Lebanon20 Classroom20 20 Adam20 Patterson20 Panos20 DFID20 1200
Mar 27, 2023

When You Give Children the Best, They Give Their Best

Understanding the challenges and opportunities of social emotional learning in Lebanon’s schools.

By Benjamin Reeves

Lebanon has faced a series of crises, ranging from decades of political and religious gridlock and conflict to an influx of Syrian refugees fleeing that nation’s civil war, to the explosion of an ammonium nitrate warehouse in the Port of Beirut in 2020 that killed more than 200 people. A currency crisis has struck the public sector and its workers particularly hard. Yet, throughout all of this, the nation’s children have continued to attend school (albeit with serious disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic). Now, researchers are working to integrate a framework for social emotional learning within the complex context of Lebanon’s schools.

Although there is a standard national curriculum in Lebanon, some local communities choose to prioritize their own religious or political perspectives over others. Exacerbating the problem, the UNHCR estimates there are more than half a million school-aged Syrian refugee children seeking education in Lebanon. This tragedy stresses the educational system and risks generating conflict over limited resources and between groups. Meanwhile, the children themselves struggle to obtain a basic education.

In this context, social and emotional learning (SEL) is incredibly important. Self-efficacy, flexibility, and moral and ethical values are vital in mitigating conflict and helping children — and ultimately society — overcome adversity. Prior research in Western industrialized democracies demonstrates that SEL education helps children develop holistically and leads to better academic, cognitive and character cultivation. Unfortunately, SEL has not been a component of the educational program in Lebanon until very recently.

Introducing SEL into a school system is not simple. To truly be effective, priority SEL skills to be focused on for children in Lebanon must be localized (contextualized) and tested to understand what works, what doesn’t and why and how best to nurture those skills both pedagogically, and curriculum wise. Dr Garene Kaloustian’s team at World Learning Lebanon, supported by New York University’s Global TIES for Children and Templeton World Charity Foundation, is currently in the process of developing and testing (piloting) SEL measurement tools in the complex context of the Lebanese educational system, with the goal of implementing it nationally within the next five years and informing the integration of SEL into the curriculum and as part of the public school wide culture.

The TWCF project focused on identifying a preliminary set of priority social and emotional learning skills which have become the foundation of a national framework for SEL education in Lebanon; this framework was endorsed in 2021 and officially launched in 2023 by the Ministry of Education and Higher Education (MEHE). The researchers, led by Kaloustian, started with preexisting national and international frameworks for SEL education, and then worked with key stakeholder groups to identify which SEL competencies were most important within the context of the Lebanese educational system. The competences that were ranked as being the most important encompassed spiritual and ethical values, which were completely absent from the five preexisting SEL educational frameworks already in use in Lebanon.

We spoke with Dr. Kaloustian about the challenges facing Lebanese school children and the importance of SEL education in that context. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

TWCF: How would you describe the context within which you’re integrating the SEL framework?

Kaloustian: My background is in early childhood development, education, and children’s social and emotional learning. I was in the academic world for a very long time, and around 2019 I changed paths and moved into more development work, currently working with an organization called World Learning that is headquartered in Washington D.C.; I am based in their Beirut, Lebanon office. We’ve been working with a USAID funded project focusing on national scale educational reform work. Our target audience is predominantly the public education sector; it’s not so much focused on refugees, but we do work with very vulnerable populations.

How does the Syrian refugee crisis intersect with the school system in Lebanon?

When the Syrian crisis happened, there was a significant inflow of Syrian refugees to Lebanon; and a lot of Syrian children out of school. With the need for education for all this created a huge burden on the education sector; and especially with tense historical conflicts, it was a very complex situation. There were lots of children who went into the non-formal education system primarily within NGO supported service provisions for families and communities coming from Syria; there was also enrollment of Syrian children in formal schooling.

Tensions started with concerns to protect and prioritize Lebanese children’s enrollment in schools. Plus, the standards between the two countries are different in terms of language and content. With time, things were formalized a bit where Lebanese and Syrian children were separated into ‘morning shift’ and ‘afternoon shift.’ The morning shift is for the Lebanese students’ formal regular schooling. And then in the afternoons, the ‘second shift’ is for the Syrian children who go into the public schools as well with regular schooling. So, the Syrian refugee and Lebanese classes are not mixed.

How do you support the education sector given this complex mix of challenges?

Within primary education — grades one through six — one of the main components is improving reading and writing in three languages: Arabic, French and English. Because we are trilingual, our curriculum is trilingual. And we also teach math in primary education, with the whole idea being to improve children’s math and reading.

What we’re trying to do is integrate social and emotional learning into the curriculum. But teachers here, in terms of their pedagogical approach, are very traditional. Of course, you can find brilliant teachers who bring all of that [SEL] in, but it’s not part of the system. We don’t have a clear understanding of what SEL is, and it’s often perceived as something additional, rather than part of the approaches to teaching and learning.

How do you break through?

This project is called QITABI, which means “my book.” We are working on QITABI 2 right now. QITABI initially focused only on the Arabic language, reading and writing improvement, for grades one through four. And QITABI 2, which is the continuation of QITABI, expands to the remaining languages, English and French, plus math and social and emotional learning up to grade six. The idea initially was to see where social and emotional learning already existed within the 1997 curriculum – this curriculum has not seen a reform or update since 1997. And when you talk to teachers, they don’t really know what the objectives are, and over the years, they’ve gotten used to the teaching the same thing over and over again, kind of mechanically, with little room for creative pedagogical approaches.

We started with mapping SEL objectives within these 4 subjects and soon found there wasn’t a whole lot of SEL in the curriculum, and when you did find it, it was very dispersed and not implemented in any kind of developmental, meaningful, intentional manner. But the story of SEL began to evolve because of the Ministry’s interest to develop assessment tools to assess children’s SEL skills. So, we went in with the intention of creating some assessment tools, but finally realized that we didn’t know what we were assessing! We don’t know. We don’t know what our context is to say, “this is valid in terms of assessing children on these particular skills.”

If you don’t know what SEL is in the context of Lebanese schools, it’s impossible to assess how children might be benefiting.

We had to develop a framework first. To start we went through a very long process of defining what the important skills were for a Lebanese child, given our context. The Ministry and Centre for Educational Research and Development (CERD) were the main informants in this process. So, we first went through a whole process of brainstorming different constructs and different skills that we consider to be priority skills for children in Lebanon. Then, we had both entities identify frameworks relevant to SEL, PSS, Life Skills etc…that they use for programming purposes. And based on this, we then coded these frameworks using a taxonomy for social and emotional learning developed by the Harvard Ecological Approaches to Social Emotional Learning (EASEL) Lab. So the SEL revolution started in 2019 when we had an initial draft of the priority competencies for Lebanon’s children by the end of 2019. In 2021, we did a national scale study, funded by Templeton World Charity Foundation, with public and private school principals, teachers, parents and children from grades one through six to validate these constructs.

What did you find?

Flexibility and moral and ethical values systems were ranked as being particularly important among the various stakeholder groups. This shows us the importance of including those sorts of character virtues in SEL education here, especially given Lebanon’s history. This is why it’s so important to ground SEL and character development work by actually asking people which virtues and values are most important to them.

We used our data from the validation study for contextual relevance and meaningful SEL measurement tool item development and piloted our SEL measurement tool. We’re still analyzing a lot of data from the measurement tool pilot study; in parallel we have developed training materials for teachers. As part of QITABI 2, we developed a six-module training material. We make sure we use the framework constructs to inform and align all of our work, and we’re working on capacity building for the staff at the Centre for Educational Research and Development (CERD) because the curriculum creation system is so under-resourced, and they don’t have enough people. A big part of this work is also our work on developing the scope and sequence for social and emotional learning to be integrated into subjects during the national curriculum development process.

What will success look like?

We have a very traditional educational system, especially in the early years. Things like how teachers are identified, their qualifications, how much importance is placed on the well-being of children — all of these things are not there systematically. There’s high level of poor performance. So, before we even get to better performance (if it’s defined as better academic outcomes), then children have to feel well, feel safe, and feel like they belong to something. If they have these things, they’ll learn better and perform better academically. And they’ll have the skills to think critically, to question, and to communicate in more effective ways. To be more open and be more tolerant of the different communities. There are obstacles because of the different cultural backgrounds, values and beliefs. But these are kids. If the adults or the system as a whole gives them the best, they will give back their best.


Benjamin Reeves is a New York-based writer, filmmaker and journalist. Learn more at BenjaminReeves.com or follow him on Twitter.