Witness a room full of stories

Creating safe spaces and social emotional skills via a whole school approach in public schools of Mumbai

Remember the days – eagerness to enter a new school grade, nervousness with algebra, belongingness towards school friends. School experiences, when carefully unpacked, are rendered significant experiences that shape our lives. Every student has lived experiences in the school setting is unique. Young people are in the process of gradually exploring pre-existing expressions of gender, sexuality, being a child or a young adult, being a person experiencing a disability or mental illness. Questions such as – Who am I? What am I here for? Moreover, other curiosities are gradually unpacking as the school years go by. Being a part of the didactic educational systems is of little help.

Over the last few years, we do recognize this gap of lack of opportunities for social-emotional competencies in the current educational curriculum. So how do we respond to this? We tend to apply a solution-focused approach. We come across a concern of low self-esteem, bullying, aggression, and we invest energy in locating the problem, analyzing the source of the triggers, ‘fixing’ the person and much more. How about creating a safe environment, where a person is open to having conversations in a vulnerable space? Peers do a feeling check-in. Collaborative inquiry is encouraged. The bystanders in this environment offer care and support rather than words of judgment.

Apni Shala’s experiential sessions,“ Circle of safe spaces,” is an entry point here. This space is enabling and allows for all kinds of expressions. Respect walks in this circle gradually. At first, it is making sense of what is this social-emotional learning, and why is there no textbook for this? What activities will do in this one hour, every week? Across the whole school year, the conversations unfold diverse student experiences, and unexplored topics are given time to reflect on. With the help of expressive mediums of art, drama, storytelling, music, group discussions, students gradually open up and express their reflections. What comes out of these seemingly unstructured sessions is pure magic. Little big minds gather together in a circle, and the facilitator offers a platform to gain a sense of agency as well as construct their learning what one witness is a room full of stories coming alive.

Since 2013, Apni Shala has been instrumental in creating an in-school intervention space and giving a voice to over 6000 students, 400 teachers and 1000 caregivers of over 15 public schools of Mumbai. School leadership is invested in the well being of the students, which is demonstrated through the school principals referrals to the neighbouring schools to take this  SEL program ahead. 

Mental health problems affect society as a whole and not just a small isolated segment. Mental health issues are sneaky, and they influence a young person as well as the people around them. Seeds of self-doubt may walk in an 8-year-old at any place, at any time. The possibility of these tiny invasions may slowly hinder a person’s emotional regulation, and it may start affecting their relationships with others.

Social and emotional understandings and skills are dynamic and inter-related and work to underpin both personal resilience and healthy relationships {Hromek & Roffey, 2009).

Currently, there is a lack of space in the school timetable to develop the competencies in the student to prevent high-risk behaviour and cater to emotional or behavioral concerns within a public school setting.

Apni Shala has studied these realities and therefore adopted a promotive and preventive approach towards mental health. Over an academic year, these psychosocial interventions are ongoing. A typical school day with Apni Shala sessions would be a combination of in-class 1- hour group interactions with a class of 25-30 students, followed by informal conversations with teachers about their perceptions of mental well being. Once a month meets with these educators are conducted to support their mental well being and sensitizing them over different concepts -diversity and inclusion, responding to bullying and other topics that are school specific. Interactions with caregivers occur once in 3 months to invite them to be witnesses to their child’s schooling. Here conversations around parent-child relationships are discussed. Care walks in each of the above interactions. This care looks like a warm, friendly hug or a familiar song that we find comfort or a light sea breeze that brushes our cheeks when travelling on a bus. 

Themes identified in the Apni Shala SEL curriculum primarily consists of the underlying skills that are part of the Collaborative for Academic, Social Emotional Learning (CASEL) model. Apni Shala adopts the critical ideas of a strength-based approach and Narrative Practices in its facilitation and instruction in the classrooms. In the classroom, the focus is put on the strengths of an individual, enhancing pre-existing/natural characteristics and working collaboratively to build resources.

Individual resilience is an interplay between the internal attributes of the individual and external factors in these environments {Johnson, 2008; Masten,2009; Morrison & Allen, 2007; Toland & Carrigan, 2011; Ungar, 2005). We believe that a student inherently learns from observations as well as interactions with their environment. The school environment is one such opportunity to mould these little big minds.

Research shows that students who participate in rigorously designed and well-taught SEL programs demonstrate more positive social behaviour and are less likely to engage in risky and disruptive behaviour (CASEL,2013; Durlak et al, 2011)

Facilitators at Apni Shala have travelled a considerable distance in their journey over the last six years, and they have witnessed a diverse range of questions, curiosities, hopes and dreams of these students. This initiative is just the beginning. We would like to imagine a room full of stories in all public schools of Mumbai. A safe space where conversations flow, where there is no blame, no shame and no guilt felt or experienced, a time when each person in the room is comfortable ‘being themselves’.  



Mental health : Mental health is a state of emotional and social wellbeing in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community {WHO, 2013).

Social-Emotional Learning : Social-Emotional Learning {SEL) involves students having opportunities to learn and practice social skills such as cooperation, managing conflict,making friends, coping, being resilient and recognising and managing their own feelings. SEL programs set out to explicitly promote these skills in students {Durlak, Weissberg, Dymnicki, Taylor, & Schellinger, 2011).

Strengths-based approach :A strengths-based approach aims to take advantage of existing strengths,positive qualities and the intentional promotion of wellbeing and resilience,rather than focusing solely on deficits or problems that need fixing {Alvord & Grados, 2005).

Whole School Approach : A whole-school approach focuses on positive partnerships and assumes that all members of the school community {teachers, administrative staff, students and parents) have a key role to play in promoting a supportive school culture. A whole-school approach involves all areas of the school –teaching practices, curriculum, and the physical and social environment of the school.

Narrative Therapy Practices: Narrative therapy seeks to be a respectful, non-blaming approach to counselling and community work, which centres people as the experts in their own lives. It views problems as separate from people and assumes people have many skills, competencies, beliefs, values, commitments and abilities that will assist them to reduce the influence of problems in their lives.


  • Cahill Helen, Beadle Sally,Anne Farrelly, Ruth Forster and Dr. Kylie Smith ; Building resilience in children and young people ;A Literature Review for the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development (DEECD),Youth Research Centre, Melbourne Graduate School of Education ;Retrieved from https://www.education.vic.gov.au/school/teachers/health/mentalhealth/Pages/buildingresilience.aspx
  • Durlak, J.A., Weissberg, R.P., Dymnicki, A.B., Taylor, R.D., & Schellinger, K.B. {2011). The Impact of Enhancing Students & Social and Emotional Learning: A Meta-Analysis of School-Based Universal Interventions. Child Development, 82(1), 405-432.
  • Hromek, R., & Roffey, S. {2009). Promoting Social and Emotional Learning With Games: Fun and We Learn Things. Simulation & Gaming, 40, 626-644.
  • Johnson, B. {2008). Teacher-student relationships which promote resilience at school: a micro-level analysis of students views. British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, 36(4), 385-398.
  • Website References:

About the Author: Bimba Chavan is a Mental Health professional working in school mental health spaces as a counsellor, SEL Educator and a Narrative practitioner. She seeks to initiate and innovate conversations of mental health and psycho-social care among all individuals in the society using expressive mediums.

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