Social and Emotional Learning: The Real Gap in India's Education System

Social and emotional learning is a sum total of a number of skills that can be taught and learnt through formal and informal learning experiences.

Last year Delhi government schools introduced the ‘Happiness Curriculum’ framework integrating social and emotional activities into academic structure. As Manish Sisodia, Delhi’s deputy chief minister and education minister, introduced the curriculum pointed out that in more than a decade that children spend in educational institutions, “we are successful in making them good engineers, doctors, scientists, managers or other professionals, but do not ensure that they become honest and responsible human beings”. Social and emotional learning (SEL), a crucial dimension in the development of a child, has remained largely unrecognised in the Indian education ecosystem.

SEL is a sum total of a number of skills: understanding one’s own emotions and that of others, managing those emotions to maintain healthy relationships and making socially responsible decisions. As with academic skills, social and emotional skills are transferable. They can be taught and learnt, both through formal (school and after-school programmes) as well as informal (interactions with community and family) learning experiences. These skills manifest themselves in how individuals manage their feelings and behave in different social situations.

Let’s take an imaginary situation, suppose Rahul’s friend snatches his pencil during class, and Rahul decides to ask for it back politely instead of hurting or fighting with his friend in retaliation. In this case, Rahul identifies and controls his emotion (anger) and regulates it to avoid conflict. Such behaviour has to be taught, nurtured and cultivated by children and adults.

The significance of social and emotional learning

Indian educationists acknowledge that SEL is important. The National Education Policy 2020 (NEP 2020) underscores the importance of SEL to ensure holistic development of children and states that education system must aim to “develop good human beings capable of rational thought and action, possessing compassion and empathy”.  The chapter on Early Childhood Care and Education gives SEL comparable importance as other academic competencies. The road to achieving this goal will determine the efficacy of this move.

File photo of Delhi deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia interacting with schoolchildren at a ‘happiness class’ at a government school in Vinod Nagar, Delhi, on February 22, 2020. Photo: PTI

SEL makes it easier for the child to transition from a familiar home environment to that of a preschool, and from a preschool to a primary school. The expectations placed on children increase at every stage – from following instructions to emotional regulation in wider and newer social interactions. SEL facilitates in fulfilling these expectations. Research shows that it also quickens the process of development of other academic skills in the early years. The positive outcomes are not limited to a child’s early life but also include career readiness, healthy relationships, and improved mental health.

The urgent need to include SEL in the school curriculum has been reinforced by Pratham’s Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2019: Early Years, released in January 2020. This is the first large-scale exercise that collected data on a number of developmental indicators relating to learning, including social and emotional abilities of young children in the age group of four to eight years in rural India.

Also read: The Pursuit of Happiness: Delhi Govt Schools to Combat Mental Health Issues

ASER 2019 data provides quantitative evidence to assess SEL of young children in India, an important preliminary step in deconstructing the complexities of measuring social and emotional skills. The study accommodated wide cultural, linguistic, and social diversities – 26 districts across 24 states and in 14 languages. The results reveal both the limited skills that children acquire in SEL and its consequences.

For example, in a task on emotion identification, only half of all six-year-olds could identify all four primary emotions – happiness, sadness, anger, and fear. By the age of seven, a child may have acquired the capabilities to solve subtraction problems, read texts, and follow instructions. But it could be the case that the child may not understand when his friend is sad or angry as a result of his actions. That this could lead to making wrong decisions during social interactions is inevitable.

Assessing empathy among children

The activities conducted as part of the ASER 2019 highlighted some important findings. One of the activities, for instance, assessed child’s ability to control her impulses in a situation of conflict. Children were asked what they would do if their friend snatched their only toy while playing. Almost a quarter of all eight-year-olds gave responses like “will beat or fight with friend” suggesting that they would opt for escalating their anger. Only 2.5% of them said they wish to talk to their friend and ask for the toy back, pointing to children’s unfamiliarity with conflict resolution strategies like communication.

pre school

There is no doubt that investing in early childhood education ensures that children live better lives. Photo: Global Partnership for Education/Flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Older children are more likely to give responses that could lead to conflict escalation. Another activity assessing a child’s ability to empathise revealed that three out of five children (58.5%) who could identify all emotions correctly gave empathetic responses. In comparison, of those unable to identify emotions correctly, less than one in three (31.3%) children gave empathetic responses.

It is obvious that children who understand emotions apply this knowledge, like conflict resolution strategies, to comprehend how others feel, understand their perspective, and show compassion. When so many young children fail to identify simple emotions, it is unreasonable to expect them to empathise with others.

Also read: India Is Facing a Mental Health Crisis – and Its Education System Is Ill Equipped to Handle It

A comprehensive curriculum (for preschool and school) that incorporates SEL activities with expected outcomes and a systematic evaluation is the need of the hour. Although concepts like self-regulation and conflict resolution appear in the learning outcomes prescribed by the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) for the preschool stage, SEL finds no mention in the curriculum for primary grades.

It is important to ensure that in addressing the various issues discussed in NEP 2020, the need to promote SEL is not lost. A small investment in SEL at an early stage can go a long way in making Indian citizens more responsible community members. This ought to be a national priority.

Setu Loomba and Priyasha Chawla work as research associates at the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) Centre. They spent the last year conceptualising an assessment tool to assess social and emotional learning (SEL) of young children in the age group of four to eight years as part of ASER 2019 Early Years. This is first such large-scale assessment conducted in India.