5 lessons for designing teacher coaching programs in refugee camps

Co-authored with Daniel Smyth

Sylvia Sable
The Airbel Impact Lab
7 min readNov 2, 2018


While learning to read, write, and perform basic arithmetic are all important educational outcomes, academic success presupposes that a certain baseline for student wellbeing is already met. However, in many of the places where International Rescue Committee educators teach, children do not feel safe, self-confident, and they lack frequent, quality social interactions. In Tanzania, many refugees also suffer from low food rations and over 70% of students are studying outside or in classrooms that cannot shelter them from the elements.

Past exposure to violence and ongoing family separation are also frequent, and despite the difficulty of obtaining representative data, researchers have found that the need for social-emotional support among refugee children is as clear as it is urgent.

One element of IRC’s response to this refugee education crisis has been to train refugee teachers in social-emotional learning activities that can provide children with the tools to better focus, build positive relations, and cope with the stress. Over the past two years, the IRC has been gradually demonstrating the positive results of these efforts to promote SEL in resource-constrained settings.

Our current challenge, however, has been to design a cost-effective and scalable alternative to current in-person SEL training workshops. With the aim to design coaching programs that will support more teachers in need, especially those in hard-to-reach areas, Airbel spent several months learning how to best equip teachers in the Mtendeli Refugee Camp in Tanzania with the skills they need to deliver quality SEL to students. Here are five design insights that were instrumental in testing and developing our teacher coaching prototypes.

Students practice Belly Breathing, an SEL activity that helps children calm down and control their emotions in difficult moments.

1. Demo to train, practice to perfect

Meet Felicite, a current teacher and Mtendeli camp resident. While she fully comprehends SEL activities after seeing and experiencing the activities herself, Felicite can only recall a few details about the SEL training session that took place a few years ago and does not remember where she put her PDF packet that summarizes what she learned. Opportunities for teachers like Felicite to see SEL activities “in action” and to practice implementing them in the classroom are non-existent.

After testing several different training models, we settled on video-based coaching and incorporated real classroom examples alongside simplified reenactments of SEL activities from a designated SEL Master Teacher and Coach into the videos. By exposing teachers to both simple demonstrations and realistic classroom depictions, we found that instructive videos made with local teachers and students can be just as instructive as in-person coaching workshops delivered by SEL experts. In fact, after watching these virtual coaching sessions and practicing alongside one another in small groups, the feedback from teachers was largely positive. Through video-based instruction in peer-to-peer settings, we hope to create more exciting and effective learning experiences for educators like Felicite.

Classrooms in refugee camps are often overcrowded, with more than 60 students per teacher.

2. Build daily habits

We found that although weekly video clubs were helpful, they were not enough to make teachers like Felicite comfortable in bringing SEL into the classroom. Instead, teachers needed weeks of continuous daily practice. Yet when teachers are working long hours and double-shifts, establishing new routines can be challenging. Testing different behavioral nudges and self-practice aids therefore became an important focus in our field- and design-work.

One way to overcome the implementation challenges is to encourage habit building. By using specific habit building triggers that are relevant to each environment, we can increase the likelihood that SEL becomes an integrated part of Felicite’s everyday teaching toolkit. Whether it’s through timely in-person support, behavioral nudges using SMS, or incorporating concepts like intention setting into the program design, habit building is essential to improving teachers’ confidence, expertise in SEL, and implementation of SEL in the classroom. For this program, we chose to incorporate a school-wide “SEL Bell” every day at the same time, to encourage teachers and students to perform the activities. The school bell not only reminds teachers, but helps hold them accountable to their students and their peers.

To really make these habits stick, however, we are also realizing just how powerful shared accountability and group learning can be. Wherever possible, we are aiming to reduce the burden of individual responsibility by coordinating habit building cues through colleagues and school administration. Peer-to-peer feedback and scheduled allotments in the school timetable are a few such examples.

Early prototypes of materials were meant to support teachers when doing SEL in the classroom. Above are prototypes of cards that teachers can reference while conducting an SEL activity

3. Materials should work for teachers and students

Typically after completing a training, Felicite would be given a packet of information about SEL. But she finds it difficult to navigate these materials, understand the relevance of SEL and — most of all — apply it to her lessons. We observed that many teachers who received booklets of SEL activities with long instructions about how to practice the activity in the classroom did not reference them on a regular basis. Felicite and her peers also need clear reference materials and children need a visual cue to understand and recall new concepts. How might we get a comprehensive and intuitive resource in front of more teachers and have it remain an important part of their lesson planning and reference library?

A higher-fidelity prototype of an SEL activity card. Each card includes steps and tips for teachers and a large illustration on the back for children.

Mtendeli primary school teachers responded, “Give us something that we can bring home and to class so that we can quickly remember the activities.” Culturally adapted, visually appealing SEL cards that summarized each of the 25 activities were winners in this regard. They provide a bite-sized curriculum that can be easily referenced in the classroom, when it matters most. While these cards continue to undergo further refinements, they already provide an innovative adaptation of the robust SEL curriculum materials already in circulation at the IRC.

Early prototypes included SMS as a means of delivering SEL content and then later as a way to nudge teachers to practice SEL activities consistently with their students.

4. Technology is more than a pathway to scale, it can shape learning experiences

Some of our initial ideas in 2017 involved leveraging mobile phones to directly reach teachers with bite-sized SEL content on their mobile phones. After a few iterations, we quickly moved away from SMS, as teachers like Felicite found phones too constraining and the local networks too unreliable for mobile messaging to be the primary delivery channel for new teaching content. Equally important, mobile messaging also left teachers without visual learning aids. While SMS may help teachers remember to practice the SEL activities, it didn’t help them recall how to perform them.

Consequently, we started thinking about technology through a different lens. We’re now experimenting with how offline technology can help teachers learn by observing, practicing, and forming collective learning groups. With this in mind, we decided to build an app that would act as a group facilitator, to guide teachers through the SEL content in an intuitive and engaging way. The app is available on a tablet available at each school and shared by all the teachers. They watch SEL videos delivered by a SEL Coach, pause the videos during dedicated practice time, and after watching and practicing, are automatically directed to a short quiz. The quiz helps to prompt reflection and discussion, before closing with a goal-setting activity.

Offline video-based instruction has compensated for some of the limitations we encountered with mobile networks and purely textual instruction using SMS. Without needing connectivity, the video sessions we introduced could provide visual demonstrations of the SEL activities that teachers were highly receptive to. Practicing the activities and completing a quiz together also helps teachers stay better connected to their peers by prompting group discussions about tips and strategies for successfully performing the SEL activities in the classroom.

Teachers were instrumental in designing the coaching videos. Here, teachers are developing coaching video scenes including a scene where we show educators teaching the SEL activity in a refugee camp classroom like the ones they teach in every day.

5. Design modular and adaptive programs for scale

While refugee camps in Tanzania may be similar, we cannot rely on identical school contexts if we’re going to scale globally. We believe in designing program components that can effectively work together or separately, and that can be adapted to different contexts depending on the needs of the current school environment.

This is why we’re testing these four main building blocks:

  1. Active Learning: Develop learning opportunities for teachers that are experiential, where they can practice the activities and gain an understanding of how these activities appear when implemented in classrooms like their own.
  2. Habitual Implementation: Help develop new habits, by reducing the burden on the individual as much as possible. Incorporate daily nudges, encourage intention setting, and find ways to make habit-building a collective process.
  3. Culturally relevant material support: Incorporate easy-to-use, visual materials that not only remind teachers to practice, but how to practice.
  4. Digital Coaching: Enable teachers to benefit from high quality, small group coaching by using digital learning aids to overcome the material and political obstacles that prevent teachers from accessing in-person coaching support.

Our next step is testing different building-block combinations and figuring out which have the most potential. In our upcoming pilot study, all teachers will receive the core programming (small group learning with video instruction) and some teachers will receive different habit-building components and implementation strategies. Some teachers will receive timely visits and feedback in their classrooms, while others will receive illustrative curriculum cards. All of this will be piloted for 3 months in 3 schools, with over 100 teachers.

The most promising combinations will be costed to understand their potential to reach teachers across diverse circumstances, from refugees in urban settings and camps, to hard-to-reach underserved rural communities and even regions plagued by civil conflict.



Sylvia Sable
The Airbel Impact Lab

Design and innovation in crisis contexts. Currently at the IRC's Airbel Center. Alumni Afya Research Africa, Duke SEAD, Innovations in Healthcare.