Side event: Social and emotional learning as a systemic prevention approach, not merely an intervention

Organized by Slovenia with the support of the International Association of Lions Clubs, the Institute for Research and Development “Utrip”, and the UNODC Prevention, Treatment and Rehabilitation Section

Permanent Representative of Slovenia to the UN, OSCE and other International Organizations in Vienna, H.E. Ambassador Barbara Žvokelj: Early relationships are important for physical and emotional regulation. This event aims to provide an insight into core competence areas and key settings of social and emotional learning with regard to successful early prevention. We hope this event will motivate a discussion on how to provide a systemic approach to prevention at several levels within educational, social and health system. Social and emotional learning principles have progressed in the last decade in terms of research and practical tools for different target groups. We have witnessed developments in parenting skills programmes where early prevention starts in kindergarten and school based prevention interventions and programmes that strengthen school children’s personal and social skills. Our panellists will discuss the perspective of preventive preventive health care in health and education, and the need to scale up these services for all key target groups.

UNODC Prevention, Treatment & Rehabilitation Section, Global Programme Coordinator at UNODC, Wadih Maalouf: I will talk about social emotional learning in the context of the international standards on drug use prevention. These international standards were first launched in CND in 2013 and revised in 2018 with the admission of WHO criteria. There is science behind those standards; no need to improvise in terms of what programme works or not. Also, prevention is more than awareness about drugs; growing awareness a very small component of this and it works only in a special subgroup of people. 

With the “just say no” we assume that in this very young age there is a free independent choice that the child or young person can make without assuming the rest of the vulnerability around the child. The main science in prevention is to develop a social and emotional learning skill in helping the child at different stages of development to have their own intellectual language and cognitive, emotional and social competencies that are needed. This varies by age. Every age have a different milestone in order to overcome vulnerability. So the point of focus has shifted from the drugs being the problem to how can we help that individual in its different ages of development to grow in a healthy and safe way. Every single person has their own personal characteristics; from genes to reactivity to stress to aggressiveness to attention span to neurological development. Also these people live in different contexts in terms of the microstructure around them; the way they interact with their family and the way the family interacts with them, peer influences etc. But even these microstructures are embedded in a larger structure, in that the same family could be living in a context of conflict, a context of social inequalities, of deprivation, of the low workforce, of violence at the community level etc. This interactivity between the person, the microstructure and the macrostructure around them are the things that prevention work focuses on. There are specific programmes that help every single child to address their own social and emotional needs and support the individual resilience. Sometimes it comes as a surprise for certain policymakers that drug prevention can happen prenatally. Basically that social and emotional attendance of the child to grow in a healthy and safe way in order to prevent substance use in the future can occur very early, and the earlier we can intervene the better the outcomes. It is important to note that the context we are talking is about preventing risky behaviour. That same programme prevents so many different other social and health consequences, not only drug use. In order to address these different age group there are different social structures. I am going to focus on the family. Family is a powerful institution in the life of a child. These people share genes, share a history and will share a future together. Improving family skills is to improve communication, trust, problem solving, scale conflict resolution between the caregivers and their children. Again this interactivity is different at different ages of growth. When a child is first born needs communication to help the brain develop, when it starts speaking to be able to recognise its own emotions. School sometimes does not teach on social interactivity or for the child to be able to recognise the emotions of others and build relationships; there is where family skills become implicated. This is why sometimes they require structural programmes. This has a universal context. Children regardless of a race, age, ethnicity require something from their caregivers; and that’s science. What we are trying is to transfer that knowledge from one country to another to help more and more children.

In order to promote open source programmes and programmes that are easy to scale UNODC has developed two specific evidence based programmes. “Family United” is a package that is universal for families regardless of their level of risk, and “Strong Family” is a programme for a family that is living in a context of stress. We exhibit successful outcomes in extreme cases of parental under stress; displaced families in Afghanistan as well as refugees in transit in Serbia etc. where their kids are moving closer to a normalised behaviour after undertaking our programme. One in every 100 persons is a refugee and in that context family is the only functioning social institution. All of us now are parenting in a stressful situation because of during COVID-19; working from home, with school closures, and in social and physical distancing, let alone the economical impact of the pandemic in job loss, loss of income etc. However, there is no one programme that will reduce the risk to zero. Supportive evidence based programme can increase the prevention layer. Also, these programmes are important from an SDG perspective since we are not only preventing drug use but we are [fostering] a healthy and safe development of youth; 16SDGs are all embedded in one strategy and that’s where the return on the investment is.

Lions Clubs International Foundation, Lions Quest Educational Programmes, Global Programme Manager, Matthew Kiefer: Lions Quest is the flagship Youth Development Programme of the Lions Clubs International Foundation. We are part of the International Association of Lions Clubs and an NGO with ECOSOC consultative status. We have more than 1.4 million members worldwide working on a variety of community improvement projects and service projects. Lions Quest is our main youth development tool based on social emotional learning. Social emotional learning (SEL) provides an important framework for the work that we are doing with prevention and the broader youth outcomes we are seeking to address. We focus on building skills within five key competencies: these include relationship skills, responsible decision making, self awareness, social awareness and self management. These skills provide the foundation for a number of things including preventing negative behaviours but also building up key protective factors: these include developing strong peer bonds as well as bonds with trusting adults both in and outside of a school setting. This skill-building does not happen just within a classroom or school setting which is why we incorporate community and family activities such as service learning and parent meetings. We have age specific and age appropriate content at all grades and age levels which allows us to build a scaffold approach, both for prevention specifically but for the broader social emotional development of children. We align with the international standards of drug use prevention in a number of ways: providing a sound theoretical base; the pedagogic content is based on 30+ years of research. We have seen evaluations of our programme provide positive results both in controlled conditions but also in real world conditions. We know that many educational interventions are evaluated under highly controlled circumstances and the trade off is that those do not reflect how programmes like Lions Quest or others are implemented in the real world which is much messier it’s much more complicated. We often do not have time to implement the full scope of the programme therefore what we allow is an adaptation to local conditions. We have independent worldwide research showing that implementing Lions Quest with fidelity produces a number of positive outcomes that support academic success, including reductions in bullying, increasing students’ connectedness to school etc. We know that when students feel safe at school and that they feel there is someone at school who values them, they are more likely to have improved academic outcomes and be less likely to fall into delinquent or dangerous behaviours including drug and alcohol use. We seek to provide ongoing support in order to promote long term success of the programme and we seek to do that in a number of ways: these include tools to create a positive school climate, tools to address bullying, substance abuse prevention that is specifically addressed both within the curriculum but also supported by parent and community engagement, resources and activities; so that whatever is happening within the school setting is never done in a vacuum but it is done in support of broader community and family engagement initiatives. We are very excited and optimistic about the possibility of expanding that work to Slovenia in the coming year.

Slovenian Institute of Public Health, National coordinator of health education for children, Vesna Pucelj: In Slovenia various free preventive health services and health education are provided in the public health system for all key target groups: pregnant women, parents to be, parents, children and adolescents. Some them are more vulnerable so they need more intensive programmes for their protection and the promotion of health: including breastfeeding counselling for mothers, programmes for more vulnerable families, health education for adolescents outside of school, programmes for health education and health promotion for children and adolescents. The National Institute of Public Health implements the education for health programme for children and youngsters within the scope of primary health care for all age groups. Health education is more than just sharing information. It is an active learning process that considers personal experience and socio economic factors. It aims to provide information and encouraging videos for groups in order to take care of their health. Activities are implemented in health clinics, and in educational institutions, kindergartens and schools as well as in a local community [setting]. Health education for preschool children, school children and parents is implemented periodically along with health examinations in health clinics carried out by specially trained nurses or other health professionals such as physiotherapist, medical doctors, psychologists and so on. Health education lessons implemented in educational institutions cover various aspects of maintaining good health: including topics on drugs, addiction, and illegal behaviours are taught in fifth grade and then readdressed when children learn about growing up, positive self esteem, interpersonal relations and healthy sexuality. In 2016 the Health Promotion programme for youth (15 – 25 years old) that did not finish their regular schooling or are not employed -we also call them dropouts or “need” group- was set as a test programme. The programme has been designed in cooperation with the project “Learning for Young Adults”; main topics include mental health, self esteem, anxiety, coping with stress, relaxing, anger management and also healthy eating, physical activity, and drug and alcohol abuse, smoking, and so on. In the “Prenatal Education for health” programme expectant parents are taught new skills regarding childbirth, care of their own and child health during pregnancy and after birth, care of the baby, communication with the baby, communication in partnership and family relationships. We are now developing intensive home visiting programme named “First 1000 days: from pregnancy to early childhood” for more vulnerable pregnant women and families with babies. Its aim is to strengthen the safe attachment and parental skills, support short term or long term physical and mental health and quality of life, and to prevent trans-generational transmission of trauma. Last, in Slovenia we have a network of health promoting schools. It connects about 400 institutions which represents 71% of all primary and 34% of all secondary schools. They follow national and international guidelines in principle of health promotion for children and adolescent. Health content is supported through the curricula with various project, activities and by encouraging parents, local community and health services for participation.

Psychiatrist and Psychotherapist, Breda Jelen Sobočan: It has been known for decades that early nursing experiences have a significant impact on the development of the individual and shape the inborn characteristics which the baby brings into the world. We are all like premature babies at birth. Every person’s brain is extremely immature at that time. It is crucially developed during the first years of their life. Strong connections are formed among the neurones which are created based on the experiences gained from the primary relationship with a caregiver. The early relationships are social incubator where the neurobiological, psychological, social and cognitive sense of an individual is created. Parents are faced with an extremely demanding task for which they need optimum support. Few communities throughout history truly understood and took advantage of the potential of good early care for the welfare of an individual as well as society. A vast majority of these findings are denied by the society which is profit oriented and mainly interested in only the economical value of life. Young parents are expected to play their part in society which is full of competitive obligations while at the same time they create the future of their child in society. Current social conditions, and relations and values of each individual social environment enter the developmental mind and brain of a child through mothering. It’s not the question of nature or nurture as both are equally important. A good enough parenting is one where the parents are responsive to the needs of a child; where they see their child as a separate being with their own needs and their own inner world, and help the child regulate its physiological and psychological states. Consequently the securely attached child is able to develop the highest ability of constructive self regulation while [develops] the ability to connect with others and thus achieve the regulation of inner-states in his/her social context. An individual with a positive early experiences which were attuned to his or her nature develops the optimal level of resilience, a genuine self curiosity, empathy and creativity. On the other hand a child with a negative early experience develops a defensive personality [structure] which is more or less distorted. Such poorly adapted to reality viewpoint, such understanding of oneself as well as others, and such behaviour have helped him/her survive in the early years and maintain the relationship with a caregiver who is not good enough. This organisation of the psyche can [later] lead to a fragmentation of internal continuity and coherence. This prevents the child from optimally adapting to the external environment. These first few years are centric in the development of a person’s physiological implicit core personality structure and their psychological defence against shame, failure, the feeling of unworthiness, incompetence, the feeling of being unwanted, against the fear of annihilation and other primitive fears. A child with no safe haven is extremely over sensitive to the mere trace of this effects through out of his/her life. The current time of pandemic forces parents into a truly difficult situation concerning the material, social, and physical welfare. What can we both individually and as a society do for the good of the families, for the good for every single baby, every single premature future man or woman. The best answer lies in the famous African proverb. It takes a village to raise a child. 

General Secretary and Project Coordinator at Institute Utrip, Sanela Talić: When was the right time to start with systemic approach? Well, 20 years ago. We as probation workers I have a feeling that we constantly react to challenges that appear in real life without really taking a proactive role. We have a science as a very good ground for what we do in practice; evidence based logic models of vulnerability frameworks and the UNODC approach to use as the standards. This indicates the need for a systemic approach. Parents and teachers are the most targeted settings or socialisation agents. This is a demanding job. Imagine us coming to schools and to families to presenting a new programme. Often these programmes are considered an additional work, an additional burden. We have those programmes as a living moment to temporary knowledge. In systemic approach we should be improving our literacy in the field of social emotional learning or in prevention in general. We should improve knowledge -motivation over competence- in order to access, understand, evaluate and use the right information and on the basis of that to inform judgments and make decisions in order to improve the goals that we set for our target groups. Social emotional learning is constantly happening in everyday life; it is often a part of a hidden curriculum. We have to make it visible and intentional. We should teach children to name the emotion, to recognise the emotion, to regulate the emotion, etc. We should not rely on hope because hope is not really a good strategy especially when talking about such an important thematic. Taking into account all the existing knowledge now is the time, and as the COVID-19 situation has showed us, to start [with SEL]. It would be helpful when we talk about systemic approach to look into [other] products that already exist. [ ] Existing frameworks include different [areas] such as the social, educational and health and different stakeholders. But we should not forget that the human capital is in front line in the process of diffusing innovations and that working with children and people require high emotional labour. This is why we joined the new European initiative “Teaching to be” where we will be designing an online wellbeing course with the aim to support teachers’ professional growth and well being. Because without teachers’ well being we cannot count on students well being. We need not only decision making but concrete steps further into strategic planning involving different stakeholders etc.

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