Social emotional skills improve learning outcomes and student well-being, say experts

By Natalie Lovenburg

June 12, 2018

Of the 67 million primary-school-aged children around the world who do not attend school, 40 million live in countries affected by armed conflict. Living amid ongoing instability, these children face major disruptions in accessing education and can suffer major setbacks to their social, emotional and cognitive development.

To mitigate those effects, social emotional learning is a promising tool to keep children in the classroom where they can heal, learn and grow, said experts at the Social-Emotional Learning Policy Roundtable on June 1 in Washington, D.C.

“Children need essential social emotional skills to regulate themselves and negotiate their own place in the world, to achieve their dreams to be that teacher, that entrepreneur, president of his or her country and to be gritty in the most desperate of situations,” said Julie Cram, the Deputy Assistant Administrator in the Bureau for Economic Growth, Education and Environment (E3) at the U.S. Agency for International Development, in her opening remarks.

Creative’s education experts joined the Social-Emotional Learning Policy Roundtable on June 1 to discuss current evidence, implementation challenges, promising approaches, and innovative social-emotional learning interventions. From left to right: Stephanie Kumah, Joanie Cohen-Mitchell, Susan Ayari, Eileen St. George, Megan Shug.

“There is no doubt that education plays an important role in building peace, stability and helping individuals, communities and countries on their journey to self-reliance,” she added, calling for domestic and international education experts to work together to ensure children and youth are safe and succeeding in the classroom.

Organized by the USAID Education in Crisis and Conflict Network (ECCN) and USAID Education, the roundtable brought together nearly 100 education practitioners, researchers and policymakers to discuss current evidence, implementation challenges and innovations in social emotional learning approaches. Held at FHI 360’s headquarters, participants also drafted social emotional learning policy recommendations for the new United States’ international basic education strategy.

Experts defined social emotional learning as one managing and better understanding of feelings, motivations, social relationships, self-esteem, self-efficacy, social cues and self-control to reach positive goals and exercise empathy for others.

Adapting holistic education approaches with research and measurement

A common theme throughout the policy roundtable discussions was the need to treat learners’ needs holistically in all contexts, infusing social emotional skills into curriculum, in ways that are both context-relevant and effective.

This is especially important for learners exposed to conflict and trauma, said Susan Ayari, Senior Associate for Education in Conflict at Creative Associates International and Project Director for the USAID-funded Afghan Children Read project, co-moderating the “Learning from Implementation and Research” panel.

“Social-emotional learning is designed to provide students with the tools needed to build resilience to mitigate the negative effects of trauma and conflict,” said Ayari. “Schools are ideal environments for children to develop social emotional competencies.”

In the classrooms taking part in the Afghan Children Read, Ayari sees the benefits of this approach taking root.

In close partnership with the Ministry of Education of Afghanistan, the early grade reading project integrates social emotional learning into education to ensure children living amidst conflict and crisis, which many of these learners are, have the tools to heal, learn and succeed in life. Creative implements it with the International Rescue Committee, Equal Access and SIL LEAD.

Social and emotional skills provide children and youth with important tools to build positive relationships, cope with the stress and learning and grow in a safe space. Photo by Erick Gibson.

Presenting on the panel, Jennifer Sklar, Deputy Director of the International Rescue Committee’s education unit, pointed out, what works in one country might not work in another. She highlighted the need to look specifically at country and regional context to design effective programming.

“We must learn from contextual matters to identify what contributes or hinders and go beyond what works to identify who, where and how to take social emotional learning to scale and creative evidence-based strategies,” said Sklar, who has more than 15 years’ experience working in the field of international education.

And to best determine what does work and what should be scaled, Lauren Pisani, advisor of learning research at Save the Children, pointed to the essential need for ongoing monitoring and evaluation and data collection of programs

“Implementation data is critical and it’s what makes sense of a program,” she said. “Education programs integrating social-emotional learning must be contextualized but there are common global approaches to draw from and implementation data across countries helps bring clarity and understanding.”

Pisani added that strategic measurement can identify pain points, improve programming, and make it more nimble and effective in adapting to a development or a crisis context.

Collaborating to reshape education policies

Roundtable participants expressed hopes that this event would be the start of positive policy and programmatic shifts toward more social emotional learning-supportive approaches.

In roundtable closing remarks, Robert Burch, USAID Deputy Director, Office of Education, shared his observations and main takeaways of the discussion.

“Social-emotional learning is a key component for ensuring that we can provide quality education to improve learning outcomes and improve student well-being,” he summarized.

Burch added that for students and teachers to succeed, social-emotional learning strategies must be contextualized to specific learning and community environments, adding that the responsibility of social-emotional learning is a shared one.

“A safe and supportive learning environment is a prerequisite for successful instruction in social-emotional learning,” he said. “It is not only up to the teacher who is delivering the skills in the classroom but it’s up to the parents and the communities to serve as the models as well.”

Burch emphasized the need to continue discussions among the education sector to come to conclusions on how to best address challenges to have the greatest positive effect on children and communities.

He said that the learnings shared throughout the policy roundtable will help shape the U.S. government’s education policy priorities and implementation guidance moving forward.

Interested in learning more about social emotional learning?

Visit the USAID ECCN website for a list of social emotional learning resources.

Check out the following resources and positive impact stories from Creative on social emotional learning approaches in Afghanistan and Nigeria:

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