By Paul Frisoli, Associate Director, Education in Conflict & Crisis, FHI 360, and Nina Weisenhorn, Senior Advisor, Education in Crisis & Conflict, U.S. Agency for International Development
Hau’wa loved going to school and at 12-years-old dreamed of one day becoming a teacher in her town, even as Boko Haram’s ruthless grip tightened on northeastern Nigeria. In this Creative Associates story, we learned that Hau’wa had to put her dream on hold when she and dozens of women and children from her town were captured by Boko Haram insurgents.
“I spent many nights crying and refusing to eat anything while the man I stayed with kept shouting and threatening to beat me if I kept talking about going back to school,” Hau’wa said.
After enduring two years of capture, a forced marriage and the birth of twin daughters, Hau’wa and six other girls were finally able to escape. Hau’wa began experiencing symptoms of toxic stress triggered by the system in the brain that reacts to strong, frequent and chronic adversity, such as exposure to the violence carried out by Boko Haram.
The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Nigeria Education Crisis Response program estimates that more than 50 percent of children may experience the inability to concentrate, impulsivity or withdrawing, aggression and other symptoms because of toxic stress. According to American- and European-based research along with emerging evidence in crisis-affected contexts, the harmful effects of toxic stress can be stopped or even reversed when children have access to safe and predictable learning environments, positive and nurturing relationships with key adults such as caregivers and teachers, and participate in social-emotional learning (SEL) activities. SEL helps children develop the skills needed to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships and make responsible decisions.The harmful effects of toxic stress can be stopped or even reversed when children have access to safe and predictable learning environments, positive and nurturing relationships with key adults, and participate in SEL activities. Click To TweetUSAID Nigeria’s Education Crisis Response program, implemented by Creative Associates International and the International Rescue Committee (IRC), incorporates a competency- and skills-based SEL program as one of the three pillars of the curriculum in its learning centers that provide internally displaced children like Hau’wa with state-accredited education. These SEL activities help traumatized students make sense of the experiences they have had and develop useful coping skills to manage complex and conflicting emotions, while building positive relationships with one another.
Illustrative SEL Activities
- Belly Breathing, where students concentrate on their breaths going in and out from their bellies, which helps develop breath awareness to reduce stress and calm down;
- Memory Card Game, which helps develop critical working memory executive function skills;
- Mindful Movements, like stretching, which help to develop body-awareness and control impulses;
- “Stop-Think-Act” Strategies, which help students to positively resolve conflicts by pausing when disagreements occur, thinking about what’s going on while regulating emotions, and acting in a thoughtful way to promote positive interactions.
SEL interventions provide children with the tools to focus, regulate their emotional responses, interact with others, and cope with stress and challenges, mitigating the effects of toxic stress. SEL benefits also include improved academic performance and social skills, positive self-image, as well as decreases in aggression, emotional distress and conduct problems. Myriad organizations are currently implementing SEL interventions in crisis-affected contexts because of these tangible benefits to children.
“My [learning facilitator] taught me how to control my anger and how to play with other children. Although memories of my bad experience…come to my mind occasionally, I try to play with other girls and read my books to forget the past,” Hau’wa said.
SEL interventions also provide long-term benefits for children and are linked with increases in high school graduation rates, postsecondary enrollment and completion, higher employment rates and wages, positive health and mental health outcomes and resilience. SEL outcomes are also correlated with decreases in substance abuse, teen pregnancy and criminal behavior. The return on investment is palpable: one study in the United States found that integrating SEL into academic programs resulted in a return of $11 for every $1 invested.
The U.S. government is currently developing its strategy for international basic education assistance as mandated by the READ Act, a bill that aims to provide access to education for some of the 263 million children and adolescents who are currently not in school, or who do not have access to education because of conflict or political instability. The Education in Crisis and Conflict Network and its partners are hosting a Social-Emotional Learning: Establishing the Policy Case on June 1, 2018 at FHI 360’s Academy Hall in Washington, D.C., to help inform this strategy.
Cost-effective, evidence-based strategies like SEL should be included as a priority in the strategy so that children like Hau’wa can stay in school. All children, including those living in crisis-affected communities, deserve the opportunity to learn, grow and thrive.
Learn more about SEL:
- Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies – PSS / SEL Thematic Page
- Aspen Institute National Commission on Social, Emotional and Academic Development
- World Bank / IRC Guidance Note – Learning and Resilience: The Crucial Role of Social and Emotional Well-being in Contexts of Adversity
- Mercy Corps & Yale University – Study on the impacts of SEL with Syrian refugee youth
- IRC – Promising practices for improving refugee children’s social and academic outcomes
- Norweigan Refugee Council – Better Learning Program for children in Gaza
- FHI 360 – Key soft-skills for youth, guiding principles, and soft-skills measurement recommendations
- Creative Associates International – SEL approaches in Afghanistan and Nigeria