The apparent pause in the earth’s spinning brought about by the global Coronavirus pandemic, is a time for profound reflection and reappraisal of the most fundamental things we used to take for granted. It is a time to recalibrate our values and the entrenched socio-cultural norms and misguided priorities according to which we have been slavishly and unthinkingly operating. It is a time to reflect on what happens when our focus on accumulating wealth eclipses our humanity and threatens our very survival. This is the time to forswear the cynicism and indifference we have become so inured to, and to commit ourselves to new values and a new humanism and, above all, to active steps that will achieve this. We need urgently to reform the education system which must inevitably be the prime motor of this new humanism, and of sustainable development and human progress generally. What must distinguish the legacy of this time in our history will not only be the reimagining of education, but an actualized system change that immediately and urgently starts to deploy concrete programmatic tools for tangible outcomes.
There is a missing dimension to education. In addition to numeracy, literacy and testing—the hallmarks of our outmoded and broken education system—we need to give our children the foundation in “life skills” or “social and emotional learning” (SEL). Education has an obligation to nurture children to live fulfilled, healthy, happy, dignified and respectful lives as responsible and equal global citizens. It is my absolute conviction, that this ‘missing subject’ should in fact be the core purpose of education (and in particular of early childhood education), teaching our children the values of tolerance and non-violence, to love and to value one another on the basis of absolute equality and inclusion and to respect and safeguard our common home, the earth.
The question of when to start mediating SEL is of paramount importance. Most SEL programmes start at 6, 8 or even later. Just as no architect would start building from the ground floor up, without building solid foundation first, SEL must start in the earliest possible years (and certainly before the age of 6) if we are to build critical foundations for our children which will result in positive outcomes later in life. Certain trajectories of activity in the developing brain, e.g. habitual ways of responding and emotional control, which are crucial ingredients in anti-social attitudes and behaviors, flatline at the age of 6 (Council for Early Child Development ref Nash 1997, Early Years Study 1999; Shonkoff 2000). If we get in before that diminishing point, the returns are enormous and well documented in terms of increase in academic performance and pro-social behavior, and reduction in intergenerational inequality, gender-based violence, teen pregnancies, perpetrating of crime, depression, suicide and even physical health risk factors (e.g. cardiovascular disease).
Education ministries and policymakers around the world are becoming increasingly clear about what psycho-social and emotional skills and competencies should appear on any halfway decent SEL list. Still entrenched in the notion that education should merely be a path to the labour market, they tend to choose from amongst: self-regulation, collaboration, resilience, creativity, communication, self-care, and problem-solving. They more regularly tend to miss out gender equality, critical thinking, emotional literacy, peaceful conflict resolution, celebration of diversity, self-esteem, inclusion, empathy, environmental awareness and such other skills underlying human dignity, sustainable development and wellbeing. Even when they recognize what is needed, what they seem to be struggling with, are the practical aspects of how to mediate this ‘new subject’, and they are often still unaware of what resources are required and available.
Teachers are at the coalface of the changes we need to make, and their role could hardly be more important but having only recently realized the critical importance of early childhood education, we have hitherto considered its practitioners to be little more than babysitters. Thus, there is a serious mismatch between our under-valued, under-trained and underpaid early years workforce and our expectation that they will be able to deliver holistic quality education in response to a list of lofty outcomes and objectives which we have only recently delineated. It will take decades for us to fully and seriously train the early years workforce. Until then, I believe, we have to teach SEL prescriptively. It is every child’s fundamental right to get a minimum level of SEL, and they should not have to depend on variances in teacher training, skills and talents brought about largely due to our negligence.
This is why the Think Equal Programme which has been curated and created with input from global thought leaders in the field, consists of lesson plans with step by step instruction for the teachers to follow. Far from needing to be experts in SEL, they need only know how to read. Think Equal provides tested and practical resources which fire teachers’ imaginations, stimulate them, and empower them to mediate SEL over 30 weeks to 3-6-year-old children. It provides (free or at direct cost) 3 age-appropriate levels, each level with 22 narrative picture books, 90 lesson plans and accompanying resources. Think Equal educators are supported and guided throughout their first year of teaching the programme. Their training is a mere 2 days, in which they are initiated in the brain science, purpose and potential impact of the programme and in how to use the resources. They in fact train 3 times a week, every time they teach, by following the prescriptive lesson plan instructions. This approach enables a system-wide change that is practical, immediate, replicable, scalable and sustainable.
In conclusion, there is a clear moral, ethical and rights-based imperative for us to finally commit to concrete ameliorative action, not only theoretical frameworks and intentional objectives. We have a duty of care to children in the early, vulnerable years and they have the fundamental right to a foundation for positive outcomes in life on an even playing field. Children have the right to not grow up into rapists or bullies, because they were handed down prejudices and were not equipped with the competencies and skills they require to fulfill their potential and succeed in life. Think Equal and other life skills programming provide the opportunity to ensure children grow up with these rights recognized and actualized. Social and Emotional Learning must be brought front and center as a mandated third dimension to our Early Years education. Only then will we stand a chance of disrupting the cycle of discrimination and violence which is handed down generationally, for lack of intervention. As Gandhi said: ‘If we are to reach real peace in the world…we shall have to begin with the children’.