Kajal Singh, a Class 9 student from Delhi, recalls how she was once a shy girl afraid to even share her emotions with her parents.
“I thought if I shared how I felt about what is happening to other girls in the streets, they would get scared that something ‘wrong’ might happen to their own child. They would have stopped me from going out of home.”
She struggled with the challenges she faced everyday while commuting to school where she felt vulnerable in public spaces, especially around boys. But at a workshop conducted at her school, she was encouraged to speak up and share her feelings with her parents. “I learnt that if I share my troubles and whatever is disturbing me with my parents, they might help me with a solution. And since then I share everything with them,” she says.
Kajal is one of the 1,200 students who are a part of the Light Up programme started by 28-year-old Juhi Sharma.
Light Up aims to advocate and bring about the inclusion of emotional intelligence in the mainstream curriculum of the Indian educational landscape for the overall development of a child, leading to better social-emotional adjustment and higher academic achievement.
“We want to achieve this goal by making social and emotional learning (SEL) workshops mandatory in schools and creating a society where teachers and parents are supportive, students are self-reliant and aware of their emotional challenges, and where they all work together to create a cohesive and compassionate environment,” Juhi explains.
Founded in 2017, the one-year-old startup today engages with students, and also conducts teacher training programmes and parent sensitisation sessions to contribute to a “better” child-parent-teacher microcosm and facilitate higher academic achievements.
Through Juhi holds degrees in multiple fields - a graduate degree in B Com from Delhi University and a master’s in fashion marketing from Pearl Academy - and has been an Entrepreneurship and Innovation Fellow from Stanford Graduate School of Business, she constantly engaged with community work. She was involved in doing field work and visiting various communities, local schools, and government offices while working on various development sector projects in the area of Water, Sanitation And Hygiene (WASH), Education, and Health.
“From years of community work, I have come to observe and understand the questionable circumstances in which the majority of our future generation is being nurtured. In many parts of India, children from low-income communities experience a troubled childhood,” Juhi says.
“They often run away from drunken and intensely violent fathers, cruel step-parents, and suffer from starvation, and at hands of parents who fail to support them. They are brave, but profoundly vulnerable survivors and grow up much before their age,” she adds.
The education system, Juhi believes, fails to help children build a strong emotional foundation and skill sets which would help them to “survive in the real world”. Real-life experiences teach them “a half-baked approach” that often manifests itself in layers of anger issues, fear and sadness, and more importantly, signs of early stage anxiety and depression.
After working for over five years in Edelman India and Xander, Juhi was motivated to quit her corporate life. At 27, she founded Light Up, a not-for-profit organisation that focuses on harnessing the emotional intelligence (EI) of children, parents and teachers by developing their social and emotional competencies and providing them with tools necessary to form a cohesive, non-violent, and caring community.
The EI programme
Social and emotional learning is the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve goals, feel and show empathy, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make decisions. These skills are directly associated with developing social and personal competencies like self-esteem, empathy, self-efficacy, resilience, and self-regulation.
“With Light Up my understanding of how children need to be dealt with has changed greatly. There were a lot of elements of their behaviour which I used to understand only with a narrow perspective. But, after meeting Juhi didi and rest of the Light Up team, I have started understanding the reasons for specific kind of behaviours or tantrums. I now understand the need to be patient and polite with children and look out for their emotional growth and family circumstances as well,” says Kajal Baniwaal, a teacher associated with Light Up.
The Light Up team has not only held workshops in Chanakyapuri area of Delhi, but has helped to mobilise support and raised local issues with authorities. The team has set up a local library for children and young adults; has arranged for digital literacy classes, and conducted music therapy sessions.
Initially Juhi focused only on student-based workshops and a teacher training programme where government school teachers were sensitised about the importance of emotional intelligence. They were trained and equipped with question banks and activities to ensure the emotional well-being of students.
“Over time, on-ground intensive research work made us rethink our approach and realise that the emotional well-being of a child will be hampered if we don’t reach out and sensitise parents,” Juhi recalls.
This is why she included the parent sensatisation sessions into her curriculum with the objective to make parents aware about the relevance of emotional well-being, development of social skills, and the correlation of emotional competencies with academic performance. Parents are informed about new learnings and tools being provided to their children and families are encouraged to reinforce and apply the same leanings in their daily lives.
“It allows them to build a strong stress release mechanism and align their thought process with their children,” Juhi says.
Making a difference
To reinforced the concept of sharing the team introduced a ‘May I help you’ box in seven Light Up classrooms in Seelampur and Saket areas of Delhi Students could write about their problems and drop their notes into these boxes. This made sharing easier and they received about 600 letters across 5 classrooms in a day.
Based on this data and information, Juhi’s team identified categories or key areas of vulnerability, which are then addressed through their sessions.
Juhi explains that she has - through daily activities - created a forum for students to share their feelings, strengths, and weaknesses, while reinforcing the value of listening with compassion and the importance of trust.
“The fact that our curriculum is working and making a difference to people’s lives is the only motivation we seek and the only motivation we thrive on. Our aim is to create EQ sessions as a safe space for children to think and express themselves freely,” Juhi shares.
With a volunteer network of over 70 individuals and 15 core team members, Light Up has partnered with New Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC), Swechha, Teach for India, and Paramjyoti schools, in Andhra Pradesh.
Plans for the future
Light Up is based in New Delhi and works extensively with smaller communities in Chanakyapuri, Mehrauli, Seelampur, and Saket.
Currently self funded, the NGO hopes to generates its revenue from government-aided projects, partnerships with private organisations, CSR funding and crowdsourcing. Juhi believes that corporate firms, the government and NGOs like Light Up need to come together to bridge the gap between theories and practice in the domain of emotional education.
“Corporates can help in funding and supporting NGOs with their expertise; governments – local, state and national - can help in scaling; and NGOs can act as the bridge between the beneficiaries and other stakeholders,” she says.
While other institutions like Thrive foundation, Sishu Vikas Trust, and Kaivalya Education Foundation are also working with under-privileged communities, Juhi - through Light Up - hopes to harness the power of emotions to create a healthier, equitable, and compassionate society, today and for future generations.
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