Social Emotional Learning In Times Of Pandemics & Disruption

Renisha Bharvani, Project Rangeet

The COVID-19 pandemic is a multisystem cascading global disaster disrupting children’s lives at many levels and for which our societies were unprepared.1 Students are facing learning loss that is very critical. Many children didn’t only miss out on learning new material during the pandemic.  They also forgot some of the basic skills they previously learned. The situation could be described as almost two years of learning loss as in many countries students have not attended school for a year and are being automatically promoted to the next grade.2 Whereas remediation after a summer break usually takes a few weeks, in this case it could take a school year. This means that children will be missing out on crucial formative years of their education, not just academically, but perhaps more importantly, the essential social emotional aspects. This can lead to feelings of confusion, loss of self-esteem, demotivation and general apathy toward studies further giving rise to bullying and discrimination which will lead to greater demotivation in school.

Students who have not had access to learning during the pandemic owing to socioeconomic reasons or gender have been presented with even deeper problems. While efforts to contain the virus are vital to protect global health, these same efforts are exposing children and adolescents to an increased risk of child poverty, family uncertainty3 and also family violence. In addition, mandatory lockdowns imposed to curb the spread of the disease have trapped children in their homes, isolating them from the people and the resources that could help them.4 Many children relied on school to provide meals and to act as safety nets and safe spaces. The Right to Education Forum estimates that 37% of girls from disadvantaged Indian households are unlikely to ever return to school. Because of these socio-economic pressures, activists are witnessing a dramatic increase in child marriage and trafficking.5 According to Save The Children’s Global Girlhood Report, 2020 saw approximately 2.5 million more child marriages, taking the overall number to 12.5 million. Moreover, one million more girls were expected to become pregnant during 2020. Childbirth is the leading cause of death among girls aged 15-19 years.6 

Thus, as our students and teachers re-enter classrooms, we need to motivate them not just with academics but speak to their hearts and minds, to inspire them using engaging pedagogical techniques and making them active participants in their own learning.

Life skills taught through social emotional learning (SEL) programs are even more essential as a way for individuals and communities to recover from various crises facing the world today, whether it be consequences faced due to the pandemic or the many humanitarian crises around the world, including in Myanmar, the Middle East, Europe or Africa.  In a pre-pandemic world, where children generally lived highly pressured lives, many found it hard to cope with the social and academic pressures placed on them. This generation is more troubled, lonely, depressed, angry and aggressive.  They are less personally connected than any other generation, yet many are hyper-connected technologically, and even more so as a result of the pandemic.  Whereas before many lived a hybrid life of social media and meeting in person, the pandemic reduced physical social interaction to a minimum.  And for those with no access to connectivity, there is even less interaction. 

According to data provided by UNICEF, nearly 33 million children were forcibly displaced from their homes by the end of 2019. This includes international migrants, refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced persons. It does not include those displaced by natural disasters and other crises.  These children are suffering with no end in sight to their problems. SEL interventions would teach them mechanisms to help alleviate their emotional distress and cultivate resilience in them.

According to 2018 research performed by The Brookings Institution, half of all youth entering the workforce in 2030 will lack basic secondary-level skills needed to thrive, from literacy and maths to critical thinking and problem-solving.7 This problem has most certainly been exacerbated by the pandemic.  Winthrop states that student-centred, playful learning experiences are essential for children to develop the full breadth of skills required to thrive in our rapidly changing world.  It has now become widely recognized by educators, policy-makers, governments and even employers that the benefits of SEL are at least as important as academic success.  SEL teaches necessary life skills for school, work, relationships and life and promotes happy, well-adjusted people who are better learners, communicators and collaborators, thus functioning better in group environments. The World Economic Forum has reported that the top ten skills required in the workforce all involve social and emotional competence8 and according to a 2017 CASEL (Collaborative For Academic, Social and Emotional Learning) Study, 92% of executives surveyed agree.

Therefore, competence in social emotional skills can help bridge the gap in educational inequalities worsened by disruptive events, be it the pandemic or any humanitarian crisis.  The CASEL study also indicates that SEL interventions can support the positive development of students regardless of race, socioeconomic background, or geographical contexts. We believe that SEL will not only provide children with important knowledge to increase empathy and human values but motivate and support them to become better learners of the future and help them to get back on track faster.


2 Anir Chowdhury, Policy Advisor, Access To Information Program, Bangladesh
3 Anser MK, Yousaf Z, Khan MA, Nassani AA, Alotaibi SM, Abro MM, Vo XV, Zaman K. Does communicable diseases (including COVID-19) may increase global poverty risk? A cloud on the horizon. Environ Res. 2020;187:109668.
6 The Lancet, Volume 392, Oct 10, 2020. “2.5 million more child marriages due to COVID-19 pandemic”
7 How Playful Learning Can Help Leapfrog Progress in Education”, Rebecca Winthrop, 2019
8 Future Jobs Report, WEF

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