By Deena Newaz, MPhil alumna, Globalisation and International Development (2019-20), Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge

While working with education projects at Skaramangas and Eleonas refugee camps in Athens between 2017 and 2018, I found education not only to be an urgent need but also a lifeline for children to learn and practice skills to overcome their realities which remained plunged in uncertainty. Although it appeared that many residents in the camp had their lives come to a standstill due to unfathomable journeys to Greece, many families also navigated such precarious situations through networks built within the camp at the language classes or at the women’s reading circle. Upon volunteering in numerous classes and at urban refugee support centres, I found that the most transformative education activities were ones that created a thriving social and emotional learning environment through co-creative approaches, enabling participants to exercise agency in situations when much has been taken away from them. Such programs intentionally and unintentionally contributed to enhancing resilience among diverse community members by enabling them to adapt and find meaning in uncertain situations. While many students on the move cannot attend formal schools, informal learning spaces offered both physical and psycho-social safety through routines and networks of communal care. Thus, it became clear to me that learning in crisis is not only about meeting academic needs or securing accreditation, but attempts to meet the diverse social, emotional and ecological needs of learners.

Moved by my experience and the supporting literature, I came into the MPhil program at the University of Cambridge with the conviction to study social and emotional learning (SEL) and to explore pathways of integrating SEL into learning systems in emergency contexts. At the same time, I was also drawn to exploring our emotional lives at a young age and found myself very discouraged when my own education paid no attention to understand or enhance my social and emotional competencies. So, I turned to my experiences and people in my life to teach me emotional resilience to navigate an uncertain world without any tools to manage the emotional demands of inhabiting it. However, what I have learned from observing the closest people in my life repeatedly attempting to bounce back and thrive against adversity is that emotional resilience and social connection can blunt the forces of unpredictable trauma and adversity by presenting opportunities to grow. The ability to process emotional uncertainties is a multidimensional quality that propels people to not only overcome but also thrive in times of adversity. The indefinite lockdown and the backdrop of the pandemic has provided all of us with more time to sit with our emotions, acquaint ourselves with them and, if we are ready, maybe even experience them without resistance. It is bringing to the forefront that we spend very little time in our formal education to gain the skills or the vocabulary to unpack our rich emotional and social lives.

Despite being knee-deep in social and emotional learning literature and research, I have found myself unable to honour my own emotions and regulate them during this period of uncertainty. Our collective experience of the pandemic is making us acutely aware of the different ways our emotions are catching up with us. Even as adults with years of educational experience under our belt, we find ourselves struggling and overwhelmed by emotions and social isolation. In such humbling moments, I am reminded that we cannot approach social and emotional learning like other academic subjects in the curriculum. SEL is a dynamic process that enables us to regulate, manage and understand our emotions and perceptions. The process cannot be confined within the formal education experience, it is our life’s work. However, by supporting learners at a young age we can create the fertile grounds for them to have the emotional and social vocabulary to articulate their emotions, navigate this pandemic and other events in an inherently uncertain world.

The moment during the pandemic where I had to step away from my research and the accompanying distress of not being able to model social and emotional learning in my own life has taught me two lessons. First, I am reminded how critical SEL skills are in our uncertain present and will continue to remain so in the future. SEL is not only essential during crisis but beyond it as a tool to experience the world with more emotional courage, empathy and compassion both toward ourselves and others. My younger self and the self working in the refugee camp were drawn to SEL because of how the value of social and emotional learning could be realized in diverse contexts, with the right cultural adaption, support and training. Second, there is a strong cultural and social-demographic component to how SEL competencies are perceived, which is also confirmed by research conducted by Jukes (Jukes et. al 2018). It is a pedagogy that looks different in different contexts, and which means as researchers we must be cognizant of not imposing models of normative social and emotional behaviour in unfamiliar contexts.

Since the beginning of the lockdown in March, I have been deeply reflecting and meditating on how we can culturally adapt social and emotional learning to create those pathways to build individual and communal resilience. During my online interviews with various stakeholders working in the field, it became apparent that many aspects of SEL look different in forced migration settings such as Chad where my research was focused, compared to the practices documented by schools in the US where a lot of SEL evidence is gathered. My initial findings from my research suggest that social and emotional learning cannot be divorced from its cultural and resource contexts. Thus, SEL must take a culturally relevant approach involving a set of concepts which can be expressed as a continuum, rather than a single absolute. I am keen to continue exploring the networks and social structures that provide the foundation to learn and practice social and emotional learning in diverse, refugee contexts. The past few months have offered me a renewed sense of purpose in researching emotions by enabling me to connect with the core principles of SEL that makes it a transformative tool to enrich the social and emotional lives of learners and adults around the world.


Jukes, M. C. H., Gabrieli, P., Mgonda, N. L., Nsolezi, F. S., Jeremiah, G., Tibenda, J. J., & Bub, K. L. (2018). “Respect Is an Investment”: Community Perceptions of Social and Emotional Competencies in Early Childhood from Mtwara, Tanzania. Global Education Review, 5(2), 160–188.

Deena just completed an MPhil in Education, Globalisation, and International Development where her research focused on contextualising social and emotional learning in refugee contexts. She previously worked as a program manager at the World Innovation Summit for Education where she managed and evaluated education programs and mentored young social innovators working in the refugee education sector across Europe and MENA.

Posted by:fersacambridge

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