Mrs. Murthy* is a primary school teacher. Today at lunch, she noticed her student, Jayant*, sitting alone at a far corner of the cafeteria. Jayant was a recent addition to her class and had joined the school after his parents moved to the city. Mrs. Murthy decided to have a conversation with him. After gently probing him, Jayant told her that some students from the class often teased him on his appearance and made fun of his language. On chatting with him further, Mrs. Murthy realized that Jayant was being bullied at school. She was shocked. She wondered how her friendly, warm, and affectionate bunch of 6-year-old kids were capable of such actions? As she gathered her thoughts in support of Jayant, she also found herself faced with a barrage of uncomfortable emotions and questions - ‘How should she address this with her class?’, ‘Should she identify the bullies and separately talk to them?’ or ‘Should she address the class as a whole?’. She wondered if the other kids were fighting similar issues? A flurry of young and helpless faces flashed through her mind, and she found herself quivering and gasping for breath.
Anecdotes like these are not uncommon and are sadly universal across boundaries, cultures, and people. Bullying is intentional negative behavior that is often repetitive and frequently involves a power imbalance. This power variation can be social or physical, or both. In fact, research suggests that bullying is often a consequence of unresolved personal trauma or a poor sense of personal identity. Since the sheer nature of bullying involves social relationships, it affects all actors, those who are bullied, those who bully, and those who witness bullying (bystanders).
Recent reports suggest that about 20% of children are victims of bullying at school. In fact, an alarming statistic that has emerged is the number of bystanders who are also affected by bullying. Bystanders are individuals who witness bullying but who stand silently and do nothing about it. With increasing use of technology, bullying now happens online. According to a study undertaken by Cyberbullying Research Centre, approximately 37% of the students reported experiencing cyberbullying in their lifetimes. Recently, research has begun to investigate the impact of bullying on the brain, given its involvement in the emotional system. These studies have suggested that bullying poses a significant violation of the enriched environment necessary for the healthy development of the brain. The lack or absence of a rich environment leads to neural changes, both in terms of changes in neurochemical transmitters as well as structural development of the brain. Psychologically, this has consequences on attachment, control, self-esteem, self-esteem protection and self-esteem enhancement Bullying has now emerged as a serious public health concern.
Given that social imbalance and a poor sense of identity is a root cause for bullying and our increased understanding of student social-emotional learning (SEL) indicate that SEL offers a powerful means to prevent bullying and to improve student self-esteem. In this essay, we discuss how Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) practices in the classroom can build empathy and thus support the cultivation of healthy relationships among students and thereby prevent and/or reduce bullying in the classroom.
Social and Emotional Learning
Research from cognitive development and neuroscience shows that forming healthy relationships creates the foundation for human beings to coexist in and across groups and are a vital and essential part of the human experience. In fact, humans have an innate, biologically driven ability to develop and form interpersonal connections. It is important to understand the role that relationships play in our personal well-being and society as a whole. These connections manifest through social interactions and not only establish connections between humans but also provide a basis for experiencing intense emotions, positive or negative. In fact, managing emotions is a critical aspect of building healthy relationships and ensuring human well-being.
Social and Emotional Learning is the process of learning these social and emotional skills and includes competencies that are crucial for effective functioning as well managing daily tasks, interactions, and challenges. SEL includes a range of skills, including recognizing and managing emotions, appreciating others’ perspectives, initiating and maintaining positive relationships, and using critical thinking skills to make responsible decisions and handle interpersonal situations. SEL builds student social competence, a healthy identity of the self which includes understanding one’s emotions and those of others, while also regulating emotions to nurture relationships. For instance, SEL builds empathy that allows and encourages connecting and understanding the perspectives of others and taking positive action or compassion to alleviate the pain and distress of others. This leads to happier and safer environments for us to live, learn, and work, ultimately impacting our well-being. In the next section, we describe how SEL interventions address the challenge of bullying, specifically in schools and classrooms
How can SEL address bullying?
Up to date, Schools were primarily considered as learning spaces, but the recent pandemic has evidenced that they are also social spaces. In addition to academic learning, schools provide opportunities for cognitive, physical, and social-emotional development. Children encounter the diversity of the world at school as they interact with students from different cultures, temperaments and mindsets. This provides them opportunities to be exposed to new ideas and learn important life skills like empathy, friendships, teamwork and collaboration, which are all necessary for building good relationships that lead to successful and fulfilling lives.
To elaborate, let us discuss empathy, an important SEL skill which is critical to address bullying. Empathy is feeling or understanding what someone else is feeling. It requires individuals, in this case, children, to feel and understand how the child who is being bullied feels so that they can stand up to the bully. For instance, watching a child fall leads to an immediate response to help because it revives a painful memory of a similar fall experienced by the viewer. However, in the absence of an ‘experienced bullying’ experience, bystanders may often not take action. This is where the conversation needs to change - and teachers must empower children to become an ‘upstander’ - an upstander is a person who speaks or acts in support of an individual or cause and thus engages in responsible decision making and positive action.
Thus empathetic children, help prevent bullying, act as upstanders and exhibit compassion and positive action. This is possible because they have a greater awareness of others’ feelings which also allows students to treat each other with respect. While cognitive empathy which is primarily perspective-taking, enables noticing bullying events and knowing how to intervene, it is affective empathy which involves emotional contagion that results in the actual act of intervention and were found to be positively associated with interpreting bullying as an event that required intervention.
How can teachers introduce SEL interventions at school
Teachers can design SEL activities to induce changes in the pattern of social interactions between students and adults, and among peers in the classroom. They can use child-friendly power videos, narrate powerful stories, use role-playing techniques, and hold positive dialogue to build a safe climate for all actors to discuss and understand bullying. By engaging in direct positive dialogue and discussion, teachers enable safe spaces and help build a positive climate in the classroom.
SEL in Schools and Classrooms
SEL interventions can not only provide means to prevent bullying but also nurtures young people’s competencies and strengths, agency, and a sense of purpose so that they can best succeed in their schools, in their careers, and in life (Weissberg, 2019). We describe a few mechanisms that may be employed to implement SEL interventions in school and prepare for effective SEL intervention at schools.
Most effective SEL programs use the SAFE methodology. SAFE is an acronym for (a) Sequenced, (b) Active, (c ) Focussed, and (d) Explicit instruction. This means that age-appropriate sequenced activities, packaged with ample active opportunities to understand, practice, and gain mastery of the SEL skill, along with a focused approach to the skill, and explicit definition of the skills, are four characteristics of effective SEL programs. Therefore, awareness of this framework and bringing it to use in classrooms becomes important as we plan successful SEL interventions for our students using the following techniques.
Using stand-alone programs: The use of contextual, age-appropriate, and evidence-based stand-alone SEL programs help to build knowledge of SEL skills and provide opportunities for students to practice and cultivate these skills.
Integrating SEL in everyday interactions: Research suggests that SEL, when integrated into daily lesson plans, into teacher-student interpersonal interaction and into classroom practices, is more successful than stand-alone programs. The integration of SEL with traditional academics greatly enhances learning in both areas, addressing the importance of integrating SEL into existing academic curricula.
SEL as part of school climate: Effective SEL interventions are provided within supportive and caring environments in turn enhance the social-emotional and environmental factors that influence student academic and behavioral learning. Therefore, incorporating SEL into school goals and values can provide a safe school climate to facilitate SEL. Schools can practice these techniques as a gradient approach, aspiring to integrate all three approaches with time.
The knowledge of effective SEL intervention can be used to resolve Mrs. Murthy’s dilemmas. As a next step, Mrs. Murthy first needs to navigate and understand her own uncomfortable emotions and thoughts. She could use simple SEL tools like focused breathing, body scans, guided meditation to help her manage her emotions. Next, she may interact with school counselors or SEL experts to identify a meaningful SEL intervention. She could select a contextual, age-appropriate SEL program focussed on developing internal constructs of self, or she could choose more focussed anti-bullying or bullying prevention programs. As she plans for this, she could also think about integrating SEL into her classroom and school in a way that is meaningful, sustained, and embedded in the day-to-day interactions of students, educators, and school staff.
Explicit integration of social and emotional learning offers an opportunity to transform education - not just in terms of its outcomes but also in terms of the individuals it can produce. It not just offers the promise of producing individuals who can read, write, count and earn a good living but also learners equipped with social and emotional training who exhibit empathy, compassion, recognize the inherent interconnectedness and dignity of all life, who exhibit the values of acceptance, equality, respect for diversity, empathy and compassion. Education based on this approach has the potential for triggering a powerful surge of positive transformation in the student and in society.