"You Are Made For More" — This M'sian Champions Social & Emotional Learning Among Youths
Law and criminology graduate Sharlyn J first discovered her passion for social work when she joined a local street feeding community
After taking a gap year once returning from the UK, she was invited by her friend to volunteer alongside a group of other Malaysians — with the sole intention of feeding the homeless.
"I loved that we actually got to sit down and talk to each of our street friends (referring to the homeless). I enjoyed listening to their stories, and what their journeys have been like. It was then that I realised; I love doing on-the-ground work," she said during an interview with SAYS.
Eventually, she was invited to be a part of the organisation's Board of Directors, where she soon noticed how much power there is in community.
"I was really inspired by the sense of community, with having so many people coming out on a Wednesday night to do good with no expectation for anything in return... I loved that so much. I believe that was when my heart for social work and for people really started to develop in depth," she added.
Soon after that, she was headhunted for a job as a writer for educational magazines that aimed to help students in their transitional stages of their education journey: from high school to university and also to prepare fresh graduates for the working world.
During her stint as a writer, she was given the opportunity to go into schools and universities nationwide to speak to teenagers — which became something she truly resonated with
As she grew in her editorial journey, she continued to work with high school and uni students — and quickly realised that the same passion she had for helping the street friends felt even stronger with these teenagers.
Relating to her own experience in school, she said, "I struggled a lot with my emotional and social wellbeing as a teen. Back then, it was never a topic to be discussed. I remember how difficult it was for me as a teenager, not having the right language to express myself, trying to navigate through all these foreign emotions in a healthy and helpful way. I genuinely wish that someone would have sat down, listened to me, and told me 'Hey, it's okay. There is hope. You're gonna be okay'.
"I can't even begin to explain how much more complex things are with the existence of the Internet adding so much pressure on our teens in their years of finding their identity and building their foundation on what matters to them in this day and age.
"After working with youths/students for more than half a decade, my conviction to help them recognise that they are made for more grew deeper and deeper. I decided that I wanted to invest my time in calling out the gold within our next generation.
"I want our youth to flourish — not just from an academic perspective, but to give equal weight on their emotional and social wellbeing too. And that is consistent with who I am as a person."
Thus, happywords.co, a youth-development organisation that focuses on social and emotional learning (SEL), was born
SEL comprises five parts: Self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making skills.
Over the years, we may be more familiar with terms such as character development, soft skills, or 21st-century skills. Sharlyn explained that these terms are synonymous with the components of SEL.
In fact, research shows that SEL not only improves achievement by an average of 11 percentile points, but also increases prosocial behaviours (e.g kindness, sharing, and empathy), improves student attitudes toward school, and reduces depression and stress among students.
"I want our younger generation to be secure in their identity, grow in kindness and compassion towards others, and make healthier and helpful decisions that bring positive impact in their own worlds."I hope for us to use our words intentionally: to build them up, and not tear them down. I believe in creating safe spaces for our youths to address what they are going through too – none of us are perfect. There is grace and space to stop in our tracks, notice what's happening internally, ask where those thoughts/behaviours are stemming from, and to pivot towards a healthier direction. And that is the key.
"Because I want us to become a more resilient generation. To get through difficult times in a healthy way. You have it within you to navigate through these things – you're made for more," she explained.
happywords.co aims to impart these skills to teens and uni students by listening to them, sharing their knowledge, and having conversations with them via their youth programmes
At the moment, happywords.co runs the following youth programmes:
- ACTivate: This internationally-validated youth programme (Time to ACT) is designed to empower youths to play an active role in their lives towards becoming the best version of themselves. The programme uses a skills-based model called DNA-v, which teaches young people the skills to develop psychological flexibility (the ability to do what they care about despite the presence of difficult thoughts and feelings). This is a seven-week programme, and customisations can be discussed.
- Customised SEL programmes for private groups: If you have a group of high school or university students, happywords.co will run a needs-based assessment with teachers/parents to understand what would be useful to the target group, and then develop a programme for them from there, depending on their needs.
Additionally, the platform is open to collaborating with other organisations, institutions, or learning centres that work with youths as well.
"We have a framework in happywords.co, the ABC framework; to Activate. Build. Conquer. So, what we intend to do is activate their minds to recognise where they are in their emotional and social wellbeing. With the knowledge we impart to them, we hope it would be a useful tool in their toolbox to build their foundation, so that they can conquer their own lives," said Sharlyn.
Sharlyn told SAYS that happywords.co collaborated on a project with a psychology student, who faced cyberbullying when she was a teenager
"It was really intense. Someone was using her pictures and doing a lot of nasty stuff with them. She didn't know what to do, so she wanted to use her experience to help other cyberbullying victims. We came up with this initiative to advocate to collectively cancel cyberbullying. And this was started by this girl in collaboration with happywords.co," she explained.
Known as #cybercancelled, they came up with a campaign to raise awareness of cyberbullying and how they intended to cancel cyberbullying collectively, so that more people will pledge to be kind on the Internet.
"Cybercancelled was her advocacy project that was part of a beauty pageant, and it won Best Advocacy! And because of that, it went to a more prominent level that people were seeing.
"She is out there doing incredible work; she has been invited to speak at university events and has gone on to carry on this campaign to impact so many others. And that is exactly what I hope for our happywords.co youth: to be equipped, catalysed, and mobilised as competent and resilient youth leaders that add value to our community! She went through the ABC process on her own. And I am so proud of her," she said.
Sharlyn hopes to be certified as a coach from the International Coaching Federation (ICF) to open up one-on-one coaching and mentoring sessions for students as well
Speaking about her goals for herself and the organisation, she said, "I have nine years of experience with youth events and conducting workshops. But this year I want to be a certified youth coach. I also hope that we'll be able to travel across Malaysia to host these youth events/workshops, which is where the rakyat can help. If you have connections to educators, and access to youths as well, this is where it's gonna be helpful for us to connect with one another.
"This year, we are running a nationwide survey. It's to explore the lack of SEL in schools back then, and how it has impacted us as young adults right now — in the areas of developing career readiness, leadership, and emotional competence. I hope that we can get as many respondents as possible, so that we can actually get relevant data for this Malaysia-focused survey."
According to Sharlyn, another exciting thing that's happening soon is that they are starting a virtual youth learning community!
Known as happyYOUTH, it is a safe and fun virtual youth learning community that they are starting for teenagers to connect and learn with one another.
"So what's gonna happen is they can join using an online platform that acts as a safe space for fun and games, but every other week we will have a learning session that is SEL related. Then, I want to open this up to students from Southeast Asia as well, so our students can meet people from other countries."
She added, "Whoever wants to join the community can express their interest on our form. We will run a safety screening process prior to being added to our community platforms. We will post about other relevant youth events and programmes there too. Do join us! But I really hope we can also connect with educators across Malaysia, to conduct events with teenagers. We would be so happy to have volunteers, venue sponsors, or printing material sponsors — these things will be very helpful to us. If anyone wants to volunteer they can just reach out. :)"
You can join happywords.co's virtual youth-learning community here!
Head over to happywords.co's website to find out more about SEL.
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