• Radhika Iyengar

Post COVID-19 demands Social Emotional Learning to be prioritized

Radhika Iyengar,

Earth Institute, Columbia University


"Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start, despite their mental and social conditioning. We are able to take an honest look at ourselves, to acknowledge our deep dissatisfaction, and to embark on new paths to authentic freedom."Laudato Si, Pope Francis.



COVID-19 had led to mass destruction of lives and economies, but it has also shown us that humanity can come together in many unique ways. Among many lessons from the pandemic, we should not forget the lesson of empathy that COVID19 teaches us. Many ordinary citizens from across the globe have become #coronaheroes. Some are running community kitchens for migrants, others are organizing mass mask supplies for frontline workers. What can we learn from each other and how do we integrate this in our curricula? Social Emotional Learning (SEL) has become even more important for the COVID-19 era and beyond.


The National Education Association in the United States has put out a statement that Social Emotional Learning should be the priority during and post-COVID-19 crisis[1].Many teachers and experts are calling to include SEL in all components of the current curricula. The World Bank education experts agree that the SEL component has been neglected thus far and given that millions of children are out-of-school and families continue to suffer financial, mental, emotional and health risks, SEL must be prioritized[2]. The World Bank report states that nearly half of the students surveyed in the United States reported feeling worried about the potential risk of a close relative getting infected, but they are also concerned about not learning enough at home to be ready for the next school year. The report also quotes a survey study by the University of Oregon, showing that children are experiencing difficulties in their socio-emotional development and present higher rates of disruptive behaviors than before the pandemic started. At the same time, families are experiencing household economic insecurity that limits their capacity to meet their basic needs. Given this need, the World Bank has started a youth skilling program in Kaduna State Nigeria that gives SEL the substantial treatment it deserves[3]. Therefore, there is ample evidence that SEL needs to expand much more than what was required before COVID-19.


With SEL being the immediate need in curricula across all levels, values such as empathy towards each other and towards the planet will help communities to recover from this pandemic and avoid future pandemics. Religious leaders like the Dalai Lama and Pope Francis have emphasized empathy towards each other and our environment. Pope Francis's Laudato Si[4], or "On Care for Our Common Home," urges us to be empathetic about our environment. This "Environmental encyclical" is a meeting point between the environment and spirituality. He delicately balances using scientific words such as "global warming" and "carbon emission" and puts it in a spiritual perspective. Pope Francis takes his inspiration from St Francis of Assisi and relates to nature as "sister earth", "brother sun" and "sister moon". He urges us to get connected with different aspects of the planet to cultivate the "ecological virtues". A broadened understanding of SEL that incorporates empathy for our shared home on earth as an extension of empathy for each other, and that links individual and community resilience to environmental resilience, can help raise awareness of how issues like environmental degradation and biodiversity loss pave the way for spread of deadly pandemics like COVID-19, droughts that cause mass hunger, and other human challenges.


Pope calls for a "consciousness-raising" to prevent further all the health and environmental risks caused by humankind. An approach to SEL that incorporates empathy for each other and for environment will help us to be mindful of our own actions and will help us to look deeper within ourselves to break the "myths" of a modernity grounded in a utilitarian mindset (individualism, unlimited progress, competition, consumerism, the unregulated market)." This reflective practice will also help in "establishing harmony within ourselves, with others, with nature and other living creatures, and with God."


The mass destruction has taught us about empathy in real-life, how can we take this lesson and integrate it into our schooling systems? Pope Francis thus explains the real purpose of environmental education, which can be incorporated into SEL, is to not teach facts, but an approach to question one's own practices and meaning-making. He urges educators to encourage "ecological ethics" in developing "ecological citizenship." Pope Francis gives examples of small, but essential practices that we could all learn from this form of education"…such as avoiding the use of plastic and paper, reducing water consumption, separating refuse, cooking only what can reasonably be consumed, showing care for other living beings, using public transport or car-pooling, planting trees, turning off unnecessary lights, or any number of other practices. "This could be such a profound way of "cultivating sound virtues" where people will be empowered to "..make a selfless ecological commitment".


This pandemic has given us the time to reflect on our past, including the way we have mistreated sister earth. The sixth mass destruction is underway[5]. In order to reverse these catastrophic trends in human health and environmental degradation, it is time to revisit Laudato Si and bring humanity back to humans.


The SEL intervention that has been part of the SENSE activity should therefore be broadened to include supplemental teaching and learning materials that help teachers, pupils, and community education volunteers make links between foundational SEL concepts like self-awareness, empathy, and resilience with critical challenges of our time like COVID-19 and climate change. Stories, discussion questions, role-playing activities, and other SEL activities can be curated to align to the current curriculum, with key messages shared within school communities through the engagement of community education volunteers and school-based management committees. This broadened approach to SEL implementation will help young people, teachers, and communities build the critical consciousness that will enable understanding and mobilization around solutions to protect our shared environment and promote health and well-being.

[1]https://www.nea.org/advocating-for-change/new-from-nea/social-emotional-learning-should-be-priority-during-covid-19 [2]https://blogs.worldbank.org/education/importance-monitoring-impacts-covid-19-pandemic-young-children-and-their-families [3]https://blogs.worldbank.org/digital-development/new-skills-youth-succeed-post-covid-world [4]http://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html [5]https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jul/10/earths-sixth-mass-extinction-event-already-underway-scientists-warn


Thank you to Tara Stafford Ocansey for her valuable inputs to this article.

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