Social and emotional learning programs for children are now online – is it the next era upon us? A True Story

In this blog, Hala Najm, health promotion and adolescent health expert and senior programs associate at Mentor Arabia Foundation reflects and shares lessons learned from the experience of moving social and emotional learning programs to online platforms with children in Lebanon.

Growing up in a highly connected world, the internet has become a natural part of children’s day to day lives around the globe. It is a means that, especially during the pandemic, has helped us all socialize and stay connected. In fact, the pandemic has fuelled this digital age which seems to be the new trend. Working from home, online learning, virtual coffee breaks, happy hours, birthday events and weddings became a big hit and the new norm.

In Lebanon, working remotely was the solution to many challenges that the country was facing. Starting with civil unrest and ongoing protests; the devaluation of the local currency leading to an economic crash; the pandemic which led to the closure of many businesses; and the cherry on top was Beirut Blast, in 2020, the third-largest non-nuclear explosion in history, which left more than 200 dead and 10,000+ injured. Amid this ongoing humanitarian crisis, the mental health and wellbeing of adults as well as children and youth is greatly affected. Psychosocial support (PSS) programs are the cornerstone to help maintain a resilient generation as they pass through difficulties and overcame traumatic events1.

As a result, the R.E.A.D.Y. to Overcome program, a live-stream virtual PSS program designed for children 7- 12 years old, was developed to cater for the mental health and wellbeing of children following the blast and to support them during the lockdown period. The program focuses on the social emotional skills development of children as it aims at building a Resilient Empathic Aware and Dynamic Young generation able to overcome stressful events using arts and crafts as a means. This is achieved through bolstering their self-worth, helping them better identify their emotions, teaching them ways to cope with them respectively, enhancing their communication skills and re-enforcing empathy. The program also integrates 2 positive parenting webinars conducted with parents of participating children.

A mixed method assessment of the pilot phase of the evidence-informed and theory-based program was conducted with 315 children aged 5-17-year-old boys and girls coming from a vulnerable background and who were indirectly affected by the Beirut Blast (i.e., no major damages in material property nor loss of family members). The results showed tangible changes in knowledge, attitudes and behaviors among most of the participants. The program was found to have reached its main goal with an impact that showed an increase in the participating children’s psychosocial wellbeing of 68% relative to the baseline assessment – a result we did not expect2. However, I’m not here to talk about the program’s outcomes, but rather to further reflect and share lessons learned from the overall experience of moving non-formal learning to online platforms with children.

It’s wonderful to see and feel that the children are benefitting from virtual programs, but it is also worth looking into what is happening behind the scenes. The reasons behind moving online were merely and obviously the strict lockdown measures as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, fused with the urgent need for psychosocial support intervention amongst children following the devastating Beirut blast. Hence, the move was not optional, rather, mandatory.

As the program unfolded, many obstacles arose as the team delved into this online venture. It started with the basics which is digital literacy of facilitators, children and parents, who all found it challenging to use online platforms to communicate. Children under the age of 7 years old were not able to take part in this program due to the need of constant parental support throughout. Also, the presence of parents throughout the session hindered the child’s learning process. Another challenge was the provision of the children’s arts and crafts toolkit via the door-to-door method (due to the total lockdown) which was very resource consuming along with the increased cost of purchasing individualized kits (instead of using the same toolkit over and over in face-to-face sessions). On a country level -with a developing country status- other issues were flagged, such as the availability of smart devices at homes, very poor internet connectivity, and constant daily power cuts. All these factors pushed us to ask the question: are we factoring in equity in the implementation of our program? Finally, the results of the assessment have revealed that despite having a very positive outcome on beneficiaries, 90% of children expressed that they preferred face-to-face programs.

Now, the question to be answered remains: Is virtual social emotional learning the next era?

It is a good time to reflect on this question with new COVID-19 lockdown measures and border closures being implemented globally at this time. In every country, there are many anti-vaxxers or people who still do not have access to the vaccine, and this phenomenon will be evident until trust in science and the available vaccines is well established and equity is achieved. Well, this might take a couple more years. This impacts directly children and adolescents who are not vaccinated, hence, are not able to attend non-formal learning sessions or extracurricular activities.

Now, reflecting back on the question, it could sound an oxymoron to some: “virtual social learning”, while others might think of it as a good alternative to reaching out to children and adolescents and building their resilience at such a critical age and during exceptional times.

Both opinions are valid, and at this point, with the results that we have obtained from the pilot that we have conducted, we say it again: virtual social emotional learning works when it is evidence-informed and theory-based! Yet children prefer face-to-face encounters. The choice of face-to-face versus online implementation depends on the situation in each country, the financial means available for implementation, the digital literacy of facilitators, the need among children and adolescents, the availability of vaccinated children and adolescents among others.

You know your ground better; the most important thing is not to lay back and say nothing can be done! Remember, children and adolescents and growing.

About the author:

Hala Najm (R.Ph, MPH) is a health promotion and adolescent health expert and a senior programs associate at Mentor Arabia Foundation based in Lebanon. She has been involved in several national and regional projects on the prevention of risky behaviors including the use of alcohol, tobacco, drugs, bullying, cyber-bullying, and violence with children, adolescents, and youth. Hala has also developed several social-emotional development programs and is a strong advocate of the importance of prevention at early stages. She is interested in research and practice relating to health promotion, drug harm reduction and policy, and the translation of evidence and research into practice. In addition, Hala is a member of the WHO Steering committee on NCDs and the Next Generation and was selected as one of the “Ten Outstanding Young Persons of Lebanon” Award for the Category of Child Rights. To learn more about the R.E.A.D.Y. to Overcome program please feel free to contact her at halanajm[at]mentorarabia.org.

  1. UNICEF. (2019). Mental health and psychosocial technical note. New York. []
  2. Mentor Arabia. (2021). Monitoring and evaluation report of the R.E.A.D.Y. to overcome pilot program: A mixed method assessment. Unpublished manuscript. Retrieved 15, Nov 202. []

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