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Children in India playing at school

Now is the time to focus on social-emotional learning in India

Geeta Goel and Sharvi Dublish

Rekha is a 12-year-old girl whose parents are both daily-wage earners. Before COVID-19, she attended a government school near her house. School scared her – she often felt nervous talking to her peers and teachers, and she wasn’t motivated to do well. During the pandemic, her family moved back to their village and it’s unclear if she will go back to school. If she were to go back, it would mean meeting all new teachers and students, which she says feels simply overwhelming.

Rekha is not alone. A large majority of children across India are facing the same uncertainties and emotions. While the pandemic is shining a light on the importance of social-emotional learning (SEL), it is not a new concept. With 444 million children expected to join the workforce in the next 20 years, the role of education needs to include preparing them emotionally for the jobs of the future. This includes having the flexibility to adapt to a rapidly changing environment, and the confidence to work both independently and collaboratively.

SEL equips children with skills to thrive in the 21st century

In India, most people recognize that SEL – and a holistic approach to education – is critical to a child’s success, both in school and the workforce. The National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 brings a welcome and much needed focus on whole child development, both in terms of curriculum and assessment. Internationally, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is working on an initiative to determine the Future of Education and Skills 2030 that will “help education systems determine knowledge, skills, attitudes, and values needed to thrive and shape their future.” This project identifies social and emotional skills as one of the key features of the foundation of learning.

According to a recent World Economic Forum study, 65 percent of children entering primary school today will end up working in job types that don’t yet exist. The study shows skills like creativity, emotional intelligence, and critical thinking are among the top 10 skills desired by employers. Using SEL at school to inculcate these skills and similar ones like problem solving, adaptability, and collaboration is essential. They will enable children to become life-long learners with the ability to retrain themselves and will equip them to join the workforce of the future.

Social and emotional skills are not intrinsic, unchanging qualities. Robust evidence indicates quality interventions make a lasting impact and result in a higher level of social and emotional skills (SES) in students. They can – and with the right support and instruction, will – develop and grow their social-emotional skills.


Dream a Dream is a not-for-profit that runs life-skill programs for young people from low-income backgrounds. They recently conducted a study to understand the impact of after-school sports and arts programs on eight to 15-year-old students experiencing the program for the first time.  Impacted students showcased higher levels of ability to interact with others, take initiative, manage conflict, and overcome difficulties.

Teachers are key to bringing SEL into the classroom. Evidence indicates that teachers whose SEL skills are activated through structured SEL trainings can have a large impact on the social emotional skills of students.  A Brookings study found that although teachers recognize the importance of SEL, they need a deeper understanding of how to integrate it into their teaching. They can begin doing this by including it in the curriculum, and clearly defining objectives, competencies, outcomes, and assessments for SEL.  

To improve SEL, we need to be able to measure it

It is also important to demystify SEL in India and solve the measurement challenge. Measurement within the domain of SEL is especially complex, not only because manifestation of such skills is highly contextualized (dependent on age, region, gender) but also because self-evaluations are not always sufficient or even reliable. Consensus on the set of skills that define SEL and measurement of these non-academic skills has not yet been achieved. To mobilize adoption of SEL interventions at scale, practitioners must identify a glossary of SEL skills relevant for India and arrive on a set of assessment tools to measure them in a standardized way.   

COVID-19 underscores how important these skills are for our children. The time to act is NOW. Let’s take this moment as an opportunity to make the necessary changes, so our children develop the life skills they need to thrive.

Tune In to Learn More

Hear more about the importance of social-emotional learning in India from Geeta Goel in a podcast with Suchetha Bhat, CEO of Dream a Dream.

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