There is a missing piece in the NEP

The preamble of the draft National Education Policy (NEP), shared by the MHRD for public consultation, states: “Students must develop not only cognitive skills — both ‘foundational skills’ of literacy and numeracy and ‘higher-order’ cognitive skills such as critical thinking and problem-solving skills — but also social and emotional skills, also referred to as ‘soft skills’, including cultural awareness and empathy, perseverance and grit, teamwork and leadership, among others. The process by which children and adults acquire these competec­ies is also referred to as Social and Emotional Learning (SEL).”

The importance of this cannot be underscored enough. It is an exciting and much-needed lens for the NEP, and it is a sincere hope that the policy is implemented in spirit and intent. But there is a big missing gap.

The NEP is so focused on fixing the education system that it assumes that equal opportunities for all children will enable them to access these opportunities equally. However, this is simply not true. A child who has not been able to sleep the whole night due to her alcoholic father’s skirmishes cannot possibly be expected to engage in the classroom in the same manner as a child from a stable and healthy home environment.

India has approximately 160 million children in poverty and experiencing adversity on a daily basis. Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) such as neglect, abuse, lack of love and care, malnutrition result in developmental delays, known as ‘failure to thrive’, which is associated with a range of mental health and developmental issues. Failure to thrive affects a child’s ability to stay in school, pay attention and engage in learning, build healthy relationships, engage with the world, make healthy life choices and break out of poverty.

Given the scale of adversity in our country, this is the true crisis of education today. Our education system must be uniquely designed to help each child overcome the impact of adversity and flourish in this fast-changing world. Social-emotional learning can be that silver bullet.

The NEP policy recommendation points out that social-emotional learning “can lead to improved cognitive and emotional resilience and promote constructive social engagement.” There is ample evidence that cognitive deficiency resulting from adversity can be overcome. A World Bank report says that “SEL contributes to the overall well-being of children and youth, improved academic performance, healing and coping with chronic exposure to violence.” The pertinent question then is, how can social-emotional learning be developed in children within the school system?

Happy classroom

The NEP draft has recommended SEL at a few places, but it misses out on three crucial aspects of its implementation at the classroom level.

First is the integration of SEL into daily classroom practices using interactive pedagogy. NEP should recommend NCERT to come up with a curriculum which clearly delineates the objectives, competencies, activities, outcomes and assessments for SEL. Delhi has already implemented such a curriculum in its schools. There have been many success stories where children are learning to control their anger, and are developing healthy relationships with their peers and reflecting about their emotions. Andhra Pradesh, Mizoram and Uttarakhand are also on their way to introduce SEL curriculums.

Second is the development of social-emotional competence in teachers. Stanford University’s research on SEL for teachers states that “continuing education opportunities need to provide educators with the skills they need to support students’ psychological, social, and emotional needs along with their academic needs. To support educators themselves, this requires social emotional skill-building for teachers and other educators throughout their careers.” NEP should categorically include the aspects of SEL in the continuous professional development of teachers.

Third is a strong focus on facilitation skills of teachers and teacher-trainers. Current teaching paradigms in classrooms rely on one-way, lecture-driven sessions, which makes the learning ineffective and sub-optimal. Building a supportive classroom environment and creating emotional safety is a necessary condition for children to develop social-emotional skills.

For teachers to implement these in their classrooms, it is required that all kinds of teacher development interventions should also happen in a safe, supportive, participatory and well-managed environment. Role-modelling and facilitation-based learning in teacher development programs conducted by NCERT, SCERTs and DIETs is the best way to integrate these practices back in the classrooms.

In a country where millions of children are experiencing debilitating adversity on a daily basis, our education system should be designed not just to prepare our children for the future but to first help them overcome the adverse impact of adversity.

That is the fundamental reason why SEL cannot be left at the level of a vision and vague ideas but must be placed central to the education reform that the policy is looking to drive. If the purpose of our education system is truly to serve the needs of our children, then this choice is the most important one to make.

(The writers are with Dream a Dream)

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