Overcoming adversity through a child-centered, life skills approach.
Suchetha Bhat, Chief Executive Officer, Dream a Dream.
Bangalore and Delhi, India.
Suchetha Bhat is the CEO of Dream a Dream. Since joining the organisation in 2010, she has been instrumental in scaling its impact.
Her passion lies in advocating for the urgency and criticality of preparing young people for the new world. Suchetha has over 16 years of work experience in both the corporate and social sector, beginning her career as an Electronics and Communication Engineer.
“The complexity that young people are entering, the fast-pace of change, really requires the ability to be adaptive, flexible and to respond from the space of empathy and creativity, which I believe learning systems across the world are not providing young people.”
The Big Change
“Dream a Dream works with young people from vulnerable backgrounds, who experience extreme adversity in their daily lives. When children have these early experiences of adversity, it has an impact on their development. For us, life skills is an approach that helps children overcome the impact of adversity and prepare them for the fast pace of change in the world today.”
Dream a Dream run four mutually reinforcing life skills programmes for young people and the adult figures that support them:
- The After School Life Skills Programme – using the medium of Sports and Arts to engage and develop critical life skills in young people.
- Careers Connect – running career awareness workshops, short-term modules in English, communication skills, money management, and providing access to internships, scholarships, vocational training and jobs.
- Teacher Development – engaging adults with a life skills approach to nurture empathy, expand their creativity, develop listening and validation skills and the ability to share with authenticity while also learning facilitation skills.
- Volunteer Engagement – bringing together community volunteers from corporates, colleges and wider society to engage and deepen impact on young people through their time, skills and role modeling.
The ambition for changes
The big vision for Dream a Dream is: to empower young people from vulnerable backgrounds to overcome adversity and flourish in a fast changing world.
They achieve this by building the life skills of young people, and the life skills of the influencers around them – parents, teachers but also mentors and potential employers, policy makers and government officials.
A shift in direction
Dream a Dream started in 1999, when a group of 12 volunteers came together and initially just wanted to do some volunteering in their free time.
They saw that India faced a stark challenge – children facing adversity were falling behind in their development, and the existing education system was not preparing them with the life skills that would help them flourish.
Over the years, their volunteer group grew into a more organised programme of work, and into the formalised non-profit it is today.
The Independent Commission on Education and Skills in Doncaster, led by nationally recognised and credible experts, provided a clear understanding of need and the current state of play.
Making change happen
1: The start point
Understanding the problem first and foremost
Suchetha looks back on the 17 year history of Dream a Dream and sees an organisation that invested in building a deep understanding of the problem before jumping into the solution. From that deep understanding, they were able to really make the case for why life skills were so important and could generate demand for their programme of work.
“It is very tempting to say, ‘Yes, the skills required for the future are different, so that’s why we need to invest in life skills’. But I think what we did in terms of investing in understanding adversity and that when children are not able to develop their life skills, they’re not able to follow the normal pattern of development, meant we could really contextualise it.”
Pre-empting the demand for measurement and evidence
From early on, they recognised that like with any new type of learning, the question of assessments and measurements would surface as they tried to scale the work. So in 2008, they started working with two clinical psychologists from the UK to develop a standardised life skills assessment scale.
“It took us almost six years of rigorous, statistical analysis, back-and-forth data collection, and just a lot of work. Today, the Dream Life Skills Assessment Scale has been published and has appeared in international journals, has been downloaded 4000 times around the world and was recognised as one of the hundred innovations in k-12 by global non-profit HundrED.”
2: Taking off
Transferability over replicability
Dream a Dream reached a point where they had designed a standardised curriculum for life skills, developed a method for training facilitators and were working with about 5000 children in the Bangalore area, through their After School Life Skills programme and Career Connect programme for older children. Suchetha along with her colleagues realised that it wasn’t so much the curriculum or the infrastructure that was generating impact but rather the presence of a creative, caring and compassionate adult. So rather than rigidly replicating the existing programmes in more and more places, they started training teachers instead. This allowed the life skills approach to be transferred and integrated into existing classroom practice and curriculum.
“Through our experiences we learnt that if teachers can develop their life skills, then they’re able to develop life skills in children. We shouldn’t get caught up in wanting to standardise or fix a certain approach to it, or having this one size which can help scale it. All of those paradigms and approaches that come from a more traditional way of working, and we didn’t want to apply that here.”
The Arc of Transformation
In working to scale their approach, Suchetha introduced a simple yet powerful process – an ‘arc of transformation’ – for introducing people to the life skill development model. When engaging stakeholders from across the ecosystem – teachers, volunteers, business leaders, or government officials – Suchetha along with her colleagues would put them through the new learning model itself, as a way to broaden their perspective of what is possible.
“We realised that in most cases, the reason why most people are falling back to traditional approaches or traditional solutions is because they haven’t seen anything else. There is no imagination for a different way of learning. But when they gain a different experience, you then know that another way is available, possible, trainable, and replicable.”
Working with partners to develop capacity
Suchetha recognises that Dream a Dream have been able to create large scale change without significantly increasing their operations. They’ve done this by leveraging strategic partnerships to build capacity for them. Partners like PYE Global shared their expertise to help design and develop the life skills work with adults. Similarly, volunteers like Dr David Pearson and Dr Fiona Kennedy – psychologists from the UK – gave their time and knowledge to helping develop the Dream Life Skills Assessment Scale. They’ve also been able to tap into the talent pool of young people graduating from their programme. This asset-based approach to impact at scale has been critical to their sustained success in the long term.
“Today we are a team of 94 people at Dream a Dream, and there are 35 of them who are young people who were part of the programme as young people and have joined the team today. They are able to bring in a certain lens to the solution and a certain reflection to how we think about this, which is very unique and something valuable to really harness”
3: Keeping going
Engaging key influencers in the approach
For Dream a Dream to have systemic impact beyond their programmes, Suchetha and her colleagues recognised the importance of engaging key influencers – those who had power to change things at scale – across the broader ecosystem. They started hosting an annual conference called ‘Change the Script’, bringing together around 80 influencers to engage them in the life skills approach and shift their mindset about the purpose of education. The conference is designed using the same principles of engagement that they’ve used in their programmes with young people. Last year, the Special Advisor to the Education Minister of Delhi attended and having gone through the ‘arc of transformation’ decided to introduce life skills building activities into their Happiness Curriculum for all government schools in Delhi.
“As much as a small non-profit can do, it can still only do so much. A partnership can help scale the programme and then you have the possibility of creating education reform in a country like India. In retrospect, we could have moved much faster in bringing government along on this journey and helping them recognising the urgency.”
Adapting to different local demands
Suchetha recognises that the adaptability of the life skills approach has aided their ability to have further impact at scale because it could respond to a number of different agendas and local demands. In the instance of Delhi, the approach was able to contribute to a broader focus on wellbeing as part of the Happiness Curriculum. Similarly, other system leaders have shown an interest using life skills activities as part of different visions for the future of education, for instance a focus on developing values in young people.
“The life skills approach can be created in any of these contexts and we can help customise and contextualise that.”
“I think Dream a Dream plays the role of thought leader because we are able to provide the ecosystem with the standardised assessment scale, we have a research report we have done which maps the life skills space in India, we have the approach to life skills which is standardised, qualified and transferable, we have a training team which can come and train teachers around how you can integrate life skills.”
Taking change wider
Suchetha points out that there are more and more people recognising that the learning systems in place are not equipping young people to thrive.
Combined with the stark challenge of malnutrition and child underdevelopment – India has the highest number of children with stunted growth in the world today, nearly 5 times the level of the country with the second highest rate – the case for change and life skills development has been able to gain traction more easily.
“There is a recognition today that our current education systems are failing our children. That has, in some ways, definitely propelled the key influencers or key stakeholders to at least ask themselves the question. I don’t believe that was true ten years before.”
The impact of change
The Delhi government assigned Dream a Dream to be the anchor non-profit on the Happiness Curriculum for all the 1024 government schools in Delhi. Every morning starts with a happiness class, focusing on the wellbeing of children through life skills building activities. The curriculum reaches about one million children in Delhi.
- Dream a Dream works with 10,000 young people every year, have trained 4500 educators impacting over 100,000 children and young people and built the capacity of over 2500 volunteers through their Life Skills Development model.
- 95.5% of participants in the After School Life Skills Programme and 99.7% participants in Careers Connect Programme showed a positive improvement in Life Skills (assessed using the Dream Life Skills Assessment Scale) through the year, with 97% of graduates meaningfully engaged with higher education, vocational training and careers.
- A minimum of 96% of teachers were positively impacted through the Life Skills Facilitation workshops.
Dream a Dream works with 10,000 young people every year
Tools and resources
“Build on what is already there. The life skills assessment for example is something that took 8 years of research but today is standardised and peer reviewed, and there’s a reason why it is open source so that everybody can access it.”