Leslee Udwin, Founder and Executive Chair, Think Equal

Leslee was voted by the NY Times the No 2 Most Impactful Woman of 2015 (second to Hillary Clinton), and has been awarded the prestigious Swedish Anna Lindh Human Rights Prize (previously won by Madeleine Albright). In 2019, she received the Activism in Arts and Education award from the UN Women for Peace Association, UN Association USA’s Global Citizen of 2019, and the Gandhi Foundation International Peace Award. She has also been named Safe’s Global Hero of 2015, and Global Thinker by Foreign Policy.

 

Think Equal’s vision is a safe, free and equal world. Our mission is to achieve a global system change in education by introducing Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) as a compulsory new Early Years subject on national curricula worldwide. We ask: “How can it be deemed compulsory for a child to learn numeracy and literacy, and yet it is optional for a child to learn how to value another human being and lead healthy relationships?”

Think Equal believes social and emotional learning (SEL) is a missing core subject in schools across the world, equal in importance to numeracy and literacy. A plethora of studies suggest that SEL taught in the early years (Durlak et al., 2008, 2011; Sklad et al., 2012; Denhem et al., 2015; Blewitt et al., 2018; Flook et al., 2019) is beneficial in subsequent adult years (Barnett et al., 2005; Taylor et al., 2011; Crowley et al., 2015; Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 2015; Heckman, 2019; Duke University, 2021). Several studies also posit the economic benefits of both early years education and SEL in the early years (Grunewald & Rolnick 2003; Karoly et al., 2005; Belfield et al., 2015; Luo et al., 2018; Heckman, 2019).

In response to this abundance of research, governments have begun integrating SEL components into their national curricular frameworks identifying SEL skills and integrating them into the precepts for teachers and administrators to consider whilst preparing content for their classrooms. However, Think Equal has noted that many frameworks lack tangible materials for teachers to utilise in this area, which places additional burden and stress on teacher preparation. By developing and disseminating tangible SEL teaching and learning materials to classrooms, Think Equal hopes to bridge this gap and help bring high-quality SEL to early years settings across the globe.

Think Equal is a holistic Early Years Programme based on a commitment to social equality, gender, racial and religious equality, social and emotional health and well-being, environmental stewardship and global citizenship rooted in social-emotional learning. The programme views children as individual parts of a collective, global fabric. It aims to support them as they begin a lifelong learning journey unburdened by the restraints of discriminatory mindsets. It endows them with knowledge and experiential understanding of values and life skills or competencies such as empathy, inclusion, self-confidence, emotional literacy, self-regulation, peaceful conflict resolution, and so forth. It encourages and empowers them to assume responsibilities as global citizens and become ‘upstanders’ and transformers of society through critical, inclusive and creative thinking. It does all this through tangible, concrete exercises, programmatic tools and step by step guidance on how to deploy them with the children in an equal partnership of learning.

As an international NGO, Think Equal has developed a comprehensive and holistic SEL programme with a primary focus in gender equality, well-being, a celebration of diversity, environmentalism and emotional literacy and regulation. Various levels of the programme connect with different aged children, from 3-6. Think Equal was born from the Founder’s journey while making the documentary film, ‘India’s Daughter’, which covered the 2012 rape and murder of a young Indian woman, Jyoti Singh. The interviews conducted while making this film led her to understand that all the men interviewed – rapists and lawyers – regardless of the level of education, held the same discriminatory mindset that women were of lesser value than men. Understanding thereby that it was not mere access to, but contents of, education that would have made the difference to these men’s mindsets, the movement and mission of the Think Equal Programme was sparked, offering SEL to all children, regardless of background.

The Think Equal Early Years Programme stems from six core Areas of Learning, paired with 36 sub-topic areas (six focuses for each Area of Learning), containing within them rich resources designed to foster positive later life outcomes. These topic areas contribute to the development of personal, social and emotional competencies in the early childhood setting – and through the extensive use of narrative and a focus on social cognition – in the broader context of the child’s life.

Think Equal’s Areas of Learning and the supporting sub-topics place the child at the centre of their learning. These include:

  1. I Have A Strong Sense of Who I Am – Global Citizenship – Self-Esteem – Resilience – Empowerment –Self-Acceptance – Diversity
  2. I Am Able to Look After Myself – The Things I Can Do – Self-Regulation – Emotional Literacy – Self-Awareness – Finding Positive Solutions – The Choices I Make and Their Outcomes
  3. I Am Able to Look After Others – Kindness and Friendship – Inclusion – Perspective-Taking – Taking Care of Nature, Animals and the World I Live In – Using Empathy – Being an Up-stander
  4. I Am Able to Contribute and Create –Self-Expression – Creativity – Collaboration – Turn-Taking – Sharing Ideas – Using my Head, Heart and Hands to Help others
  5. I Am a Critical Thinker – Creating Strategies – Problem-Solving – Self-Knowledge – Similarities and Differences – Peaceful Conflict-Resolution – Gender Equality
  6. I Am Able to Communicate – Recognising Feelings – Self-Confidence – Listening to Others – Role-Play – Story Telling – Being Kind and Considerate of Others

More specifically, Think Equal covers 25 core SEL Outcomes within the books and lesson plans. These outcomes are: empathy; collaboration; self-awareness; resilience; emotional literacy; perspective-taking; self-esteem; relationship-building skills; self-regulation; inclusion; self-confidence; kindness; gender equality; being an advocate for others; problem-solving; moral and ethical values; communication skills; global citizenship; critical thinking; peaceful conflict-resolution; mindfulness; environmental awareness and action; creativity; celebration of diversity; goal setting. Each of these outcomes is addressed explicitly through the hands-on activities and materials of the Think Equal Programme.

Effective implementation of the Think Equal programme requires an integrated pedagogical approach that accounts for all aspects of child development. These approaches, as described by Reeder and Emmett (2020), include three dominant methods. The first method is collaborative learning, which  “highlights the importance of the social and cultural context of language, and provides ample opportunities for children’s participation with each other; and promotes play in the learning process by providing additional opportunities for children to engage in culturally meaningful activities” (Reeder & Emmet 2020, p. 4). The second approach is community based learning, which “can often fill gaps in the provision of, and access to government education systems through participation in development and delivery of community education (Mansuri & Rao, 2004 in Young, D)” (as cited in Reeder & Emmet, 2020, p. 4). Finally, Think Equal promotes contemplative learning, which integrates Eastern and Western educational traditions of contemplative mindfulness awareness practices, helping students to know themselves more deeply and to engage constructively with others.” (Reeder & Emmet 2020, p. 4). These pedagogical approaches help ensure Think Equal is effective in various social and cultural contexts, placing value on individuality and variance between teaching philosophies and cultures.

In 2019 Think Equal began working with Fundación Escuela Nueva, founded by Vicky Colbert, to bring the Think Equal SEL tools to Colombia’s children. With a grant provided by Inter-American Development Bank, this collaboration aims to enhance the social and emotional learning opportunities for Colombian children aged 3 to 5 years, to help end discriminatory mindsets and cycles of violence and develop specific socio-emotional skills necessary for success in life through the implementation of a structured programme in Colombia. The programme initially envisioned piloting in pre-school settings across the country, including rural areas. However, COVID-19 and global uncertainties led the team to rethink a different approach than a solution only available in schools, as so many are currently closed. A programme was then adapted that engages families, parents, siblings – all in all, a non-educator population, around the children in their daily lives.

With thoughtful consideration of how to best reach children who are not in school and potentially living in rural areas, the programme successfully kicked off in early 2021. It implements a hybrid model designed to accommodate the learning experience in multiple ways: from lessons recorded by teachers and made available via YouTube, to activities and books sent to parents, with accompanying phone messages and pre-recorded readings. While children remain Think Equal’s primary focus,  parents and communities around them are now also exposed to SEL content and activities. Due to this, parental engagement is one of the primary outcomes observed in Colombia. Through the programme’s initial learnings, Think Equal is witnessing a social transformation in marginalised areas and within populations further disadvantaged by the global pandemic.

As mentioned above, Think Equal begins with the child and acknowledges the dispositions, culture, customs, knowledge, and experience a child brings to their learning environment. We believe that new and meaningful learning can only occur once the child’s experiential, cultural and educational background have been acknowledged and respected. This approach encourages and empowers children to assume responsibilities as global citizens and become “upstanders” and transform societies through the use of critical, inclusive and creative thinking, which we believe will help stop the cycle of violence and discrimination so prevalent in today’s world. Think Equal believes in the child as an agent of social change.

About Leslee Udwin

A BAFTA and multi-award-winning filmmaker and Human Rights Campaigner, Leslee’s documentary “India’s Daughter”, has been critically acclaimed around the globe, won 32 awards (including the Peabody Award and the Amnesty International Media Award for Best Documentary 2016) and sparked a global movement to end violence against women and girls. The searing insights yielded by the 2-and-a-half-year journey making “India’s Daughter”, led Leslee to turn her back on filmmaking and devote herself to Think Equal.

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