Social Emotional Learning When Education is in A State of Emergency

Books and blocks stacked on a table with an apple and colored pencils

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt learning across the world, a topic on all of our minds is how this period of long-term uncertainty and stress will impact students, educators, and communities. As part of the Karanga SEL Global Leadership Series: Education in a State of Emergency, our Senior Programs Advisor, Dr. Carine Allaf, discussed this concern with an emphasis on prevention. Throughout this presentation, the panelists were asked to reflect upon three questions:

  1. What has been learned from conflict and crisis contexts that can help all young people universally?
  2. What are the strategies school and district leaders can use to provide psychosocial support to students and staff so that learning can effectively take place?
  3. What are the tangible ways that leaders can create environments that help students and staff thrive in times of long-term uncertainty?

Reflecting on her own experiences with teaching in emergency contexts, Dr. Allaf explained tangible ways to improve the state of education in an emergency through Social Emotional Learning (SEL) and Psychosocial Support (PSS). As an educator, parent, policymaker, academic, and donor, Allaf can speak on this topic from a multitude of perspectives.

There were four key points covered by Dr. Allaf in this presentation:

  1. Preparedness and disaster risk reduction are essential for anyone involved in education. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed how unprepared the most developed school systems are for a disaster.  With conflict and crisis quickly becoming the norm across the world, we must prepare our school systems for future disasters.
  2. We must acknowledge that psychosocial and mental health are paramount and are non-negotiables in education. The pandemic has caused extreme mental distress and we must provide resources to our teachers to help alleviate stress in order for our education system to continue operating.
  3. Coordination and communication with key stakeholders are essential in times of emergency education. Lack of communication between educators and key stakeholders has resulted in educational policies that appear to be reasonable but are logistical nightmares for teachers to enforce.
  4. We should be innovative, but also go with what we know works. We often go with fancy things that we don’t know how to use, rather than practical things that we know work. If we utilize more traditional forms of communication such as radio, TV, and WhatsApp, it might be easier for students and teachers to interact outside the traditional classroom.

These key learnings emphasize the importance of having Psychosocial Support (PSS) and Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) in the classroom. Allaf explains that PSS refers to the actions that promote holistic wellbeing of a person in their social world and facilitates resilience in individuals, families, and communities; Social Emotional Learning (SEL), an important component of PSS, refers to the processes and skills that people need to have wellbeing. The key to PSS and SEL is that it must be intentionally linked to academics. Additionally, PSS and SEL must be a permanent component of a school’s curriculum, not a separate add-on.

Over the past three years at QFI, Dr. Allaf has been working in partnership with Washington University in St. Louis on the “Study of Adolescent Lives After Migration to America (SALAMA).” The study looks at the mental health and psychosocial needs of Arabic speaking adolescents in public schools. Through surveys and interviews, the study uses the quantitative and qualitative indicators of a sense of belonging and value, a sense of normalcy, relationships with others, and intellectual and physical stimulation to assess the level of PSS available to students. Using the takeaways from this study, Allaf looked at the various strategies that schools and districts can use to provide PSS for students and staff so that learning can take place.

One of the biggest indicators of PSS in SALAMA is a sense of belonging and culture.  Making sure that there is language and cultural support in the home and school is crucial.  This is especially critical in this COVID-19 world, especially regarding distance and remote learners, as it promotes trust and builds community.

To provide tangible ways for educational leaders to create environments that help students and staff to thrive in long-term uncertainty, Dr. Allaf reflected on the INEE intervention pyramid, which covers the four levels of PSS and SEL interventions. These intervention strategies range from basic services to specialized emergency services for teachers.

Oftentimes, what is missing in learning environments that prevent PSS from taking place in school settings is a referral mechanism for teachers, especially for students who utilize specialized services. By implementing a transparent and easily accessible referral process, schools and districts will be able to address the greatest needs in an efficient manner.