Transforming the Citizens of Tomorrow through SEL

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Dec 19, 2018
by Anna Rawe
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Transforming the Citizens of Tomorrow through SEL

Salzburg Global explores SEL practices in India Picture by hari_mangayil on Pixabay

India’s population is approaching 1.35 billion. With 29 states and seven union territories, a one-size-fits-all model might not be appropriate for its education system. Changes to just one region, or even city, can affect vast numbers of people.

An example of this is in Delhi, through the emergence of a happiness curriculum. Launched by the Dalai Lama, the policy is a considerable shift towards social and emotional learning (SEL). The Delhi Government is responsible for 1,000 schools, around 20,000 teachers and 1.5 million students. It provides happiness classes for students from nursery to Grade Eight.

These classes often take place at the beginning of the day and have three parts: mindfulness exercises, a story, and a discussion where every student has to speak. Students are encouraged to question teachers instead of just writing and memorizing.

Shailendra Sharma is the principal advisor to the director of education for the Government of NCT Delhi. In his position, he was heavily involved in reforms which he hopes will develop mindfulness, critical thinking, and empathy in Delhi students.

When asked why the Delhi Government made this ambitious move, Sharma said, “Privately, everybody would complain about the aggression, maladjustment, corruption, you name it, and these are issues that are cited. They would all expect that something should be done in the school, ‘We are not doing enough.’ But, these two narratives [of social problems and SEL] were not converging, and through [the] happiness curriculum, we have attempted to bring about this convergence.” Sharma believes unless societal issues are addressed in schools, systems will not transform, and another generation will carry on cycles of behavior.

He hopes this mandated happiness class is the first step in introducing SEL principles to Delhi classrooms, and once teachers get used to the methods used, they will integrate them with their lessons throughout the day.

However, SEL is still not widely visible in India’s education system. Despite this issue, there are other informal avenues for SEL to take place, as Dream a Dream in Bangalore demonstrates. The organization currently works with 10,000 young people through its School Life Skills and Career Connect programs, with the aim of helping young people overcome adversity and thrive.

Vishal Talreja was working in investment banking before he set up Dream a Dream in 2000. Talreja had the desire to spread the idea “every human being is unique and special, and they need to be respected for who they are, irrespective of the background they come from.” But this leads to a dilemma. Talreja asks, “How do we enable that in a society that largely has been established on a strong caste and class system?”

Talreja suggests more needs to be done within education to move away from the system inherited from India’s colonial past. Talreja wishes education could do more to encourage the traits of empathy, respect, and dignity that nurture citizens of tomorrow.

He believes SEL has a vital role to play in helping children living in poverty by facilitating them as they learn to learn, build life skills, and encourage them to help others. Talreja has found kids that have been through his program want to go on to become active citizens in their communities, and currently, 40% of their 92 people strong team are graduates from Dream a Dream programs.

Dream a Dream has grown massively in the 18 years it’s been active, but how can SEL be spread on a nationwide scale in India? Sukhmani Sethi, program manager for Porticus Asia, in Delhi, believes philanthropy has an essential role in the SEL space in India.

Sethi says, “Philanthropy really helps amplify a voice or a theory of change, because… if a couple of funders back up a certain approach… that voice for that approach gets amplified. I think that’s how those kinds of approaches get traction by even policymakers.”

Sethi studied history at Delhi University where her professors encouraged her to “invest in knowing more about outside your bubbles.” She ended up in educational research by accepting a job at Pratham, an NGO, which changed her understanding of privilege. Now, she aims to move the needle on SEL in India and encourage school systems to look at a child’s development as a whole, and she looks for others who share the same goal.

Different charitable funders could be vital in helping provide opportunities for researchers and organizations who can help deliver the social and emotional learning that is key to children’s development. As Vishal Talreja says “If you want to impact how society looks in the future, then you have to impact children today.”


The program Social and Emotional Learning: A Global Synthesis is part of Salzburg Global's multi-year series Education for Tomorrow’s World. This year’s program is being held in partnership with ETS, Microsoft and Qatar Foundation International, who will also co-chair the program, together with additional partners, the British Council, the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and the Inter-American Development Bank.