Social-emotional learning (SEL) methods are beginning to receive global attention in primary school education, yet the dominant emphasis on implementing these curricula is in high-income, urbanized areas. Consequently, the unique features of developing and integrating such methods in middle- or low-income rural areas are unclear. Past studies suggest that students exposed to SEL programs show an increase in academic performance, improved ability to cope with stress, and better attitudes about themselves, others, and school, but these curricula are designed with an urban focus. The purpose of this study was to conduct a needs-based analysis to investigate components specific to a SEL curriculum contextualized to rural primary schools. A promising organization committed to rural educational development is Barefoot College, located in Tilonia, Rajasthan, India. In partnership with Barefoot, we designed an ethnographic study to identify and describe what teachers and school leaders consider the highest needs related to their students' social and emotional education. To do so, we interviewed 14 teachers and school leaders individually or in a focus group to explore their present understanding of “social-emotional learning” and the perception of their students’ social and emotional intelligence. Analysis of this data uncovered common themes among classroom behaviors and prevalent opportunities to address social and emotional well-being among students. These themes translated into the three overarching topics and eight sub-topics explored throughout the curriculum, and these opportunities guided the creation of the 21 modules within it. Through a design-based research methodology, we developed a 40-hour curriculum by implementing its various modules within seven Barefoot classrooms alongside continuous reiteration based on teacher feedback and participant observation. Through this process, we found that student engagement increased during contextualized SEL lessons as opposed to traditional methods. In addition, we found that teachers and students preferred and performed better with an activities-based approach. These findings suggest that rural educators must employ particular teaching strategies when addressing SEL, including localized content and an experiential-learning approach. Teachers reported that as their approach to SEL shifted, they began to unlock the potential to build self-aware, globally-minded students. This study concludes that social and emotional education cannot be treated in a generalized manner, as curriculum development is central to the teaching-learning process.
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