Emergencies—including conflict, disasters, and forced migration—have negative effects on the psychosocial development of individuals, as well as on the short and long-term development of local and global communities. In emergency situations, education is a major factor in the mental and physical protection of children and can be a key psychosocial intervention. If properly delivered, education can offer learners a safe, stable environment amid crisis, and help restore a sense of normality, dignity, and hope by providing both routine and structured, supportive activities that help build children’s cognitive, social, and emotional skills.

Humanitarian crises profoundly impact children, youth, teachers, and caregivers. They threaten every aspect of daily living, including housing, health, sanitation, recreation, and education. Crises can disrupt family structures and relationships, disturb social cohesion, and can create feelings of isolation, uncertainty, fear, anger, loss, hopelessness, and sadness. Long-term exposure to a disaster or conflict without appropriate and timely mitigation can damage physical and mental health. The impacts emergencies have on the functioning of families and communities impact the development of children and young people. Young children may sustain deep emotional scars from witnessing violence, migrating under difficult physical conditions, and living in dangerous and stressful conditions for long periods of time. They also may be separated from their parents or primary caregivers. Moreover, crisis-affected children frequently lack access to adequate health care and early learning opportunities, face food and water shortages, and experience the loss of a parent or other caregiver, physical injuries, and other extreme challenges to survival, which increase their mortality rates. Early childhood interventions that support development from conception to age eight can create a buffer against the difficulties young children face in emergencies. These efforts can be enhanced by the people who are most important in a child’s environment—parents and primary caregivers, teachers, health-care workers, and others. 

While some stress in life is normal and even necessary for development—children need to experience some emotional stress to develop healthy coping mechanisms, problem-solving skills, and resilience —the type of stress a child experiences when exposed to a conflict or natural disaster can become toxic if there is intense, repeated, and extended activation of the body’s stress response system. Repeated activation of the stress response system, especially early in life, can have a toxic effect on children's developing brain architecture, also known as 'toxic stress’. This is particularly true if there is no supportive adult figure to offer protection (Center on the Developing Child, 2016).

Key Terms and Definitions

Mental Health: Mental health is more than the absence of mental disorders. It exists on a complex continuum, which is experienced differently from one person to the next, with varying degrees of difficulty and distress and potentially very different social and clinical outcomes. Mental health conditions include mental disorders and psychosocial disabilities as well as other mental states associated with significant distress, impairment in functioning, or risk of self-harm.

Psychosocial: The interaction between social aspects (such as interpersonal relationships, social connections, social norms, social roles, community life and religious life) and psychological aspects (such as emotions, thoughts, behaviors, knowledge and coping strategies) that contribute to overall well-being.

Psychosocial support (PSS): The processes and actions that promote the holistic wellbeing of people in their social world. It includes support provided by family and friends. PSS can also be described as a process of facilitating resilience within individuals, families and communitiy. PSS aims to help individuals recover after a crisis has disrupted their lives and to enhance their ability to return to normality after experiencing adverse events.

Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS): MHPSS is a composite term used across different sectors and aims to help individuals recover after a crisis has disrupted their lives and to enhance their ability to return to normality after experiencing adverse events. MHPSS can be both local or outside support that is:

  • Promotive – promotes wellbeing
  • Preventative – decreases the risk of mental health problems
  • Curative – helps overcome psychosocial/mental health problems. *The term 'curative' should be used with caution as it is suggestive of a medical term. MHPSS is a 'support', not a 'cure'.

Social and emotional learning (SEL): The process of acquiring core competencies to recognize and manage emotions, set and achieve goals, appreciate the perspectives of others, establish and maintain positive relationships, make responsible decisions, and handle interpersonal situations constructively. The qualities SEL aims to foster include self-awareness, emotional literacy, cognitive flexibility, improved memory, resilience, persistence, motivation, empathy, social and relationship skills, effective communication, listening skills, self-esteem, self confidence, respect, and self-regulation. SEL is an important component that sits under the psychosocial support (PSS) umbrella. SEL is an important component of PSS that educators can and should address, since it contributes to children’s and youths’ improved psychosocial wellbeing. It is a pedagogical practice and process that is especially fitting in both formal and non-formal educational environments, since it promotes the skills and abilities that help children, young people, and adults learn.

SEL is an important component that sits under the MHPSS umbrella. INEE views SEL as an important component of MHPSS that educators can and should address. It is a practice that can be readily and easily employed in educational settings and one that contributes to children’s and youth’s improved psychosocial wellbeing. It is a pedagogical practice and process that is especially fitting in both formal and non-formal educational environments, since it helps children, young people, and adults alike to acquire and promotes the skills and abilities that help them learn more effectively.

Wellbeing: A condition of holistic health and the process of achieving this condition. It refers to physical, emotional, social, and cognitive health. Wellbeing includes what is good for a person: having a meaningful social role; feeling happy and hopeful; living according to good values, as locally defined; having positive social relations and a supportive environment; coping with challenges through positive life skills; and having security, protection, and access to quality services. Important aspects of wellbeing include: biological, material, social, spiritual, cultural, emotional, and mental.

For more information on Teacher Wellbeing, visit the Teacher Wellbeing Resource Collection.


Why provide MHPSS through education?

  • Systematic reviews provide evidence of the significance of schools as a location for MHPSS interventions in humanitarian settings, enabling wider access for children. Schools provide the stability, structure, and routine that children need when coping with loss, fear, stress, and violence, which can improve mental health and resilience and can help recovery for the majority of children and youth affected by conflict or disaster. (UNICEF, 2021)
  • Safe schools and non-formal learning spaces are some of the most beneficial environments for children and youth during a period of uncertainty. Intentional investment in education-based PSS has proven to protect them against the negative effects of disasters by creating stable routines, providing opportunities for friendship and play, fostering hope, reducing stress, encouraging self expression, and promoting collaborative behavior (Action for the Rights of Children, 2002, unpublished manuscript; Alexander, Boothby, & Wessells, 2010; Masten, Gewirtz, & Sapienza, 2013).
  • Schools, non-formal education programs, and early childhood education services can be equipped to address children, caregivers, and teachers mental health needs by:
    • Creating a supportive learning environment that safeguards mental health, where all children and education professionals feel included, supported, and valued
    • Ensuring teachers and school administrators are well-equipped to support the well-being of learners and teachers 
    • Promoting a culture in which mental health and wellbeing is talked about openly, implementing programs and curricula that increase mental health literacy and promote social-emotional learning, 
    • Providing early identification and early intervention for those needing additional mental health support (ensuring linkages to community-based mental health care)
    • Increasing caregivers and community engagement to support children's learning and overall wellbeing.
  • MHPSS and SEL approaches work best when integrated into the different spheres of young people’s lives. Since education settings bring children and their peers, parents, families, and communities together, they can help create a supportive environment that promotes wellbeing. Ideally, the education and community settings that surround each child work together to ensure that they receive the best possible care and follow up; this includes communication between teachers and parents, counsellors if needed, etc.

This collection was developed with the support of members of the INEE PSS-SEL Working Group.

29 June 2018 Manual/Handbook/Guide Inter-agency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE)

INEE Guidance Note on Psychosocial Support

The purpose of the INEE Guidance Note on Psychosocial Support is to clarify the importance of supporting the psychosocial wellbeing of children and youth, and to offer specific strategies for how to incorporate psychosocial support (PSS) into education responses.

14 November 2016 Background Paper Inter-agency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE)

INEE Background Paper on Psychosocial Support and Social & Emotional Learning for Children & Youth

The purpose of this paper is to clarify relevant terminologies and approaches relating to psychosocial well-being and social and emotional learning (SEL) in education in crisis affected contexts, and to explore how psychosocial support (PSS) and social and emotional learning relate to one another.

22 November 2019 Training Material Inter-agency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE)

INEE PSS-SEL Training Module

This module outlines 3 hours (180 minutes) of training activities and materials related to psychosocial support (PSS) and social and emotional learning (SEL) in emergency contexts. It includes supplementary activities to further understanding of PSS-SEL concepts, for an extended duration of 5 hours (270 minutes).

22 December 2022 Manual/Handbook/Guide Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC)

IASC Minimum Service Package Mental Health and Psychosocial Support

The Mental Health and Psychosocial Support Minimum Service Package (MHPSS MSP) is an intersectoral package that outlines a set of activities that are considered to be of the highest priority in meeting the needs of emergency-affected populations, based on existing guidelines, available evidence and expert consensus. Each activity comes with checklists of core and additional actions.

1 October 2021 Toolkit
Education Cannot Wait (ECW), International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), REPSSI

MHPSS and EiE Toolkit

The aim of this toolkit is to increase understanding between the two sectors, to encourage dialogue for planning and programming, and ultimately to strengthen the quality of MHPSS and education responses in emergencies.

29 April 2020 Manual/Handbook/Guide World Health Organization (WHO)

Doing What Matters in Times of Stress

This is a stress management guide for coping with adversity. The guide aims to equip people with practical skills to help cope with stress. A few minutes each day are enough to practice the self-help techniques. The guide can be used alone or with the accompanying audio exercises. Informed by evidence and extensive field testing, the guide is for anyone who experiences stress, wherever they live and whatever their circumstances.  

2 October 2011 Manual/Handbook/Guide World Health Organization (WHO)

Psychological First Aid: Guide for Field Workers

This guide covers psychological first aid which involves humane, supportive and practical help to fellow human beings suffering serious crisis events. It is written for people in a position to help others who have experienced an extremely distressing event. It gives a framework for supporting people in ways that respect their dignity, culture and abilities.

4 November 2014 Manual/Handbook/Guide International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC)

Community-Based PSS Training Kit

The Community-based psychosocial support. A training kit is part of our efforts to facilitate capacity building of National Societies as well as competence building of staff and volunteers. We hope that it will be a useful tool for the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, as well as for other stakeholders in the field of psychosocial support.

1 January 2016 Toolkit International Rescue Committee (IRC)

Safe Healing and Learning Spaces Toolkit

The SHLS Toolkit provides frontline humanitarian staff with practical implementation guidance, adaptable sample tools, comprehensive training materials, and scripted instructional content. Resources are provided for a 9-month program, and applicable in both rural and urban areas, based on locally-defined needs and priorities. 

1 January 2014 Toolkit International Rescue Committee (IRC)

Families Make the Difference Toolkit

Parenting skills training toolkits including facilitator's guide, trainer's manual and programme sessions focused on adolescence (ages 6-11 & 12-18) and guides for programme Implementation and training manual with ECCD focus (ages 0-5).

1 January 2007 Manual/Handbook/Guide Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC)

Guidelines on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Emergency Settings

The Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) issued these Guidelines to enable humanitarian actors to plan, establish and coordinate a set of minimum multi-sectoral responses to protect and improve peoples mental health and psychosocial well-being in the midst of an emergency.

30 June 2021 Toolkit MHPSS Collaborative, Save the Children, United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), World Health Organization (WHO)

I Support My Friends Resource Kit

The I Support My Friends resource kit has been developed to give facilitators a comprehensive package of tools and resources to best equip children and adolescents in safe and effective peer support, together with adult mentors. It provides guidance and tools for preparing, designing, and implementing trainings with children and adolescents in how to support a friend in distress. The resource kit also includes guidance for appropriate adult supervision to ensure the physical and emotional safety of child and adolescent helpers and the friends they support.

1 January 2012 Manual/Handbook/Guide REPSSI

Mainstreaming Psychosocial Care and Support: Within the Education Sector and Teacher Training Guide

Through this series, REPSSI strives to publish high-quality, user-friendly, evidence-based manuals and guidelines, all characterised by subject matter that can be said to address the issue of psychosocial wellbeing. Within the series, different publications are aimed at different levels of audience or user.

1 January 2017 Toolkit International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC)

IFRC Monitoring and evaluation framework for psychosocial support interventions Toolbox

The toolbox contains guidance and tools (sample templates) for data collection in M&E of PSS programmes. The tools can be adapted to PSS programme, depending upon target group, activities and scope. These are tools that may be useful for your programme and many are drawn from existing PSS programme M&E tools, but they are not an exhaustive list. They can act as an inspiration and supplement to other existing tools.

16 March 2021 Manual/Handbook/Guide Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC)

Technical note: Linking Disaster Risk Reduction and Mental Health and Psychosocial Support

This Technical Note was developed to assist humanitarian aid, development and disaster risk management organizations, national and local governments and community actors within and across sectors with the delivery of a priority set of actions to reduce suffering and improve mental health and psychosocial well-being through integration with risk management perspectives and approaches that link prevention, preparedness, response and recovery.

1 November 2020 Emergency Update/Report United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF)

Mental health and psychosocial support for children in humanitarian settings: An updated review of evidence and practice

This review provides practitioners with a review and update on effective practices and evidence in the field of MHPSS. It was first drafted in 2015, presenting evidence and practice specific to children in order to support the implementation of MHPSS activities in humanitarian settings. This updated 2020 Review includes recent evidence updates (2015-2020), and addressing an identified gap in the 2015 Review, includes additional evidence on child and community participation.