Understanding the social emotional learning journeys of our students: part 2 of 2

Hum ek doosre ke emotions samjhe toh, hum ek doosre ko better samajh sakte hain.” 

[“If we understand each other’s emotions, we can understand each other better.”]

This is part two of a two-part blog that attempts to understand the social emotional learning journeys of students from two Mumbai-based public schools who’ve been a part of Apni Shala’s SEL Programme. Students. Please click here for part one.

To quickly recap what we’ve discussed in part one of this two-part blog, we (Ajmer and Niranajn) set out to understand what our students’ journeys with Social Emotional Learning (SEL) look like. In part one, we discussed how we learnt that our students recognise and appreciate the significance of emotions in their life experiences. We also learnt that diverse and significant experiences in interpersonal relationships are contributing to their social emotional development. Here, we will discuss two other themes that emerged for us from our interactions with 25 of our students across grades 8, 9, and 10: learning self regulation through relationships and, navigating life with their contextualised wisdom. 

Learning self-regulation through relationships:

Fig 4: Students doing a mindfulness activity which helps cultivate present moment focus and self- regulation

A learning that we think has its roots in relationships or situations where more than one person is involved, is that of ‘controlling’ emotions. A significant motivation to explore this aspect is that Apni Shala’s facilitators, guided by the organisational philosophy of mindfulness, honour and validate all the emotions that students share in the classroom without labelling them as positive or negative. Secondly, when students experience some difficulty related to their emotions, the facilitators invite the students to observe their thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations in that moment and try to identify small actions they can take in support of their wellbeing. Presenting below four conversations that will help us unpack this further: 

Umar: “Emotions ko control karne ko seekha. Agar hum happy rahenge toh uska effect humari life me padta hai aur agar nervous rahenge toh uska asar bhi padta hai. Hum log udaas rahenge toh life me aage nahi badh payenge.” Facilitator: “Aap ke hisaab se, kuch emotions ka aana buri baat ho sakti hai kya?” Umar: “Nahi, humlog insaan hai toh hum me feelings hai. Jab koi hurt karega toh udaas lagega, hum log ko kisi cheez pe gussa bhi aata hai. Lekin hume isko control karne bhi aana chahiye. Agar hume gussa aaya toh iska matlab yeh nahi hai ki hum kisi ko mar de.”
Umar: “I learnt to control emotions. If I’m happy then it will have an effect on my life and if I’m nervous it will also have an effect on my life. If we stay sad then we won’t be able to move ahead in life. Facilitator: “According to you, is it bad for some emotions to visit us?”Umar:  “No, we are humans, so we have feelings. When someone hurts us, we will feel sad, we will also feel anger at some things. But we have to know to control this too. If anger visits us, it doesn’t mean that we hit someone.”
Ranjith: “Do saal ke pehle main aise tha ki emotion control nahi kar sakta tha. Abhi saamnewala hurt ho gaya toh main kya boloon pata nahi tha, uska muh chota ho gaya hai, yeh solve hi nahi karne aa raha tha mujhe. SEL ke wajah se meri angriness kam karne hua … relationship ke baare me bhi pata chala thoda thoda, doosre ko hurt kiya toh solve kaise karneka yeh pata chala.  Facilitator: “Aap ne anger ko control karne ke baare me share kiya. Kya thoda aur share kar sakte hain– aapko emotions control karne ka need kyun laga?”Ranjith: “Abhi do saal ke pehle yeh sab bina control kiye, kya hota tha ki sab log door hone lage.” Isko kuch faayda nahi, isko kuch pata nahi hai, kabhi bhi haste rehta hai, critical situation me bhi hasta hai” …  lekin abhi control karre na main- “toh haan kuch toh hai tu, humare life me important hai tu” … doosron se important mil re, isiliye SEL important hai.” 
Ranjith: “Two years ago I was such that I could not control my emotions. When the person with me would feel hurt, I wouldn’t know what to say, their face would fall, and I wouldn’t know how to resolve this. I could reduce my anger due to SEL … learnt a little about relationships, I learnt ways to resolve when I hurt someone”Facilitator: “You shared about controlling your anger. Can you say a little more- why did you feel the need to control your emotions?”Ranjith: “Now two years ago when I would do things without control, what used to happen was that people started becoming distant. “He’s of no use, he doesn’t know anything, he just laughs all the time, he laughs even in critical situations” … but now that I’m controlling– “you are something, you are important in our life” … I’m getting importance from others, that’s why SEL is important. 
Alka: “Agar hum gusse me kisiko kuch bolde toh relationship me daraar aa jati hai, relationship toot jaati hai. Lekin wohi cheez agar soch samajh kar, gusse me rahenge toh bhi control karke bolenge, toh humara relationship toot-ta nahi hai.”
Alka: “If we say something in anger then it can result in a crack in our relationship, the relationship can break too. If we say the same thing after carefully thinking, even if we’re angry, if we control and speak, then our relationship will not break.”
Fatima: “Happy me kuch jyaada hi doob jaate hai … pata nahi rehta kya karna hai. SEL hume sikhati hai kaise hume apne emotions ko kaabu karna hai.”
Fatima: “We end up drawing in our happiness … we don’t know what to do. SEL teaches us how we can bring our emotions under control.”

When Umar speaks about the need to ‘control’ anger, he is doing so with the understanding that one cannot resort to violence out of anger. This can be understood as recognising the need to appropriately direct our emotions during a difficult moment (self management) by evaluating the consequences of our action on others (responsible decision making). 

When Ranjith speaks about ‘controlling’ his anger, it comes from his awareness of past experiences (self awareness) which included people close to him being hurt and his difficulty in resolving conflicts. In addition, he also refers to experiences of distance/ isolation in relationships as a result of not ‘controlling’ his anger and responding in ways (e.g., laughing during a critical moment) that were not aligned with the demands of an on-going situation (pointing to the need to be more socially aware). In his journey with SEL, Ranjith draws a connection between learning to ‘control’ his anger (or, learning to appropriately direct his emotionsself management) and learning to resolve conflicts constructively (relationship skills). He also attributes an increased acceptance by his peer group to his improved self management skills. 

When Alka speaks about ‘controlling’ anger during difficult situations in a relationship, she is referring to the possibility of the relationship breaking down if one isn’t careful with their words or tone. Therefore, she advocates for a carefully considered response through a well reasoned judgement of the situation (responsible decision making) which involves both staying in the present moment and appropriately directing one’s emotions (both self management). 

Lastly, when Fatima refers to not knowing what to do when one is ‘drowning’ in happiness, she refers to the role of SEL in learning to bring the emotions that visit us, under control, thus emphasising the regulation of emotions that visit us and not their suppression. Thus, our conclusion here is that students are referring to their skill to self- regulate 3, i.e.,  manage any emotions that they experience with high intensity (be it anger or happiness), when they are talking about ‘controlling’ their emotions. Their anecdotes clearly indicate that they understand how the process of self-regulation involves practising multiple SEL competencies in those situations. Lastly, and significantly, their anecdotes also point to the contribution of relationships in the process of learning self-regulation, which is consistent with research on this topic 3b 3c.

Navigating life with their contextualised wisdom:

This section takes inspiration from the belief in Narrative Ideas (one of Apni Shala’s guiding philosophies) that people have the wisdom to respond to the circumstances in their own lives and that people are always responding to their circumstances. When we shared with our students that we will write a blog based on their responses, one of them shared, “Yeh baat agar doosron tak pahunche toh mujhe bahut acha lagega” [“If this reaches others, then I will feel very good”]. So, the invitation to everyone engaging with our young people’s wisdoms is to ask ourselves: a) how are our young people making meaning of their life experiences? and, b)  what contextualised wisdoms of our young people are becoming visible to us in the way they are navigating life?

Fatima: building my self-confidence
“Choti si umar thi, dost chidhate the aur gharwale bhi. Mereko bolte the, “yeh ladki kabhi kuch nahi kar payegi”, “kabhi padhegi nahi”. Dost mujhe ‘buddhu’ aur ‘paagal’ bulate the. 
Main logon ke baare me sochti ki woh bahut bure hain, mujhe satate hain. Phir maine socha ki main apne andar badlaav laungi.  Jab se mere Apni shala ki learning shuru hui hai tab se confidence badhte hue paaya hai.  Dheere dheere jab main apne aap ko smart samajhna shuru ki, apne khayal ko, apne rishton ko, kam importance dena shuru kiya.
Main khud ko smart samajhti hoon aur meri smartness mere andar hai. Main yeh nahi kehti ki tum smart nahi ho, lekin main khudko sabse jyaada smart samajhti hoon.”
“I was quite young, my friends would tease me and my family too. I would be told, “This girl will never be able to do anything”, “she will never study”. Friends would call me ‘slow’ and ‘mad’. 
I would think that people are very bad, they trouble me. Then I thought that I must bring about change within me. I noticed my confidence growing since the time I started learning in Apni Shala’s class. Slowly slowly, when I started to recognise myself as smart, I started giving less importance to my thoughts, my relationships. 
I started thinking of myself as smart, and understood that my smartness is within me. I’m not saying that others are not smart, but I think of myself as the smartest.”
Some of Fatima’s wisdoms: – understanding how her identity as a smart and confident person is being formed- recognising that she can disengage from what is being said about her and the thoughts that they bring up for her (being in the present moment)Invitation for the reader: what are some of the wisdoms you have developed over the course of your life? 
Seema: understanding the role of challenges and supports in my learning journey
“Confidence low bhi hota hai na, toh seekhna chahiye. Aisa nahi ki direct kisiko madad pooch liya. Pehle khud try karneka … yeh bhi seekha ki hume kuch seekhna ho toh hum apne family ya friend ki support le sakte hain. Kyunki hum akele toh saara kaam toh kar nahi sakte.”“Even when our confidence is low, we should learn. Don’t ask for help right away. Attempt it yourself first … I have also learnt that we can seek the support of family and friends when we want to learn something. Because we cannot do everything by ourselves.”
Some of Seema’s wisdoms: – recognising both challenge and seeking help are a part of learning – appreciating interdependence with the people we live/ work withInvitation for the reader: how do you see the role of support and challenges when you learn something new? 
Umar: understanding my strengths and areas of improvement
“Mujhe samajh aaya hai ki main kahan confident hoon aur kahan nahi hoon … confidence badalta hai … agar mujhe koi cheez bahut ache se aa rahi hai toh mujhe confidence bahut jyada hota hai. Lekin agar koi cheez mujhe nahi aati toh confidence kam hota hai. Yeh baat mujhe aapke class se seekhne mila.
Jidhar mera confidence badhta hai, woh acha hai mere liye aur jidhar mera confidence low hota hai, toh mujhe aisa karna chahiye ki mera confidence low na ho. Jaise ki main seekhoonga nahi toh main samajh nahi paoonga ki main kidhar kamzor hoon. Meri galtiyon ko kidhar sudharna hai woh mujhe seekhne mila.”
“I’ve understood where I’m confident and where I’m not … confidence varies … if I know something very well, my confidence increases. But if I don’t know something, my confidence drops. This I learnt from your class. 
Where my confidence increases, that is good for me and where my confidence drops, I have to do something so that my confidence does not drop. Like if I don’t learn I won’t understand where I’m weak. I’ll understand where I’ve to correct my mistakes.”
Some of Umar’s wisdoms: – recognising that learning is a process that will bring up both strengths and areas of improvement – recognising how his confidence level varies in different situationsInvitation for the reader: what emotions come up for you when you recognise a strength of yours by learning/ doing something?
Shraddha: learning to manage my emotions
“Mera chota bhai close hai, friendly hai, uske saath ekdum acha lagta hai. Main use apni cheezen batati hoon, us se baat karke mera mood sahi karta hai. Mujhe happy karta hai.  
Jab gussa aata hai, main bhai se baat nahi karti, but phone use karti hoon, aur mera gussa sahi ho jaata hai.”
“My younger brother is close, friendly, I feel very nice with him. I tell him my things, my mood becomes alright after speaking to him. It makes me happy.
When anger visits me, I do not speak to my brother, but I use the phone, and my anger settles down.” 
Some of Shraddha’s wisdoms: – recognising her emotions- recognising which actions/ behaviours help her when different emotions visit herInvitation for the reader: what actions do you take when different emotions visit you? 

Concluding thoughts: 

We noticed our students had shared many personal stories with us– some of which involved experiences of significant distress and others which involved speaking about vulnerable moments in personal relationships. We felt a deep sense of gratitude towards them for trusting us and making our conversational space a brave space. We are also noticing our students across partner schools and organisations are sharing their stories in their classrooms with their facilitators/ teachers. 

Our attempt to trace the possible roots of these brave conversational spaces between students and facilitators/ teachers, led us to realise that these brave conversational spaces are being constructed with the help of an SEL curriculum which intentionally creates space for and invites students’ life stories by recognising that students bring with them “half the curriculum” 4, and, the teaching/ facilitation practices experienced by students in the classrooms: be it the experience of safety 5a and inclusion 5b, the experience of one’s emotions being validated, the experience of being invited to dive deeper into personal experiences through diverse modalities like art, drama and storytelling 6, the experience of witnessing vulnerability being modelled 7, the experience of one’s agency being honoured, the experience of one’s wisdom and expertise about their own life being recognised as such, and the experience of joy 8

As adult advocates of young people’s mental health, it is important that we constantly invite young people to freely express their thoughts, feelings and wisdom, and to recognise their knowledge and skills as such. We invite all our readers to engage with this blog in different ways: you may have a conversation with the young people in your life about their wisdom, or share with us thoughts, questions and insights emerging for you. If you would like to create spaces for young people’s social emotional learning, write to us. As for the two of us, we’re walking away feeling inspired by our students and motivated to continue creating safe spaces for expression for our young people.  

Author Bios:

Ajmeruddin Shaikh (Ajmer) is a fellow at Apni Shala and joined in June 2022. He is facilitating SEL sessions in 3 schools with around 350 students weekly once in one school. He is very active & dedicated to his work in SEL. He completed his Bachelor of Commerce from Rizvi College and is pursuing a Masters of Commerce from Mumbai University. In his free time, he loves to play cricket and workout at the gym.

Niranjanraj Ramasundaram (Niranjan) works at Apni Shala as an SEL Facilitator in six partner schools/NGOs and as a member of the SEL Curriculum team. He has an MA in Development Studies specialising in power, participation and social change, and has a combined work experience of 7+ years in the start-up and social sectors. Niranjan is fond of music, spending time with friends, and playing with his cats. 

Disclaimer: The names of all the student respondents in this blog are pseudonyms. 

Gratitude: We would like to express our gratitude to all our student respondents for sharing their stories and wisdom with us, and to Abhijeet Dhurve and Mayuri Golambde for helping guide this process of gathering student voices on their journey with SEL.

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