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India’s snowballing SEL skills deficit

EducationWorld February 2023 | Special Report

Released last December, CASS 2022 indicts the country’s 1.48 million government and private schools for failure to sufficiently develop children’s social and emotional learning skills, positive attitudes, beliefs and values writes Summiya Yasmeen

Although mainstream media reports at the fag end of the academic year 2022-23 and on the eve of the new school year gloss over the learning, psychological, social and emotional disequilibrium suffered by India’s 260 million school-going children during the 82-week Covid pandemic lockdown, two authoritative recently released reports paint a dismal picture of K-12 education in post-pandemic India. 

School Children

Two faces of K-12 education: minimal SEL skills development

The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2022 of the reputed Pratham Education Foundation released in Delhi on January 19, reveals a precipitous decline in children’s reading capability to 2012 level (79.5 percent class III children cannot read class II texts) and drop in basic arithmetic learning (74.1 percent class III children can’t do simple subtraction sums). This poor academic score card of school children in rural India has prompted anguished newspaper and television reports and analyses from education pundits lamenting steadily falling learning outcomes in India’s 1.48 million primary-secondary, especially government, schools.

While ASER 2022 is focused on children’s learning outcomes evaluated on the basis of out-of-school field testing, another report released in December indicates that India’s 260 million school-going children are not acquiring social and emotional skills and positive attitudes.

A research survey titled Cognitive & Affective Skills Study in Schools Across India (CASS 2022), released in the national capital on December 5 by the Delhi-based Centre for Science of Student Learning (CSSL, estb.2015), an educational research organisation that “builds capacity for diagnostic student learning assessments and researches how children learn,” indicts the country’s 1.48 million government and private schools for failure to sufficiently develop children’s social and emotional skills, positive attitudes and provide them a “nurturing school climate”.

Yet while ASER 2022 drew media headlines, CSSL’s important study of the psychological and emotional well-being of children — a precondition of high academic learning outcomes — has attracted little media or academic attention. An unprecedented innovative study which assesses children’s social and emotional learning (SEL) capabilities, CASS 2022 exposes the minimal attention accorded to SEL in government and even in high-ranked private schools. SEL is defined as the “process of developing social and emotional skills such as self-awareness (understanding emotions and thoughts), self-management, responsible decision making, social awareness and relationship building skills” (OECD).

The detailed six-volume report which measures holistic well-being of students under four parameters — social and emotional skills, attitudes, academic achievement and school climate — reveals that a majority of students in government and to a lesser extent in private schools, exhibit poor SEL development. The voluminous (631 pages) report confirms the widely held perception of low learning levels in government schools, while even top-ranked private school students are addicted to rote learning. It also confirms that a large number of students retain traditional gender, caste and communal prejudices and they don’t accept schools as secure and conducive learning environments. More importantly, perhaps for the first time, CASS 2022 confirms the critical linkage between SEL and improved academic learning outcomes.

To compile CASS 2022, a 600-strong field research team collected data from 34,648 students, 1,354 teachers, 553 principals, and 4,483 parents of 572 government schools in Rajasthan, Jharkhand and Andhra Pradesh; 2,627 students, 98 teachers, 33 principals and 379 parents of 26 top-ranked private schools in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai and Bengaluru over a two-year period (2018-2020). It’s important to note that the CASS field survey was conducted before schools were ordered to lockdown in mid-March 2020 to check the spread of Covid-19.

Researchers shortlisted top-ranked private schools through a social media poll and the EducationWorld India School Rankings — the world’s largest and most comprehensive school rankings survey which ranks India’s best 4,000 schools in 392 cities and towns countrywide. The study was funded by the Netherlands-based Porticus Foundation.
“The objective of CASS 2022 is to assess the SEL progress of school students countrywide. Teaching of affective skills i.e, social and emotional skills and development of positive attitudes, values and beliefs has been largely neglected in the K-12 system. CASS 2022 is India’s first ever study conducted to assess children’s SEL skills. The conclusions of the study are disquieting. Our study found that developing social and emotional skills is a low priority in government and private schools. In particular, inter-personal relationship development is the weakest. Schools are over-focused on academic learning and don’t include SEL in the curriculum,” says Dr. Vyjayanthi Sankar, founder and executive director of CSSL.


Sankar: disquieting conclusions

A highly qualified alumna of Madras University and Penn State University, USA, where she was a Fulbright Humphrey scholar, Sankar served for over a decade (2003-14) as vice president of the Ahmedabad-based Educational Initiatives (EI) which provides a range of student assessment services to schools. Subsequently, seven years ago she founded CSSL with the mission “to build capacity for high quality assessments and research into the science of learning”. CSSL’s clients include the World Bank, Unicef, Tata Trusts, Niti Aayog, several state governments, government of Nepal and Maldives and private school groups.


Although the CASS field data was collected prior to the pandemic school closures, Sankar believes that its findings are no less relevant today. Indeed she is convinced that as the Covid virus infected people — especially elders — countrywide, children suffered severe psychological and SEL damage because of schools closure, lockdowns and social isolation. “Unicef’s State of the World’s Children 2021 says that one in every seven children and youth in India suffered depression during the pandemic. Therefore it’s critical for schools and teachers to accord high importance to developing children’s SEL skills. In the contemporary age of advanced digital technologies and remote learning, widening distance between individuals living in the virtual world has further aggravated social distancing. Consequently, children and youth are experiencing multiplying mental and emotional health problems with WHO (World Health Organisation) listing depression as the second biggest killer of this decade, after cardiac disease. In India 9.8 million teens in the age-group 13-17 years are suffering mental health disorders. The national crime records bureau reports that in 2021, more than 13,000 students committed suicide in India. As millions of children with SEL deficit grow up to enter the workforce the economic damage will be huge,” warns Sankar.

This warning of massive socio-economic cost of ignoring SEL education is endorsed by Dr. Hoi K. Suen, distinguished professor emeritus at Pennsylvania State University, USA, and an advisor to the CASS 2022 study. “There is high degree of consensus worldwide that cognitive and social-emotional skills are important for success in vocations and workplaces. While there are generally accepted age-appropriate cognitive skills for school children, definition of SEL is elusive because these skills are often culture-specific. CASS 2022 is probably the first large-scale, comprehensive study of SEL skills tailored to non-Western social values. The study is sophisticated in psychometric and survey methodologies, and the findings are cogent and informative. It provides important guidance for Indian education policy formulators,” says Suen.

A highlight of the valuable, detailed six-volume CASS 2022 report is the 360-degree attitudes audit study of students, parents and teachers on issues of gender, caste, linguistic diversity, civic sense, citizenship, and socio-economic inequalities.

Government Schools

Government schools

Private Schools

Private Schools

Disturbingly, the report says that government school students are more (26-51 percent) discriminatory on issues of gender equality, nutrition, education, freedom of mobility of girl children and gender stereotyping. Students assessed in top-ranked private schools exhibited less (25 percent) bias on these issues. More surprising is students’ negative attitude on citizenship and civic issues. Government and private school students are equally ignorant of the harmful effects of river pollution and littering, and are indifferent about supporting national schemes such as Swachh Bharat, respecting the national anthem and protecting public monuments. Similar regressive attitudes were pervasive among parents of government school students.

“I am not surprised by CASS 2022 findings that private schools have insufficiently developed students SEL skills, and they harbour regressive attitudes towards women’s rights and citizenship. Unfortunately, in Indian society, schools are judged entirely on the basis of board exam results, IIT admissions and the like. Therefore, they are over-focused on academics and exams, and tend to neglect SEL intelligences. Gender equality, appreciation of cultural diversity, and citizenship values are seldom taught even in top-ranked schools. More importantly, the role of parents in nurturing emotionally balanced, caring child citizens is receiving insufficient attention with the result that anxious parenting is leading to anxious students. It’s important for schools to involve parents in dialogues about developing children’s SEL skills and educating them about the egalitarian, secular values of the Constitution. Though it will take a long time for schools and teachers to meaningfully integrate SEL into their curriculums, a beginning needs to be made because emotional intelligence is the prerequisite of shaping responsible, caring, and compassionate citizens,” says Abha Adams, former director of the top-ranked The Shri Ram School, Delhi, well-known educationist, consultant, vice chair of The Ahvaan Trust, Delhi and author of Parenting in the Age of Anxiety (Aleph Book Company, 2023). 

Abha Adman

Abha Adams: insufficient attention

The valuable CASS 2022 report highlights several other disturbing trends on school climates. For instance, students don’t regard their schools as secure, positive environments conducive to learning. Moreover, half of government school students interviewed reported abuse from schoolmates and/or teachers. Astonishingly, private schools fared worse — 70 percent of students interviewed reported peer and/or teacher abuse, presumably an outcome of greater awareness than reality. 


What private school principals believe

Apart from assessing SEL skills of a representative sample of children in K-12 education, CASS also assessed students’ learning outcomes. The report confirms that children in government schools experience greater difficulty in mastering basic competencies such as spelling, appropriate word usage and simple arithmetic. In surveyed top-ranked private schools while children are better schooled to attain basic competencies, they continue to accord high importance to rote learning and memorisation.

“The CASS 2022 revelation that even in private schools rote learning and memorisation continue to be accorded high importance is hardly news. In 99 percent of India’s private schools, children learn through memorisation for tests and exams. There is talk of change but it’s very slow on the ground. For things to change, we need to overhaul curriculums, pedagogies, exam systems and re-train teachers. CASS 2022 is also accurate in stating that in most schools, SEL, gender and citizenship education is severely neglected. The onus is on school leaders and teachers to consciously and carefully integrate SEL into the curriculum of their schools. In Heritage Xperiential we accord high importance to SEL and implement a specially designed SEL programme which equips children with the skills to develop into resilient and socially responsible citizens,” says Manit Jain, the Harvard-educated co-founder of The Heritage Xperiential School (HXLS), Gurgaon. In the latest EW India School Rankings 2022-23 HXLS is ranked India’s #2 co-ed day school and among the Top 10 under the parameter of mental and emotional well-being education. 

Manit Jain

Manit Jain: overhaul call


NB: Approximated over a range of values, refer to CASS 2022 for accurate values

It’s not as though SEL skills development is a novel concept in Indian education. In 2012, the Bengaluru-based The Teacher Foundation (TTF, estb.2002) conducted a study to investigate SEL skills being taught in K-12 education. The study surveyed 90 schools countrywide and found that while principals and teachers agreed that teaching SEL skilling is important, they experience difficulty in integrating the subject into their curriculums.
The outcome of the survey is TTF’s Indian Social Emotional Learning Framework (ISELF) — an educational resource to enable teachers and counsellors to teach five vital SEL competencies — self-awareness, self-management, relationships management, social awareness and decision making — to children. The ISELF free-of-charge package can be downloaded from

“Regrettably, only a small minority of schools has created safe and happy learning spaces for children by adopting best SEL practices. TTF’s research study indicates that while most schools agree that SEL skilling plays an important role in children’s development, they don’t have the expertise to integrate them into their curriculums. The pandemic has generated heightened awareness, but schools and teachers are woefully under-prepared to manage the country’s looming child mental health crisis. In this connection, it’s important to ensure that teachers’ own social-emotional condition is stable, for them to be able to nurture their students. For over two decades TTF has been adapting British educator Jenny Mosley’s Whole School Quality Circle model to enable schools to develop SEL curriculums. In the post-pandemic era, there is overdue awareness of the prime importance of children’s mental health and well-being. However, it’s important that SEL be integrated into school curriculums and not taught separately,” advises Maya Menon, founder-director of TTF, which has trained over 93,000 teachers in 3,500 schools in nine countries worldwide. 

Maya Menon

TTF’s Menon: SEL integration demand

Undoubtedly, over the past decade and especially after the pandemic, the importance of equipping children with SEL skills has dawned upon educators and policy makers. The National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 repeatedly emphasises the importance of holistic, multidisciplinary education to develop not merely children’s intellectual capabilities, but also their SEL skills and moral sensibilities — “a critical aspect of any student’s holistic development”. NCERT’s new National Curriculum Framework for School Education (NCF), currently under preparation, is expected to formally incorporate SEL into primary-secondary curriculums. 



Source: CASS 2022

Even as NCERT experts finalise NCF for K-12 education, they would be well-advised to incorporate several excellent CASS 2022 recommendations into the framework guidelines. Among them: according equal status and attention to developing children’s SEL skills; enlisting experts to build activities banks for teachers to teach SEL skills; introducing community service in curriculums to inculcate civic responsibility and citizenship values in children; preparing teaching-learning materials to promote gender equality, respect for communal and caste diversity; and inclusion of narratives promoting empathy/compassion in school curriculums. 

Heritage school children

SEL class in Heritage Xperiential School, Gurugram

“It’s a welcome development that in consonance with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, NEP 2020 has highlighted the importance of developing children’s SEL skills. But, the turning point will be when national and state curriculum guidelines accord equal status and attention to SEL education by directing schools to allocate time, dedicated resources and teaching-learning materials to this important subject. The granular findings and action recommendation of CASS 2022 if incorporated into NCF guidelines will go a long way in equipping children with the social and emotional skills they need to navigate the complex post-pandemic world,” says Vyjayanthi Sankar, executive director of CSSL. 

Alarming reports of an imperceptible but ballooning mental health crisis spreading through the world’s largest child and youth population require urgent action not only from government but also school managements and teachers. The elaborate CASS 2022 report ( and/or its 57-page summary provide useful information and suggestions for addressing this formidable post-pandemic challenge. It is recommended reading for all educationists and school leaders.

Also Read: Social-Emotional Learning: What is Real SEL?

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