning cannot be conducive for SEL due to the lack of face-to-face interactions, we find that with proper design, online SEL can be just as effective. Of course, the best method will be a hybrid system that maximises the strengths of both online and face-to-face pedagogy.”