Embedding Social Emotional Learning in Refugee Contexts

Project Brief

A leading humanitarian aid agency engaged with Quicksand on a project seeking to better understand and design for education in emergency contexts, with a mandate for incorporating aspects of Social Emotional Learning (SEL) and a specific focus on primary school students as key stakeholders.

The goal statement for the project, which also served as the overlying design principle, was: “Design a flexible and durable learning and teaching experience that dramatically improves a child’s acquisition of Social Emotional Learning (SEL) skills and literacy in their primary school years.”

The project had three distinct phases: an initial context setting engagement involving secondary research and subject matter expert interviews to develop a set of trends in the SEL space, a field research phase to engage with stakeholders in context, and an immersive workshop setting where insights from the preceding phases served as a foundation for ideation around new programmatic interventions.

Three core concepts emerged for further development and piloting, and will be utilized in refugee settings around the world once their effectiveness is quantified.

Key Insights

Developing interventions for improving the delivery of social emotional learning in refugee contexts requires a holistic understanding of the education ecosystem and its place within the everyday lives of beneficiaries and other community stakeholders. The challenges affecting the daily lives of refugees are manifold, and each has its own degree of impact on the educational experience of primary school children.

These challenges range from the immediate and tangible (e.g., lack of adequate infrastructure with respect to classrooms as well as housing, need for participation in revenue-generating activities superseding educational interests, perceived lack of security, insufficient or out-dated learning and teaching materials) to the underlying and abstract (e.g., limitations placed by host countries with respect to services that can be offered to refugee populations, refugee camps are essentially places of impermanence, means for addressing post traumatic stress stemming from the experiences which led to becoming a refugee are lacking).

The observed challenges were significant and poignant in the contexts the project team visited. However, once the insights and challenges from the field were articulated by both the client and Quicksand teams, potential opportunities emerged for additional consideration. These opportunities were vetted with field staff following research activities and were used as collateral in the workshop to guide participants as they formed solution ideas and created concepts.

As with the challenges, the identified opportunities spanned the gamut of the educational and refugee ecosystems, from developing mobile and adaptive tools capable of matching population movement, to mobilizing community members outside the educational system in order to extend teaching, and even making efforts to improve connections between people in order to build a more optimistic and hopeful view of the future.


The micro trend analysis, field research report, and emergent concepts, and their accompanying collateral, were all key deliverables from this project. The project team was able to identify critical challenges and opportunities in the refugee context and articulate these in a manner that facilitated a transition from qualitative research insights into program ideation and development. The workshop activities involving staff from the host countries as well as the global headquarters helped to ensure that all voices across the value chain were represented. This paired with the numerous stakeholder engagements allowed for a more holistic and user-centered approach to the ideation activities.

Several concepts emerged from the final workshop in Dar es Salaam that the client is actively investigating for refining and developing into new programs. These individual concepts have differing approaches and manifestations, but all essentially seek to improve the quality of the education experience by giving the social emotional aspects of life in refugee camps due consideration, and by capitalizing on the opportunities the project team identified in order to holistically solve a most pressing problem. Engaging students and teachers along the broader community, capitalizing on existing support networks, and incentivizing active participation in the educational process are all key tenets of these core concepts.

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