Supporting Students’ Socio-Emotional Learning, Mental Health, and Wellbeing During and Beyond COVID-19

Socio-emotional learning could be the key to unlocking students’ full potential in a post-COVID world, but there is a need for more evidence focused on socio-emotional learning in the context of the Global South. A new study by the RISE Ethiopia team aims to start filling this gap.  


Image of Louise Yorke

Louise Yorke

RISE Ethiopia

University of Cambridge

A lot of evidence has documented the negative impact of the COVID-19 school closures on students’ academic learning, which is likely to extend far beyond the current crisis. Less attention has been given to the important role of students’ socio-emotional learning (SEL), mental health, and wellbeing. Focusing only on students’ numeracy and literacy—while no doubt important—limits our ability to achieve a more holistic understanding of students’ learning and development. The COVID-19 pandemic provides us with the opportunity to reassess the purpose and value of education, including what sorts of skills and capabilities we are expecting education to deliver. Expanding our focus to include students’ SEL can help establish a more expansive and accurate definition of learning that has particular relevance both during and beyond the current crisis.

The importance of socio-emotional learning

SEL is generally understood as a range of different skills and attributes that are important for students’ development, both inside and outside of school. This includes, but is not limited to, the ability to regulate emotions, the ability to set and achieve goals, and interpersonal skills. Evidence suggests a positive relationship between students’ SEL and the level of education that they achieve, what they learn while they are in school, and their pathways beyond school, including entry into the workforce and future earnings. SEL is also closely linked with students’ mental health and wellbeing, an important area of concern during the current crisis. Yet, the majority of our evidence on the role of SEL in students’ education and development is focused on the Global North, which limits our understanding of SEL in other contexts. More evidence is urgently needed from the Global South to better understand the role played by SEL, especially in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Against this backdrop, the RISE Ethiopia research programme, together with the LEGO Foundation, is undertaking research to understand more about SEL in the context of COVID-19 and learning loss.

Supporting students as schools reopen

As schools reopen, a number of challenges will need to be addressed, including increased levels of student drop-out, alternative delivery approaches between a combination of in-school and distance learning, and helping students to catch up on lost learning. Failure to address these challenges may have negative implications, not only for students’ current education and development but also for their future trajectories. Supporting students’ SEL has specific relevance and can help to ensure that students return to school, catch up on lost learning, and adapt to new circumstances. For example, supporting students’ ability to regulate their emotions may help them to cope with unexpected and difficult situations. Similarly, supporting students’ self-efficacy may help to boost their confidence in their ability to catch up on lost learning, and in turn, may help them to re-engage with learning. Nevertheless, this must be accompanied by adequate support—from teachers as well as, where possible, parents and caregivers—and efforts to eradicate the inequalities students face.

Addressing inequalities

Supporting SEL may have particular relevance for disadvantaged groups of students, who received limited support during the school closures, including girls, students from low-income families, and students with disabilities. For example, in Ethiopia, we found that many students were not supported during the school closures, especially those living in rural and remote areas where access to basic resources is limited. Addressing these inequalities will require moving beyond a one-size-fits-all approach and tailoring support to the holistic needs of different groups of students, based on timely and quality data and evidence. 

Impact on mental health and wellbeing

Supporting students’ SEL can also have positive impacts on students’ mental health and wellbeing. To date, far too little attention has been given to the issue of children’s mental health and wellbeing by research, policy, and practice in the Global South, even though evidence suggests that up to 20 percent of children experience mental health difficulties in sub-Saharan Africa. Supporting students’ mental health and wellbeing is an even more pressing concern due to the pandemic. Students are likely experiencing increased levels of anxiety and depression as a result of a range of factors, such as social isolation and increased difficulties due to the economic impacts of the crisis. 

Furthermore, the loss of support that students receive in the school setting including interaction and support from teachers and peers, food and nutrition, material support, and emotional and psychosocial support is likely to even further exacerbate these difficulties. This, in turn, is likely to have negative impacts on students’ learning and development, for instance by limiting their ability to focus and engage in learning. Supporting students’ SEL, including their ability to regulate their emotions and their interpersonal skills, may help students to cope with the risks that they face, elicit the support that they need from others, and re-engage with education.

Gathering evidence from the Global South

Although the importance of focusing on students’ SEL, mental health, and wellbeing both during and beyond the pandemic is clear, difficulties are often faced when trying to operationalise work in this area, especially in the Global South. The multitude of different terms and frameworks leads to a lack of conceptual clarity which can limit meaningful discussion between stakeholders. At the same time, the range of different research methods used to assess SEL, mental health, and wellbeing makes choosing the right approach difficult. Perhaps the most challenging aspect is the fact that the majority of instruments originate from the Global North and are not easily transferable across contexts. Yet, while challenging, this further points to the urgent need to build the evidence base on students’ SEL, mental health, and wellbeing in the Global South.

Socio-emotional learning in Ethiopia

Recognising these challenges, the RISE Ethiopia research programme, together with the LEGO Foundation, has been undertaking research in Ethiopia to understand more about primary students’ (Grade 3 and Grade 6) SEL in the context of COVID-19. Our focus on a more expansive definition of learning aligns with the transformative agenda set out for education in the Ethiopian Government’s founding education policy, which emphasises the need to equip individuals with the skills that they need to participate as full members of society. The findings should therefore provide a holistic perspective on COVID’s impacts on learning, mental health, and wellbeing in a particular Global South setting. Additionally, the lessons learned from this research are likely to extend beyond Ethiopia and have relevance for related research in other similar contexts. Stay tuned for more from the RISE team on this topic.

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