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Ed. Magazine

Tools Help Schools in India With SEL During COVID

How one nonprofit is helping students and teachers cope using text, voicemail, and apps
Richa Gupta with students

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit last March, India’s 250 million students faced the swift shutdown of the country’s public schools. As teachers and state governments scrambled to piece together online classes, other worries emerged: How would students cope with the interrupted learning and emotional trauma of the pandemic, on top of the other challenges many of them already faced?

“India has one of the oldest and most complex public school systems in the world,” says current master's student Richa Gupta, cofounder of Labhya Foundation, a nonprofit that focuses on creating social-emotional learning (SEL) programs for young students in India. “But it often struggles to provide access to education for the most vulnerable students.”

That vulnerability has increased during the pandemic, as thousands of students have migrated from cities to villages while their parents look for work. Many children, especially in rural areas, don’t have access to the Internet or smartphones, making online learning nearly impossible. Teachers, many of whom are juggling virtual classes with responsibilities at home, have found themselves burned out and exhausted.

Gupta and her colleagues at Labhya had to pivot, too. They had already been working with state governments to design and implement curriculum focused on social and emotional learning. After COVID hit, they have worked to translate their in-person curriculum into multiple formats that could reach students where they were.

“We worked with teachers to create a YouTube series for children who did have access to the Internet,” Gupta explains. “We also created simple animation videos for existing content, using a voiceover with pictures, and had teachers send it to their students via WhatsApp.” Teachers also sent messages to students through voicemail and text.

Normally, Labhya’s curriculum is delivered through a daily class in public schools, with four key components to help children build social and emotional skills. These include mindfulness exercises to build awareness of the body and mind; storytelling to prompt students’ reflection; activities focused on skills such as negotiation and regulating one’s emotions; and expression, to help children integrate what they learn in the class.

“When we define SEL, it is grounded in the realities of our children and informed by the challenges they face,” says Gupta, who worked with Rohingya children in refugee camps and as a Teach For India fellow before cofounding Labhya in 2017. “We want to make sure children have the skills to cope with what’s happening in their lives during all the hours they aren’t in school.”

This year, Labhya has partnered with state governments in Delhi and Uttarakhand to create the interactive voice and text messages being sent to students and parents. “These are pared-down versions of activities we normally do,” she explains. “Something as simple as: Close your eyes and focus on your breath. Or: Think about who you’re grateful for, and go say ‘thank you’ to them.”

Labhya’s work focuses not only on students, but also on teachers, helping build their capacity to work with students on social-emotional learning concepts. During the pandemic, the foundation has also offered Zoom sessions on well-being for teachers.

“That became a huge priority for us,” says Gupta, adding that teachers, in addition to teaching, have also been helping to run quarantine centers and distribute emergency rations to students in many areas. “We wanted to offer teachers a bit of time to reflect on their own strengths and see how they could cope. We are preparing teachers to actively respond when schools reopen, in a way that is compassionate and driven by SEL principles.”

As some schools in India reopen and others prepare to do so, Labhya must prepare to pivot once again.

“We’re working to create safe spaces for when children come back to school,” says Gupta. “We’re also asking: how do we motivate children to come back? And how can we integrate technology into our programs to make sure students can stay connected during another crisis?”

This year, Labhya has partnered with a graduate student at MIT to create a social-emotional learning app called SELT, which is currently in the pilot stages. Helped along by a Social Impact Fellowship from the Harvard Innovation Lab, the foundation is also developing other tools that will help scale its work to more states in India. It is also working with the United Nations Development Program to create career development programming for teenagers and young people who are older than Labhya’s typical demographic.

“We want to help children become lifelong learners,” says Gupta. “It has been a challenging year, but I think we’ve been able to shift our focus to keep making an impact in a virtual world.”

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Katie Noah Gibson is a Boston-based writer.

Ed. Magazine

The magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education

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