The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly transformed children's lives in Bangladesh and beyond. Children have experienced some of the most significant shifts in their lives and daily routines, even though we have all been subjected to related challenges. They might have been in constant fear of their loved ones contracting the virus. Parents’ job loss, lockdowns and the unpredictability of the pandemic are just a few of the other factors that many kids may have dealt with over the past few years. Most importantly, their academic activities were disrupted in many ways. This includes daily peer interactions, assembly, play and activities, games, cultural activities, celebrations of special days and other events that simply were no longer available. It is no wonder that Bangladesh has been seeing increased mental health crises among children. Data gathered since the start of the pandemic has demonstrated a sharp rise in children of all ages seeking mental health care. In 2020, a published article demonstrated that Bangladeshi students aged 5-15 years were suffering from depression, anxiety, and sleeping disorders; an estimated 19.35 % had moderate and 7.2% had severe mental disturbances.
After one and a half years of school closures, in-person classes resumed on September 12, 2021. Initially, most grades were attending one to two days of in-person classes a week to ensure social distancing. However, full-fledged classes restarted in February 2022. Based on various reports and personal experiences of the researcher, the return to school after a long-term unplanned break was a dire scenario. It was observed that many students could no longer recognise the alphabets and numbers that they had learnt previously; some had lost their reading ability, and some others had forgotten the names of their teachers and peers. Most importantly, students were observed to be more disruptive during classes and had lost interest in regular learning at home, which is still a concern for parents and education specialists.
BRAC Education Program (BEP) has developed an accelerated model, globally known as Accelerated Learning Program (ALP), to bring primary-level Out-of-School Children (OoSC) back to school and address their learning gaps. ALP utilises efficient instructional and learning strategies tailored to student’s cognitive development, allowing them to acquire grade-specific competencies in a shorter timeframe compared to traditional education settings. Due to its effectiveness in meeting the educational demands of people impacted by such situations, ALP has grown in prominence in regions affected by crises, conflict and other comparable problems. In Bangladesh, BRAC accelerated schools aimed to reintegrate OoSC aged 7-14 years and children who were facing barriers to accessing formal education into government/formal schools by bridging their learning gap and rebuilding their learning capacity. Additionally, this program also targeted to create opportunities for the students’ socio-emotional development through access to psycho-social support (PSS) and play-based pedagogy. This would ensure that their essential mental health needs were addressed. Providing intervention to the parents and community members was also planned in this program to ensure a supportive approach that harmonises the environment at home and school.
To integrate Socio-emotional Learning (SEL) into the accelerated model, the BRAC Institute of Educational Development (IED) developed SEL content for the students, parents and community to support this model. Furthermore, to develop the capacity of SEL among teachers, training of teachers and staff was initiated. All parents, teachers, Members of the School Managing Committee (SMC) and Para Committee also received awareness sessions based on the socio-emotional development of children and positive parenting. As a part of the SEL integration into the accelerated model, Para-counsellors were also trained and appointed in each school to provide psycho-social support (PSS) to the students, teachers and parents. Over a period of 18 months, the aforementioned interventions were provided to 35000 OoSC in 1400 one-room schools in 8 districts, namely Cox’s Bazar, Dinajpur, Habiganj, Kishoreganj, Lalmonirhat, Netrokona, Rangpur and Sunamganj under the BRAC accelerated model, which was funded by the LEGO foundation.
BRAC James P Grant School of Public Health (BRAC JPGSPH) conducted a qualitative study in April 2023 aiming to understand the stakeholders’ perceptions of the SEL integrated play-based accelerated learning model from three implementing areas out of above mentioned eight districts. Findings indicate that the program has so far seen great success.
Rehana, a BRAC school teacher from Cox’s Bazar, expressed that the inclusion of SEL in the curriculum was very helpful for teachers and students:
“...I think the inclusion of Social-Emotional Learning with the Accelerated Model was very important because the students with whom we worked in the accelerated model were drop-outs and had a learning gap at that time. I think every child during COVID-19 had a really terrible time. The entire situation was horrible; when the children could not go out, interact with anyone, play sports, and could not get proper sleep, then there was a lot of pressure on them. We, the adults, could at least understand the situation and cope with it; that was not too much of a problem. But kids could not understand what was happening. When they suddenly came back to school after so long, they failed to re-adjust to that environment. In such a situation, when they received that mental and emotional support, their fear went away...”
SEL has been shown to have positive effects on students, but there is also evidence that it can help teachers and the school as a whole. This includes teachers reporting less stress, better relationships with students, and increased confidence in their teaching. Being equipped with key SEL competencies made the teachers more capable of managing student behaviour and fostering a healthy classroom environment, which led to a sense of fulfilment, job satisfaction and work-life balance.
Engaging the parents and community members through SMC and Para Committee meetings also strengthened the SEL intervention by enabling them to provide consistent support and create a positive home environment for the students, which impacted their overall well-being and educational success.
The United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) 4.1, and 4.10 are concerned with providing access to quality education and capacity building of teachers in developing countries by 2030. If we wish to increase access to quality education for all children in countries such as Bangladesh, SEL can be very helpful for children to learn social skills and emotional intelligence that they will use every day. Even though the pandemic has been hard on the mental health of children of all ages, SEL programs are a powerful way for schools to help their children as they get back on their feet. Students can not only do better in school but can develop holistically through learning these crucial life skills.
The writers are researchers at the Humanitarian
Hub, BRAC James P Grant School of Public
Health, BRAC University