Q&A with director and Think Equal founder Leslee Udwin

After making the award-winning film India's Daughter, director Leslee Udwin wanted to do more to help teach social and emotional learning - she explains how her charity Think Equal is aiming to do just that

Elizabeth Kitto

Director Leslee Udwin launched the charity Think Equal

As a former teacher now working as a Prevent education officer, I have spent my professional life attempting to strengthen community ties, increase social and emotional intelligence and create greater support structures for young people.

However, when it came to our youngest children, the 3-6 age group, I admit I hadn’t a clue where to get started – until I met Leslee Udwin (pictured above).

Leslee’s mission to put social and emotional learning at the core of early years education began in earnest after she directed the groundbreaking documentary – India’s Daughter – that investigated the murder of a young woman in Delhi and the societal programming in stereotypes that led to the tragic incident.

Since the release of the documentary, which won several international awards and helped spark a global movement to stop violence against women, she established her charity Think Equal that aims to promote social and emotional education for children from KS1 upwards.

After spending time researching social and emotional education and undertaking pilot projects, I spoke with Leslee to gain a better understanding of her work in the area, its impact, and how this relates to our day to day in the classroom.

Why did making the documentary make you become a champion for social and emotional learning?

Leslee: The journey of making India’s Daughter helped me to understand that the root cause of violence is generally a discriminatory mindset.

I found myself thinking: “Whose job is it to give the those exposed to violence pro-social foundations in their early years, in that crucial times when their attitudes and behaviours are forming?

I took inspiration from Nelson Mandela, who proclaimed education to be “the most powerful weapon we have to change the world”.

Understanding that education is the only possible way to change a mindset, I came to understand that the sort of education Mandela was referring to was not the numeracy, literacy and testing that we narrowly define as ‘education’, but education of the heart, of the moral compass, and teaching children to love and value each and every human being regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, religion or economic background.

And to care for our common home, the Earth.

Why did you decide to set up Think Equal to do this?

We came forward to fill the gap that we saw as glaringly obvious in so many education systems.

We have neglected the rights of our children for far too long. We must demand this missing third dimension to our outdated education systems which are, frankly, not fit for purpose.

How does your program work?

The Think Equal programme has been designed in three age-appropriate levels – Level 1 for 3- to 4-year-olds, Level 2 for 4- to 5-year-olds and Level 3 for the 5-to 6-year-olds.

Since we believe that this missing subject should really be the core purpose of early years education, and since we know from evidence that has been gathered longitudinally over the past 60 years that this learning lasts into adulthood when it is “of quality”, comprehensively and repeatedly taught, we teach the programme over 30 weeks (for a whole academic year) and three times a week. 

The programme has to be taught in whole and not in parts, from start to finish and in the order in which it was designed by world experts including Sir Ken Robinson, the co-founders of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, neuroscientists, psychologists gender equality and human rights specialists and, of course, educators.

A teacher can be trained for just two days or one (depending on what is preferred by them) and at the end of the training is handed 22 narrative books (almost one per week); a booklet of 90 lesson plans; and a booklet of approximately 50 accompanying resources.

Essentially the teachers train while teaching, because the lesson plans are extremely clear step-by-step teacher guides.

Overall, what we are focusing on is the children getting what we believe is their inalienable right – the right to positive outcomes in their lives without the setback of bad programming, inherited discrimination and anti-social behaviours and attitudes.

To date, it is currently in use in 14 countries across five continents – with 77,000 three-to-five years old going through the course.

Then in 2021, it will roll out in Rajasthan, India, which will bring another 525,000 children to the programme.

Why have you decided to implement this format worldwide? Surely, children have different needs in different countries?

Social and emotional outcomes are universal. As Maya Angelou wrote: “Human beings are much more alike than they are unlike”.

We have not had a single teacher to-date tell us that the materials don’t apply to ‘their’ children

There are certain books, especially ones dealing with self-esteem that we reillustrate for every country we go into.

To love oneself it is important to see oneself and others from one’s community reflected in the story that is mediating self-esteem.

We do offer each country some contextualisation if they want it (more because we like countries to feel an ownership in the materials than out of a necessity to culturally adapt the materials).

But we are very careful not to over-contextualise because we actively celebrate diversity and global citizenship in the programme. Homogeneity works against inclusion and those important social and emotional learning competencies.

Can we really teach this from such a young age?

Neuroscientists are clear that there is an optimal window of opportunity during which to help children construct neuropathways that are empathetic and capable of controlling emotions and forming pro-social habitual ways of responding, which last into adulthood.

These are trajectories of activity in the developing brain. While there are further opportunities for neuroplasticity and development, notably a “second window” in the adolescent years, the foundation must be set early.

Do you think that lockdown and Covid have made social and emotional learning even more pressing?

Absolutely yes. Social and emotional learning unlocks wellbeing – coping strategies and actual tools which reduce stress, anger, confusion, bewilderment, sadness etc.

This programme contributes powerfully to helping children cope with the stresses, strains and pains which this pandemic has wreaked upon us.

It helps them become resilient. It is a mental health intervention, as well as a prevention programme for discrimination and violence. The zeitgeist was never more in need of this programme.

Elizabeth Kitto is a Prevent officer and former teacher. She has also produced her own KS2 resources on promoting community and exploring identity that can be found on Tes

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