Schooling often emphasizes the importance of STEM, the impacts of which are relatively easy to measure. But what about the skills that are harder to measure but essential to kids’ development into kind, responsible, resilient people?
Social emotional learning helps children manage emotions, build healthy relationships, make good decisions, and set long-term goals. These skills are essential to students’ success in school and beyond, and help them to build strong communities. Unfortunately, these skills are rarely prioritized by our current educational systems.
The founders of Labhya Foundation, an India-based education nonprofit, recognized an urgent need to develop social emotional learning programs in Indian public schools. This led them to partner with governments, nonprofits, and multilateral organizations to build and implement SEL programs for children from low socio-economic backgrounds in India. Their programs currently impact 2.5 million children every day across more than 21,000 schools.
We were glad to have the chance to talk to them more about their work with Labhya!
Harvard Innovation Labs: I’m particularly interested in the Social Emotional Learning (SEL) curriculum and how you adapt it to different countries’ needs. What is the SEL curriculum and why is its adaptability so important?
Richa Gupta: That’s an interesting question! When we started our journey, there was little to no conversation around SEL in India. Most of the research was and still is being spearheaded in the US, UK, and other countries in the West. When we began Labhya, we had a very simple idea. We wanted to create regular spaces for children in the school timetable, where they could learn more about themselves through conversations with each other. We wanted to study how that would impact their success in school. When we piloted our program initially, we rigorously documented our sessions. Slowly, we observed that if we used this space to enable children to understand more about themselves, as well as their relationships to their family, peers, community, and larger ecosystem, children performed better in school, had stronger relationships, and fewer behavioural issues in school.
When we partner with governments, we select 30-40 Master Trainers. These are really enthusiastic teachers, teacher educators, and administration officials from the public education system of the state. We spend a few months training these Master Trainers to develop a common understanding of SEL and build the curriculum for the state with them. Their experience and our expertise helps us create the most contextual and relevant Mindfulness practices, stories, and activities for our children. This also ensures more ownership from the system’s side towards the curriculum as Labhya does not want to become a supplier to the system.
HIL: Why is it particularly important to address students’ social and emotional needs, particularly in the populations you’re targeting?
RG: Over 50% of India’s population today is under the age of 25, meaning an expected 500 million people entering the workforce in the next 15 years. Unfortunately, this potential is being compromised, and the public education system fails to prepare young people with the skills they need to succeed in this fast-changing world.
With 236 million children enrolled in the Indian public education system today, most living on less than two dollars a day, there is an urgency to reimagine the types of skills vulnerable children need. Studies show that if strong social and emotional skills are not developed in children at the right time, they risk a life defined by demotivation, unhealthy relationships, and lack of resilience.
Added to this, the Indian public education system lacks the area expertise and structures to enable these skills. As a result, there is an alarming gap between the skills our most vulnerable children need and those that the system currently provides. This is why it is crucially important to address this problem.
HIL: What inspired you to start this venture?
RG: All three of us Labhya founders have faced adversities and come from very strong lived experiences from our respective childhoods. This has enabled us to be truly passionate and connect deeply to the children we serve through our organisation.
As for me, at age 17, I started working on-ground with Rohingya refugees, the world’s most persecuted minority. After working for almost a year and a half at the camp, I very clearly remember that on the last day, I asked my 9-year old student, a Rohingya refugee, “If you could be anyone, anywhere in the world in the next 10 years, who would you want to be?”
Baffled, she said, “I will probably still be here, picking garbage and earning 20 rupees (26 cents) a day.”
I was so moved in this moment, and realized how each child’s perspective and potential was defined by their ability to cope with trauma, environmental, and emotional adversities.
To explore this problem further, I spent four years teaching in under-resourced public schools across India. I saw how the existing education system didn’t address our children’s emotional needs either. This pushed me to bring a system-level change and begin Labhya in 2017.
From being rejected from 79 schools for our ‘crazy’ idea, to working with governments now where we have the privilege to witness a shift in conversation around education, the journey so far has been short but very, very humbling.
Co-Founder of Labhya Foundation
HIL: Has your venture changed over time? If so, what has changed, and what prompted those changes?
RG: Labhya has evolved a lot over the past three years. From being rejected from 79 schools for our ‘crazy’ idea, to working with governments now where we have the privilege to witness a shift in conversation around education, the journey so far has been short but very, very humbling.
One of the things that has changed at Labhya has been our approach to innovation itself. As a young organisation, we initially thought we needed to stick to a particular kind of partner – governments – in order to succeed. But we have realised that since SEL is an evolving and new space in developing countries, we must not shy away from any opportunity to know more about how it affects vulnerable children in various contexts. We used to shy away from partnerships, thinking we do not know enough or that it may not fall in our theory of change or because of a lack of resources. However, over time we have grown more confident in what we know and have partnered with diverse organisations to develop some of the most interesting programs around SEL in India!
HIL: What keeps you motivated as you develop your venture?
RG: As entrepreneurs, although we’re so close to the problem, it becomes hard to feel motivated at times. We deal with constant rejection. As young people who are constantly negotiating through powerful structures, it becomes very draining. So our team regularly visits schools and classrooms no matter which role we’re in. Sitting in classrooms and observing our Happiness and Anandam programs always instills so much belief in us. After a visit, everything seems worth it because I’m able to see our vision and impact clearly.
…we must adjust how we teach and what we teach according to how our children are able to transition into another normal after a year or many months apart. We will not be able to succeed if we do not acknowledge that the purpose, medium, and goals of education have changed forever with this pandemic.
Co-Founder of Labhya Foundation
HIL: Will the way we think of and deliver learning experiences change permanently as a result of the challenges presented by Covid-19? If so, how will they change, and are they changing for the better or worse?
RG: The Covid-19 pandemic has taken away our children’s only opportunity to find emotional support in their peers at school and communities. The pandemic is especially difficult for vulnerable children in developing countries where internet and smartphone accessibility is not a given. We have been trying to reach our children through SMS and Interactive Voice Response Systems, which is definitely not the same experience as them being able to learn with their peers in person. As we adjust to Covid, it is important for us to keep in mind that for now, we must ensure each child is in a safe, emotionally nurturing home. As schools reopen, it will be our responsibility to ensure that we learn from the pandemic and prioritise wellbeing for children. Most importantly, we must adjust how we teach and what we teach according to how our children are able to transition into another normal after a year or many months apart. We will not be able to succeed if we do not acknowledge that the purpose, medium, and goals of education have changed forever with this pandemic.
HIL: What do you hope to see in education in the future?
RG: In the future, we imagine education as a means to provide children with the skills, competencies, support, and tools to thrive as healthy, productive, and empathetic lifelong learners. We imagine each child being able to define their own purpose of education as they go through school. I think that will change the way we look at the world and will help us solve some of the most pressing social and environmental problems of the world as well.
This profile is part of our series on i-lab ventures changing the way we think about and approach education around the world. From teaching negotiation skills to improving students’ mental health, these startups are making sure students succeed in school and after.