Policy Dialogue #13: Mainstreaming Social-Emotional Learning

Posted on March 18, 2021  /  0 Comments

A policy dialogue on “Mainstreaming Social-Emotional Learning” was held by the Education Forum Sri Lanka (EFSL) on March 13th, 2021, via Zoom.

Full Video: PD#13, 2 hours 29 minutes


Keynote: Social Emotional Learning, Dr. Ananda Duraiappah

Dr. Duraiappah highlighted the importance of SEL in an educational context that is regimented and instrumentalist by nature, expecting students to listen without questioning, memorize facts and figures, and compete against one another with the ultimate aim of achieving material wealth and prosperity. With so many young people experiencing anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation, it is important that education systems transform to focus on human flourishing – i.e., to nurture a lifelong love of learning in a context that inspires kindness and collaboration. 

Such a system should focus on critical inquiry, empathy, mindfulness and compassion, encouraging students to develop emotional centres of the brain to bring about behavioural change. This can be done through storytelling/ narratives/ case studies, discussions and dialogues, reflections and games/ gamification. 

Dr. Duraiappah emphasized that it is important to nurture both the rational and emotional parts of the brain, but education systems presently focus more on the rational side. He noted the importance of building emotional intelligence and resilience; of mainstreaming SEL to focus on a “whole-brain” approach to education; and encouraging acts of kindness, guided and supported in a mindful, emphatic and critical manner as project-based learning in school curricula.

Mindfulness for SEL, Dr. Tara de Mel

Dr. de Mel provided a neurological background to mindfulness and the physiological aspects of it – i.e. Neuroplasticity is the lifelong capacity of the brain to change and regulate itself in response to the stimulation of learning and experience; and Neurogenesis  is the ability to create new neurons and connections between neurons throughout a lifetime. 

She highlighted the main centres of the brain responsible for coordinating this – amygdala  is responsible for flight, fight, freeze responses;  the  hippocampus is concerned with learning and memory  and helps regulate the amygdala;  and the prefrontal cortex regulates emotions and behaviours. 

There is evidence that mindfulness affects both neuroplasticity and neurogenesis. There are over 500 scientific research studies published annually in peer-reviewed journals on the topic. Some of the earliest work in this regard was  done by Professor Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist  and founder of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. The Dalai Lama challenged Davidson to demonstrate through functional MRI and neuroimaging techniques how mindfulness and other positive mental training will change the brain structurally. Led to the scientific revolution described by Dr. Anantha.

She also highlighted a case study of Sati Pasala, where the initiative was evaluated  using feedback from 232 students and 63 teachers. In a self-assessment,  74% of teachers reported improvements in their own academic performance, with 26% reporting positive behavioural changes.

The impact on students was assessed three-ways – self, peers, and teachers.

TABLE. Impact of the Sati Pasala on students

Self Peers Teacher
Memory 9% 23% 26%
Behavior 59% 69% 51%
Performance 32% 7% 20%
No change 1% 3%

Interestingly, the biggest impact was on behavior with  59%, 69% and 51%, respectively, of self,  peers or teachers, respectively, concurring.   Dr. De Mel noted that behavior changes in students included less chatter and less irritation, and an ability to remain composed. Improvements in Students’ performance attributes  included improved academic performance or ability to work in a more organized manner.

SEL at the Royal Academy of Bhutan, Ms. Sonam Palden

Ms. Palden described the context of the Royal Academy – one in which the present king and kings before him have recognised and associated the country’s journey of modernisation and development with the education system. The vision of the academy is a just and harmonious society.

 The Royal Academy is made up of a school, an education research centre, and a teacher development centre, which work in synergy to maximize the Academy’s impact. The education research centre works on the philosophy and the learning process of the Bhutan Baccalaureate and the teacher development centre helps understand the learning process and take it into the lives of the students. The school at the Royal Academy is the one that actually implements the learning process which is contextualized to the school here in Bhutan and is located in Paro. A holistic education is one that helps learners fulfil all five areas of development. The  Bhutan Baccalaureate focuses on 5 interconnected areas of development: Cerebral, Physical, Social, Emotional and Spiritual. THe baccalaureate is a work in progress. 

Everyone at the academy is a learner, Ms. Palden said. “When we take onboard a new teacher, we take them through a process where they go through the five areas of development like a new student would. We don’t have teacher guides or  textbooks, the only thing that we have is a collection of his majesty speeches because it’s through the speeches what we have is we have traced our history – where we come from, our strengths from our history, current affairs – where are we now in terms of world economy, what’s happening around world, current status (coping and responding to pandemic, kind of responses that we have for education system during pandemic) and also have in place where we are going in terms of – as a nation, as an individual – how do you contribute to the bigger vision.When it comes to recruiting people, we don’t really have a set criteria saying that we need a master’s degree applicant or we’re looking for someone who has experience in terms of teaching. The only thing we’re keeping an eye out for is for an individual who is willing to learn, who’s open minded and who has the rigor and resilience to go through the process of learning and unlearning.”

Central to the learning process is a Road Map, which each learner creates at the beginning of the year.  This Road Map gives students’ ownership over their learning. It includes a backstory which brings together knowledge of a student’s contexts, challenges, circumstances, attitudes, perceptions, through which they identify their own strengths and areas for further development. It emphasizes the interconnectedness of individuals with their communities and contexts. It focuses on the ability to become mindful and be aware of social environments, emotions, feelings and to be able to articulate these feelings. 

Social & Emotional learning aspect of the curriculum examines relationships that one has with oneself, with others in the community, and with the physical environment.  Mentor-Mentee relationship with  a teacher is central to SEL. “Mentor-Mentee Meetings, is one of the non-negotiables in the  learning process at the RA. Every week, you sit with your mentees and usually a teacher would have a minimum of 10 mentees  and a maximum of 15 so that interaction remains efficient. Every Saturday, we sit with our mentees, we talk about how the week was, where they are in terms of their roadmap, what it is that they think they were successful in, and we also think about some of the challenges, and how to overcome those challenges. Do you need support from each other, from adults, or is it something that you as a learner can overcome on your own? Do you need more time? Those are the things that become a part of the Mental Mentee Meeting. It’s just about open communication; it’s just about listening to the children and it’s also allowing them that space as well as that respect that they deserve in terms of sharing and then talking about their own growth and progress”. 

The assessment process at the Royal Academy is  basically an anecdotal one.  The starting point is the backstory and the roadmap  which students use for self-assessment. Students also receive input from peers and other teachers but more importantly, from the mentor teacher. The mentor teacher has a very special kind of relationship with the learners. Even teachers assess themselves in the same manner. Teachers too have their mentors.  Ms. Palden noted that this method is holistic and comprehensive and enhances students’ sense of ownership and responsibility of the learning journey. She noted that feedback loops were also important in assessment, and that the Road Map was constantly reviewed and enhanced.  Students are not expected to sit for national examinations,  but the teachers follow the national standards.

The parents receive two comprehensive reports, one in June and another in December.  They show where the child is in the 5 areas of development. These are all narrative reports from the mentor and different subject teachers. 


SDG 4.7 ENABLING ENVIRONMENT, Matthew McGregor-Stubbs

Sustainable Development Goal 4.7  is to  “ensure all learners acquire knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including among others through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship, and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development, by 2030.” 

Stubbs noted that there are  cognitive, socio-emotional and behavioural domains to achieving SDG 4.7, and most measurement activities have focused on the cognitive domain. The Socio-emotional and behavioral domains are more difficult to implement or measure.  He presented a framework with four levels that captures the environment for SEL, and  a fifth level which is the  ultimate indicator of SEL, the extent of the internalization of socio-emotional skills by students.  

  • INTENDED ENVIRONMENT (System Level: At a system level, national education policies; education sector plans and budgets; national, provisional or state curricula; teacher education standards; centralised school inspection systems are indicative of the intended environment for SEL.
  • PLANNED ENVIRONMENT (School level):  School policies, academic organisation, scheduling and extra-curricular activities, In service education and training of teachers,  provision, school budgets, school performance management are indicative of planned  environment.
  • IMPLEMENTED ENVIRONMENT (School Level): School surveys, lesson plans and schemes of work, activity records, school-wide activities such as  school gardens, clubs are indicative of the  implemented environment. 
  • EXPERIENCED ENVIRONMENT (Classroom Level): Surveys of students, and observation of lessons and broader school activities by third parties. 
  • INTERNALIZED LEARNING (student): Student-produced classwork, low-stakes assessment data, evidence of broader classroom activities

Above  indicators are neither exhaustive nor comprehensive, Mr. McGregor-Stubbs said, but they are intended to provide a pragmatic view of the extent to which a breadth of learning opportunities are created within an education system taking into account the practicalities of collating data and avoiding this becoming an onerous task for countries.


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