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Story | Research
21 November 2019

“We need first-class human beings, not second-class rebels”


Experts at WISE Summit discuss how Social and Emotional Learning is helping people in conflict zones

Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) is a core part of what it means to be human – offering a holistic approach to dealing with the full range of pressures faced by young people, especially those in conflict zones or displaced territories.

SEL focuses on building self-confidence, self-knowledge, and skills of self-regulation and emotional health. Yet SEL life skills are not widely embedded in most education systems. And the topic came under the spotlight on the second day of the WISE Summit 2019 in a panel discussion titled Why Does Social and Emotional Learning Matter?

“In Iraq, 40,000 children live without civil documentation,” said Omar Al-Tal, Head of Education, Mercy Corps. “This prevents them not just from access to basic facilities, but schools too.

Communities are traumatized and live in fear, and that’s resulted in the breakdown of the social fabric. There is no sense of belonging. In Iraq, a classroom will have 20 desks, of which five will be broken. It will have 20 students, and no trust between each other. This is what conflict-affected areas look like.”

Dominic Regester, Program Director, Salzburg Global Seminar, Austria, told the discussion: “It feels like SEL is having a moment in global education.

“In today’s age of increasing use of AI and technology, much importance needs to be placed on SEL. As humans, we are social and emotional, and we cannot be automated. A World Health Organization report states that, by 2030, depression will be single largest cause of illness among young people. Mental health is a growing topic around the world.”

An expanding body of research indicates how important SEL is. Recently, LinkedIn asked executives what the most important trait to becoming a successful leader was – and empathy came out as the unanimous emotion.

“Empathy is clearly the significant emotion in SEL,” said Emiliana Rodriguez, Co-Founder and Education Director, AtentaMente, Mexico, adding that one way of cultivating empathy is to understand that “we all have something in common – we don’t want suffering, whoever we might be.”

SEL is acting as an effective tool in helping bring normalcy back to those suffering in conflict zones, according to Al-Tal. “We have to work with teachers who are traumatized,” he said.

These teachers may have also lost family members, and they work in highly unstable environments. SEL helps us support them in dealing with their own trauma and those of their students.”

Katie-Jay Scott, Co-Executive Director, iACT, outlined the similar experiences of a girl displaced in Darfur. She said: “SEL offers these people a choice. It allows them to reclaim their choice with courage and curiosity – aspects lost in displacement.

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“SEL is important everywhere, but even more important when your identity has been stolen. It gives you the choice to be able to reclaim and rebuild your dignity that’s been quashed by a top-down order.”

Stating him view that education systems need to be more inclusive, and highlighting SEL’s role in building emotionally-balanced societies, Louka Parry, CEO and Founder, The Learning Future, Australia, said: “We need first-class human beings, not second-class rebels.

“We have to re-think the way education occurs. Once upon a time, what you knew was enough. Today, it is what you do with what you know that is important. And a third layer to this is: who you are affects what you do with what you know.

“There is a challenge when we talk about academic programs. SEL is not a program. We need to shift from the idea of academic program to practice.”

Rodriguez posed the question of how SEL can be put into practice, saying: “When you think about the qualities of your teachers who have left an imprint in your mind, it’s often got nothing to do with their profession. It is their ability to relate to you as a student. This is an SEL competency.”

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