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Why it took a pandemic to accept the need to better our socio-emotional skills?

Just like that, the pandemic befell us. It was neither planned, nor foreseen. Seven months into the pandemic, we are still grappling to come to terms with the changes around us. We are forced to live the new normal. How have we been able to cope with it mentally and emotionally? Why are experts now discussing the need for better socio-emotional skills during our childhood?  Why did it take a pandemic for us to accept the same? While the World Health Organization has warned of declining mental health to be the next possible pandemic to envelope the world, it is time we woke up to the need to strengthen ourselves mentally and emotionally.

Where and how do we begin? Brought up as an equal and raised in a household of independent women, I hardly experienced gender inequality or understood ‘what it means to be a girl’ in this patriarchal world until I joined a women’s college. The subtle reminders of one’s gender hit me every day – from wearing our uniform dupatta pleated and properly rested on our chests, to not being allowed to stand on the veranda for too long as our eyes may accidentally cross paths with the boys at the college nearby. Honestly, I didn’t know how to fight and where to begin. Though I did have the position of chairperson of the student body then, I should admit I could make little difference to equate genders or call out wherever it was required.

The thought of working towards an equal world started thus, though it took me close to a decade since then to commence the actual work towards a larger change. An incident that touched me at every sensory level pushed me to research and start work soon. It was in 2010 when my son who was just five years old had an unwelcome brush with a gender stereotype, which raised many questions in me and led to the launch of a socio-emotional learning program in schools and colleges. Phrases and expressions like, ‘cry like a girl’, ‘how can boys cry’, and ‘let her stay indoors as that’s the safest option’ are part of our daily lives. Normally we laugh it off or play our part in endorsing the same. Very rarely do we think of the scar that is left on the child or how one sees gender and the privileges that not everyone has.

First step in building socio-emotional skills framework

To make changes at the ground level, a team was put in place to study the gaps in education and research on ways and means to bring about gender and sexuality awareness in individuals. This led us to begin our training workshops for children as young as 10 years. The transformative years when a child discovers and questions the self, and things around is also the ideal age to introduce variations and differences in gender and how to respect and include every gender into our fold. That is how we started our gender and sexuality workshops which form the core of social-emotional learning. Through these workshops, a child is made to understand the differences in gender and how and why it is of utmost importance to see and treat every gender equally and respectfully. The deep-rooted stereotypes in our lives come out unaware, unplanned, and unwanted. Society has conditioned us to think, act, and behave a certain way. Any deviation from what is the accepted ‘normal’ invites derision and makes us feel guilty most of the time. The change in the accepted norms and conditioning is what we call as the larger change and it must start from every house and school. From not encouraging boys to take up household chores, reminding the girl in the family to learn cooking for better marital prospects, scorning at a transgender in a bus or a metro, the reasons and expressions are innumerable. When the world is moving towards creating equal opportunities and equal spaces, awareness about the same must start as early as possible. And hence began our work towards advocating socio-emotional skills as part of the academic curriculum.

It was not easy for us to breakthrough as managements at many schools considered our socio-emotional learning workshops as unnecessary. They instead preferred to focus entirely on academics, scores, and grades.

With the digital revolution dominating the psyche of a child, the pressure buildup was becoming evident. Depression, anxiety, and suicidal tendencies have risen. As the sole focus of many parents and teachers in India is towards academics, the social and emotional wellbeing of a child is not heeded to. Even though organizations like WHO, UNICEF, and UNESCO had recommended life and social skills as essentials during a child’s developmental phase, they are yet to find a permanent place in the co-scholastic curriculum in schools.

This Covid-19 pandemic and its subsequent repercussions have led educators, parents, and decision makers to alter their thinking and engage in meaningful conversations and discussions revolving better mental health. This thought process had a trickle down effect into various spaces that brought about the realization that for a better and healthy tomorrow, social-emotional health and care needs to be given utmost importance and it has to begin from a young age. From understanding oneself and people around us, breaking stereotypes and conditioning, developing empathy and compassion, to analysing one’s emotions and behaviour patterns, social-emotional learning encompasses all the necessary life-skills that one needs to be adept at for peaceful coexistence. Short term arrangements to handle mental health is not a solution for a healthier future generation. The road to a healthy tomorrow is in making a child understand his/her capabilities and shortcomings at an early age and handhold them in their transformational journey. Socio-emotional skills are the way to building a tolerant and compassionate young gen and the work has to start now.