A Shifting Landscape of Social and Emotional Learning Practice in Low- and Middle-Income Countries
In its 2022 paper, “Equity, Inclusion, and Social-Emotional Learning,” the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) underscores the importance placed on social and emotional learning (SEL) as a driver of equity and inclusion, both of which are critical to ensure that all children, not just some, are learning. Recent advances in neurobiology overwhelmingly support this premise.
All learning is at once social, emotional, and cognitive and effective pedagogy addresses the diverse SEL needs of children alongside their academic learning needs. Could the persisting disparities in learning outcomes in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) be reduced if teachers more effectively integrated social, emotional, and academic learning in their classroom instruction?
Education planners around the world have prioritized wellbeing and SEL in their strategies for returning students to the classroom after as many as two years of COVID-19 school closures. Schools and teachers, recognizing the urgent need to bring SEL into their classrooms, are now faced with a challenge: How?
A New Guidebook to Promote SEL in the Classroom
Launched in Fall 2022, RTI International’s Promoting Social and Emotional Learning in the Classroom: A Guide to Evidence-Based Practices in Low- and Middle-Income Countries addresses the “how” of programming SEL in diverse education settings in LMICs. Building on findings from the USAID-commissioned Social and Emotional Learning Systematic Review, we selected programs that demonstrated evidence for positively impacting academic and/or SEL outcomes, summarized that evidence, and described their key elements with illustrative examples.
To complement and contribute to the growing body of literature on SEL, we organized the Guidebook according to three broad approaches to SEL programming in the classroom.
- SEL Integrated into the Classroom: This section highlights pedagogical interactions and classroom experiences that foster SEL in ongoing instruction. For example, providing encouragement, appreciating effort, and maximizing group work or story time to support social learning and collaboration.
- Child-Centered SEL Activities: This section provides examples of student activities or games that target one or more SEL competencies. Games such as “I Spy” or “Simon Says” strengthen attention, memory, and other cognitive processing skills; “Feelings Charades” builds learners’ ability to recognize emotions and develop empathy, which support relationship building. These student activities can be delivered in the classroom itself as, for example, bridges between lessons or during extra-curricular activities.
- School Climate that Fosters SEL: This section focuses on the learning environment and provides guidance on establishing a school and classroom climate where all learners feel safe, supported, and included, which is fundamental to the success of any SEL program.
Culture and Contextualization: This final section orients readers to the importance of adapting SEL programs to context, underscoring that values placed on traits and behaviors differ according to how individuals need to adapt and succeed in different societies.
The goals of SEL programs, including decisions about targeted SEL traits and behaviors, need to be established based on an understanding of these societal differences. In this section we provide key steps that can help implementers understand the context based on existing research and experience in contextualizing SEL tools. This includes guidance on considering the sociodemographic profile of the participant group, reviewing existing data, and conducting rapid primary data collection.
How Can You Use This Guidebook?
Guidebooks such as this one are only as valuable as their use by practitioners. Consideration of existing opportunities and capabilities for designing and implementing SEL is a necessary first step. In addition, the “Concluding Notes” section of the Guidebook provides several illustrative scenarios and how to apply its approaches for each.
Whether you are a high-level education official in government, a subject area expert, an education district or school manager, or a technical assistance provider, stocktaking is a critical first step. When embarking on extending or putting into place SEL for the first time, it’s important to “start with the now.”
In addition to developing an understanding of the culture and context for SEL, it is important to take stock of the existing opportunities and requirements for SEL at all levels, among national administrative bodies, district management, and in the school and community. For example, what is the current understanding, knowledge, and capabilities for introducing SEL in a school or at scale in a school system? How can the successes of existing opportunities such as a life skills curriculum or student support groups be leveraged for SEL?
Foresight Planning for SEL Implementation
Thinking beyond the “now” and into the future is also useful in SEL programming. Design teams can apply foresight planning (i.e., making sense of an uncertain future and preparing for what may lead to success) to identify emerging issues and future scenarios that might inform programming and education policy related to SEL. For example, certain country contexts may be particularly vulnerable to environmental shocks or may be challenged by the integration of refugees into host-country schools. In this type of scenario, foresight planning for SEL by national and sub-national education administrators would involve deliberation about teacher and student psycho-social needs and prioritizing SEL approaches to address anticipated challenges.
Design-Thinking to Prioritize SEL
An “inclusive envisioning exercise” is often a part of foresight planning, in which education actors at national or sub-national levels – including students – come together to develop a vision of education in the future where SEL is prioritized alongside academic learning.
The envisioning exercise could take place during a project inception activity, which may involve a collaboration with actors from local and international non-government organizations, funding agencies, and the education system (national to school level) who come together to co-design the activity. This is an application of design-thinking methodology, which is fundamentally a co-design process where stakeholders within and outside of the system consider together, or co-create, approaches that are aligned with current and anticipated future contexts and associated priorities.
Promoting Social and Emotional Learning Alongside Academic Learning
By enhancing pedagogy to promote social and emotional learning as well as academic learning in the classroom, we can help foster a more equitable learning experience for all. When education systems address students’ social and emotional needs, students are in a stronger position to reach their potential for academic success, as well as successfully transition into adulthood.
By taking into account the evidence and guidance from RTI’s Guidebook on Promoting Social and Emotional Learning in the Classroom, local educational systems can ensure that social and emotional learning are part of the plan.