Two children sit at their desks at school. Mohamed wants Nassim to move, to make more space for him. But instead of simply asking him nicely to do so, he pushes him hard, leading to a fight between the boys. This is a simple situation that can be common in many schools but the dynamic boils down to emotional regulation: had these children been taught how to communicate positively, how to take deep breaths before acting, and how to share – this situation could have been avoided.
This is the core of Social-Emotional Learning (SEL); helping students understand their own emotions, develop empathy towards others, and practice conflict management and critical thinking. Research shows that SEL not only has a positive impact on children’s mental well-being, but also tends to impact their academic achievement and careers as adults. While SEL is often referred to by other names, including character education, soft skills, life skills, among others, our work follows the 6 learning domains outlined by the Harvard Graduate School of Education :
- Identity (e.g. self-knowledge, self-esteem, purpose)
- Values (e.g. ethics, civic values)
- Perspectives (e.g. optimism, gratitude, openness)
- Emotion (e.g. emotional literacy, emotional and behavioral regulation, empathy)
- Social (e.g. cooperation, conflict resolution, social problem-solving)
- Cognitive (attention, and critical thinking)
Within this framework, our refugee education teaching team have developed and tailored a curriculum that meets the unique needs of our learners and our vision for a generation of empowered youth who can exercise compassion, critical thinking and positive relationship-building to overcome conflict and challenges in their daily lives and communities.
At Jusoor, our conflict-and displacement-affected learners are among the most marginalized children in Lebanon, and indeed the world. Thus our ethos towards education is about learning for life, and not just learning for exams. Our priority as educators is thus to ensure our students solidly grasp the necessary attitudes, skills, and knowledge to help them both excel academically and in their future careers and also as proactive, emotionally stable well-rounded individuals in very challenging societies where they often must daily navigate social discrimination, conflict, poverty and income-generation barriers.
SEL is thus one vehicle through which we help our students develop from early on the mindsets, skills, and knowledge that keep them safe, physically and mentally healthy, positively engaged in their communities, and able to think problem-solve confidently and calmly. Throughout the years we have developed our approach time and time again in adapting SEL to work with our students at our Refugee Education Centers around Lebanon and through our online learning program Azima.
Why is Social-Emotional Learning Vital in Schools?
First, we must ask the question why is SEL relevant in an educational space? A common misconception is that “life skills” are to be learned at home and that school is a place to learn academic subjects. However, if schools are meant to prepare students for adult life, especially in relation to future careers, then SEL is relevant in schools given that it teaches many core skills necessary for daily life, beneficial for any career or even for homemaking, such as teamwork, problem-solving, and the ability to empathize with others and build healthy relationships.
At Jusoor, we bring SEL both into our educational centers and schools both through intentional weekly sessions with a curriculum specifically developed to address their unique needs as well as continuously incorporating SEL into our core academic subjects.
Through the sessions each week, we pick a topic or a theme from the needs we’ve identified such as:
- Environmental hygiene
- Emotional regulation
- Conflict management
- Critical thinking
Then we identify if each theme will be worked on within one session or a series of sessions. After that, we set our SEL curriculum for each grade.
In our regular academic curriculum, we blend concepts such as cooperation, sharing, and asking for permission into our daily classes. For example, in Maths if we’re talking about division or fractions we’ll discuss how it feels to divide a cake rather than one person having it to themselves. We’ll ask them how would they apply that in their homes or with their friends? In another example, when we read a story during English or Arabic lessons, we stop to identify how a character is feeling by asking the children about it, and then we pose the question of how they act when they have these same feelings.
Teachers Are Involved From The Get-Go
Our teachers play an integral role in giving feedback on our curriculum and ensuring it is tailored appropriately both to the children’s development stage as well as real-life situations. Through first giving their input on the main needs that require focus, then through their support, brainstorming, research, developing ideas, and planning these sessions ensuring they can then effectively run them in their classrooms. The curriculum also includes resources such as videos, stories, and activities along with debriefing questions before and after the session.
What we do
- We ask reflective questions
- We do an activity, read a story, or watch a video
- We give space for the children to explore and engage with the activity independently
- We debrief after the activity asking what they feel, what they learned and how they will apply it to their lives.
What we don’t do
- We do not lecture
- We do not spoon-feed the concept
- We do not simply tell the students the point of the activity, we allow them to discover it for themselves
- We do not use a “correct answer” approach
For example, when teachers want to encourage cooperation, they can start the session by explaining a game where they have to work together to win, such as standing in two lines and they pass a glass of water to each other without dropping it. Then after playing, teachers will ask – in a circle, so everyone feels equal with their voices heard – our learners to recall what happened, asking questions about what was necessary (such as cooperating, taking turns, and encouraging one another) in order for us all to succeed and feel respected. Research shows that when children experience the concept for themselves and are given ample space to reflect and share with their peers, they learn better and faster.
With each topic, our teachers also work hard to make sure the whole school is working on the same topic but tailored to age-appropriate activities. Through incorporating the topic into lesson plans of academic subjects, arts and crafts that are then hung in the classrooms and corridors — the whole school is immersed in the subject at hand from the SEL session — which we find enhances the learning process. Through this immersion, the students learn about the topics we are introducing through various activities, from different teachers and even from their peers and siblings, deepening each learner’s grasp of the SEL learning outcome. .
How Do We Measure Our Success?
Our ultimate measure of success comes when we see our children become smarter, able to express themselves and their emotions positively, and become active and contributing members of their communities who are able to confidently navigate the challenges of their environment. Within the academic year, however, through defined learning goals and indicators for each topic, the teachers observe each child and systematically evaluate their social-emotional learning and development over the academic year. This allows us to identify any patterns so we know whether we need to find a new approach for this particular topic or to expand on it further, or if the issue is present in one child then we can address this with this particular child and their family. As with all Jusoor’s work, we hold ourselves accountable to continually learning and evolving to meet the children’s changing needs.
The most powerful mark of success is when we see the multiplier effect — our children are bringing their Social Emotional Learnings home and their parents are delighted to find their children are practicing good hygiene, cleaning up after themselves, fighting less with their siblings, managing conflict in the household, and even comforting their parents after a stressful day. In doing so, our students are helping to create a calmer household and more positive relationships. In this way, the learning of SEL skills have the potential to empower this generation of Syrian children for a lifetime, and to positively impact the lives of others.