What is SEL: Healing and Learning Together

Imagine a classroom in a tent with the sun beating down on it, in an unofficial refugee camp in Lebanon on the border of Syria. In the back of the tent, two young boys reach over their plastic table and hit one another. A small girl sits alone in the corner, with her back to the class. She does not participate in the reading lesson ineffectively led by the young teacher.

What is happening with these children? Why are they so difficult to manage, and failing to learn? It is not because, as some teachers think, they are “bad” or “stupid.” Instead, they may be experiencing a “toxic stress” response. Neuroscience research shows that children who experience prolonged severe adversity may have a “toxic stress” response that can negatively impact their brain development. As a result, they exhibit negative behaviors — aggression, disassociation, and the inability to focus and learn.

The teacher claps twice and tells the children it is time for “SEL” (Social-Emotional Learning). All the children immediately get up and walk outside, giggling as they create a circle. This is the beginning of the “opening the parachute” routine which demonstrates to children that they are now entering the safe space of the SEL session. The two boys who were fighting stand next to one another, holding hands in the circle. The young girl has also joined the class for SEL. This is a time when students know they can share their feelings and experiences without judgment.

SEL provides children with the tools to focus, build positive relations, and cope with the stress they face in a safe space. Research shows that SEL can decrease aggression and emotional distress, and improve children’s interpersonal skills, self-perception and academic achievement. By training teachers on the impact of “toxic stress” on the brain, and providing them with a toolkit to reverse these trends through SEL, teachers are able to better address their students’ needs.

After “opening the parachute,” these children come inside, sit in their seats and practice their “belly-breathing.” In a calm, slow tone, their teacher guides them through the experience of breathing slowly and deeply. Mindfulness has been shown to increase focus and improve stress management. After learning a variety of conflict resolution strategies, the students don hand-made props to role-play scenarios where they resolve their own interpersonal conflicts. They are learning skills that they can use in every aspect of their lives.

When children are displaced from home, separated from their parents, and may have seen a close family member killed in a violent attack, we cannot go about “business as usual” in the classroom. If students are struggling to learn, it is time to find an approach that helps them to be able to heal and begin to learn again. Through fun and interactive child-centered SEL activities, students in IRC schools in Nigeria, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, Syria, and soon Tanzania, Sierra Leone and Niger are starting to not only restore their present-day, but to have hope and build a future for themselves.

This project was funded with support from the U.K. Department for International Development (DFID).