The importance of SEL was underlined even more with Covid-19, as we witnessed adults and young people report elevated levels of stress, anxiety, and depression around the world.

SEL interventions alone aren’t enough

There is enough evidence that SEL programs have led to improvements among young people. For instance, at Dream a Dream, a nonprofit that works with children from variously marginalised backgrounds, we saw that despite adverse social circumstances the young people involved in SEL programs demonstrated improved life skills, including interacting with others, overcoming difficulties and solving problems, taking initiative, managing conflict, and understanding and following instructions.

What remains perturbing about SEL programs is that the onus of ‘improvement’ continues to be on the young person.

However, what remains perturbing about SEL programs is that the onus of ‘improvement’ continues to be on the young person—who is often living in a system mired in inequity and discrimination. Imagine a Muslim child from a low-income background, living in a predominantly Hindu-populated community. He attends a middle-class Hindu-majority school where he is constantly subjected to religious slurs. Eventually, because of the bullying, he becomes subdued and quiet. If the SEL programs tell him that he needs to ‘become confident’ or ‘take leadership’ without considering his lived reality, what impact would they have on him other than further eroding his self-worth?

Therefore, as important as these SEL interventions are, they cannot bring about change in isolation. The entire education system in India needs to gear up to tackle the systemic barriers arising out of caste, class, religion, social status, and gender, among other factors, that continue to push young people back. To really move towards inclusivity, we will need a change in the mindsets of all the people involved, including educators, school leaders, and parents, as well as changes in curriculum and assessments.

The need for an intersectional lens

Given the SEL momentum that has picked up in India, we must pause and reflect on some difficult questions.

How can the educational ecosystem work to stop the perpetuation of the systemic barriers that continue to haunt young people in India based on their social identities?

How should SEL programs help young people unpack the ways in which their intersecting identities contribute to increased risk for discrimination and oppression within the education space?

What about our own biases and privileges as teachers, educators and SEL facilitators, and our own intersecting social identities and their impact in our classrooms?

Dena Simmons, founder of LiberatED, a collective that works on building an SEL approach to healing and racial justice, believes that when SEL programs are used in a manner that disregards the identities of marginalised young people, it becomes a bid to ‘fix’ their behaviour and therefore ends up looking like “white supremacy with a hug”.

To understand this in an Indian context, think of a teacher with over 60 migrant students packed into a small classroom in Uttarakhand. We observed this teacher telling the children a story about a man who lived in a 100-room house. The story was about how the man was made to realise that while he and his wife shared one room, the remaining 99 rooms were for his greed. This moral conclusion on greed, completely out of context, only led to the children mouthing “greed is bad”, without any understanding of what that meant in their day-to-day life.

Understanding our role in the ecosystem

So how do we go about building our capacity towards intersectional SEL?

A good first step would be to acknowledge and understand our own intersecting identities as facilitators, teachers, administrators, education leaders, and anyone working in the education ecosystem. Distilling our own privileges and how these exacerbate discrimination can also aid in building a sense of how social identities function in the lives of marginalised children.

An example of this is caste-based exclusion. Dr Praveen Kumar, erstwhile principal secretary at the Telangana Social Welfare Residential Education Institution Society (TSWREIS), brought about many reforms in the TSWREIS schools. But his most significant contribution to developing children’s self-confidence was offering all the children a new last name/surname—Swaero—to help them overcome the systemic discrimination they face when their last names reveal their caste identity. The results tell their own story.

Unearned privileges arising out of being a member of the upper caste/class can essentially be anything from easy access to education and other services to having more time in a day. Our privilege in that sense is not visible to us and we assume it to be the way of the world. For example, a teacher would regularly punish a child for being late to class, branding her lazy and irresponsible, until he realised that before she came to school, this child needed to get all her siblings ready, do the laundry, and make food for the family. She also didn’t have a clock at home and never knew the time. As we see in this case, privileged notions of punctuality being the only indicator of responsibility is deeply flawed and blind to the realities of many of our children.

An intersectional lens is important because only then will SEL practitioners build an equity-centered approach.

An intersectional lens is important because only then will SEL practitioners build an equity-centered approach that helps affirm young people’s lived experiences and not perpetuate the same discrimination that leads to marginalisation in the first place.

Putting it into practice

While the journey to create a truly equitable and inclusive program could take years, some of the initial steps that organisations working with SEL can take include:

1. Examining curriculum

Organisations must invest time and resources to relook at the existing SEL curriculum and check if it is reinforcing any stereotypes. They should also ensure that the stories being told represent different communities and lived realities, and that the activities mentioned are flexible and inclusive so that all children can participate.

2. Training staff

Team members conducting SEL exercises must understand and recognise how different identities intersect and should be able to take them into account during interactions with young people. This can involve workshops on gender sensitisation and the impact of the caste system on the mental health of children, along with self-reflection activities to explore our own areas of privilege and discrimination.

3. Creating assessments that measure movement, not benchmarks

One of the ways in which assessments can play a hugely detrimental role is when children are benchmarked against standards that assume a normative pattern of child-development. When children grow up in adverse circumstances due to their social marginalisation, standard benchmarks cannot be applied, and we must assess them on the improvements they are making and not the benchmarks they are achieving.

4. Hiring a diverse team

The team working on SEL curriculum, conducting classes, and carrying out feedback exercises should have adequate representation from the communities the organisation serves. It is important to look at the intersecting identities of the team members themselves and ensure there is enough diversity and inclusion in the team.

5. Putting equitable policies in place

While hiring a diverse team would be the first important step, we then need to ensure that the policies we have, especially with regard to assessing performance and providing benefits, consider the marginalisation and discriminations that the diverse team members face. Policies must be framed in a way that everyone is given equitable opportunities for growth.

6. Ensuring long-term support for young people

The SEL programs should continue to engage with young people beyond the duration of the program. This helps them navigate the systemic discriminations they encounter as they enter adulthood.

7. Working in government school systems

Finally, it is necessary for SEL programs to work inside the government school system where most children from marginalised backgrounds are currently enrolled. Investing in developing the same capacities and understanding within the public system is necessary to make the education system more equitable and inclusive.

(This is a slightly modified version of an article originally published in Times of India. The original article can be found at https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/blogs/developing-contemporary-india/social-emotional-learning-in-india-the-importance-of-intersectionality/)