12 Social Skills in Schools

Ann Wahlin


Social-emotional skills affect our daily life in a range of ways. We use our social-emotional skills daily to connect and interact with others and to maintain friendships. These vital foundations can determine our success in our future.  But how do we strengthen our social-emotional skills? Where can we achieve this? Schools provide the perfect opportunity to support and implement these skills. By implementing social-emotional skills at school, students will learn to appropriately implement strategies like conflict resolution, show empathy, and make rapport with others. The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) guide many countries including Australia with social-emotional. Through this literature review, we explore the CASEL 5 wheel of self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, responsible decision making and relationships. The review will give Australian statistics in reflection of relationships, students with disabilities, behaviour, school curriculum, students’ connection with schools, their academic performance, students’ bullying and violence, therapy dogs, trauma-informed practices and the importance of social-emotional skills in the future.

Without social-emotional skills implemented into students learning their academic skills, the ability to make and sustain relationships and a lack of resilience will create a difficult future for our next generation.

Keywords: Social-emotional skills, social-emotional learning, behaviour, resilience, academic skills, academic performance, school, Casel, disabilities


With social skills implemented in schools, it will help students to develop social competence for a lifetime of healthier connections in all aspects of their life. Social-emotional skills/learning can be defined as the progression that children gain and utilise knowledge, abilities, and attitudes associated with relationship skills, social awareness, self-awareness, self-management, and responsible decision-making (Blewitt et al., 2021). Quality social skills are essential to functioning within society. These are displayed through manners, effective communication, empathy and communication which are all vital components of strong social skills (Blewitt et al., 2021). These skills do not come naturally to all; we need to help students to develop these required skills, which entails various strategies within each stage of development.

Adults sometimes falsely perceive children’s play as passing the time. In fact, children gain and develop most of their social-emotional skills through playing (S. H. Spence, 2003). Children explore the world around them and discover new skills while playing. Evidence shows that students are expected to manage various challenging social situations (Spence, 2003). To manage these social situations effectively, students require a wide range of high-level social skills and problem-solving abilities (Spence, 2003). Social-emotional skills, including social competence, substantially impact psychological, academic and adaptive daily operations (Spence, 2003).

The lack of social-emotional skills affects not only the individual but also friends, family, the community and the ongoing high cost to the Government. Studies show that social skills and relationship complications are linked with a wide range of psychopathology (Spence, 2003). These mental disorders include depression, behaviour issues, social phobia, autism, and early onset schizophrenia (Spence, 2003). Through this literature review we will address areas like health affected by social-emotional skills and recognise the importance of these skills in schools to reduce mental health issues and limit other areas of lives.

An Analysis of a Lack of Social-Emotional Skills

Social-emotional skills are noticed daily within care settings like schools and childcare. With a history of nearly 27 years working in schools and childcare, I see the requirement for social-emotional skills/learning (SEL) to be taught in schools. Not only for today but for the future of our children. These skills will be beneficial for their future social skills, employment and day to day living.

Social-Emotional Skills Effect on Health

The cost of health for Australians is substantial. One method of reducing this cost is through social interactions. Statistics show socially involved people are healthier, happier and have an extended life than socially isolated individuals (Ryff & Singer, 2001). The Australian Institute of health and welfare believes 14-17% of adolescents aged 12 and over are diagnosed with major depressive disorder (Singh et al., 2019). Furthermore, another 11% describe signs of depression below the diagnostic thresholds but are believed to be an issue in future years (Singh et al., 2019). Depression in students can lead to suicidality. In Australia, 13% of people between the ages of 16 and 85 have faced suicidal ideation (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2018). This high number can be reduced by implementing high-quality, effective social-emotional school programs to encourage social interactions and relationships.

Substance abuse is another high cost to the Australian health system. The Australian adolescent rate for substance abuse is high, with data showing that 26% of adolescents aged 14–19 years are at risk for short-term harms The Australian adolescent rate for substance abuse is high, with data showing that 26% of adolescents aged 14–19 years are at risk for short-term harms… like hospitalisation and physical injury resulting from high alcohol use (Hemphill et al., 2011). While 10% of Australian adolescents presently smoke, 16% of adolescents have abused illicit drugs within the last 12 months (Hemphill et al., 2011). Australian schools are implementing social-emotional skills and health programs to address these health issues. It is well-documented that school social skills programs reduce adolescent depression (Singh et al., 2019). These numbers are attributed to peer pressure. Social-emotional skills help reverse the results of adverse and non-supporting family backgrounds, negative school experiences, and peer group pressure (Bernard, 2006).

Social-emotional skills also affect our mental wellbeing. Poor social skills are continually associated with depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia (Segrin, 2019). Blewitt et al., (2021) state that an escalating awareness of the epidemiology of mental health issues shows a strong connection with social-emotional and behavioural complexities in childhood and mental health difficulties in later years. This leads to additional life issues like obesity, diabetes and heart disease, lower rates of tertiary education, and reduced vocational opportunities (Blewitt et al., 2021). Sadly, within school settings, social and emotional complications may influence individuals to be victimised by others. This victimisation affects behavioural and emotional regulation, self-esteem, and social skills, causing considerable emotional concern and social isolation (Blewitt et al., 2021; Segrin, 2019). This is crucial as it shows that the lack of social-emotional skills results in a vicious cycle where people suffer from social-emotional which results in victimisation, causing self-esteem and emotional regulation.

The effects of stress are well-documented on mental health. Individuals with poor social skills risk socially isolated, loneliness, sexual risk-taking, occupation-associated burnout, connection to violence, and obsessive internet use (Segrin, 2019). Evidence shows that social relationships are a vital contributor to joy, and release from stress and positively affect well-being (Ryff & Singer, 2001). When people face stressful events, individuals with adequate social skills can effectively gain help from their social networks which protects against the psychological harm resulting from stress (Segrin, 2019). However, a contribution to stress is loneliness, people that lack social skills are susceptible to stress and face more stress than others with functional social skills (Segrin, 2019). Recent studies show loneliness results in a significant risk to physical health with an increased risk of stroke, and heart disease, which causes mortality (Ryff & Singer, 2001; Segrin, 2019). Therefore, individuals must contend with stressful situations with minimal social resources, which affects physical and mental health (Segrin, 2019). Stress contributes to short- and long-term damages. This is important because the stress a child experiences can be supported by schools that implement social-emotional programs that teach skills and strategies for helping in these situations.

Student Who Requires Trauma-Informed Practices

Unfortunately, counsellors and psychotherapists are treating higher numbers of trauma-exposed clients. Schools implement programs assisting students social-emotional learning, behaviour and wellbeing (Rawson, 2021). These can include but are not limited to Positive Behaviour Interventions and Supports (PBIS), Response to Interventions (RTI), Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS), Restorative Practices (RPs), Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) (Rawson, 2021). These individualised programs alone, do not cover the holistic needs of a child, but combined can cater for a wide range of needs (Rawson, 2021). SEL, PBIS, RTI and RPs all provide evidence of supporting students that have experienced trauma by allowing students to feel secure physically, socially, emotionally, and academically, catering for them holistically within the school community (Rawson, 2021).

Social-emotional programs benefit students by setting high expectations, encouraging academic success, valuing adult-student rapport, school connectedness, organisation, and constructive group work while providing a secure environment with predictable routines (Rawson, 2021).

Studies have shown that children with Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) struggle to understand cause-and-effect relationships, control impulses, and planning because of the consequences of the trauma on their pre-frontal cortex (Rawson, 2021). A mental process, referred to as executive functions, is the primary function of the pre-frontal cortex, involving a cognitive process called inhibitory control, working memory, and planning (Rawson, 2021). Skills that are implemented through SEL programs, such as problem-solving, emotion identification, and communication, directly affect executive functions (Rawson, 2021). Therefore, SEL programs reduce the challenging behaviours regularly observed by students subject to ACEs (Rawson, 2021).


There is solid evidence to show that social-emotional skills, mental health, complex behaviours, and academic success are intertwined within schools (Davies et al., 2021). Although, with this valuable evidence, many educators continually concentrate on behaviour management as the primary approach to developing student behaviour, because it impacts the presented behaviour giving the impression of higher academic success (Davies et al., 2021). Therefore, with support from substantial evidence, students need social-emotional skills to complement and assist with their academic learning (Davies et al., 2021). Studies show that SEL skills are fundamental for students when they encounter complex tasks, limiting dangerous behaviours, preparing students for the demands of fluctuating workplaces, and encouraging wellbeing (Davies et al., 2021) Children who show high qualities of social-emotional skills and wellbeing are provided more opportunities to succeed in education and life… because incorporating social-emotional skills and academic dynamics usually signifies effective learning (CASEL, 2019).

Research has indicated that students at risk for academic difficulties show considerably lower capabilities in concentration, persistence, and organisation (Ashdown & Bernard, 2012). Graham et al. (2021) study supported one of the greatest psychologists from the first half of the twentieth century, Vygotsky’s (1978), Theory of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), by showing that students can provide higher quality work with assistance. By researching theories like Vygotsky’s and applying modern verified approaches within social-emotional programs, the school can improve the behaviour of students while improving the holistic individual.

Connection to Schools

Vygotsky (1962) recognised early the importance of social-emotional skills, by creating the Socio-Cultural Theory of Development (Liang et al., 2022). Through this Theory of Development, Vygotsky felt that interactions with parents, carers, and friends build the foundations for children’s learning (Liang et al., 2022). This concept extends to Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) where social interactions help build skills and knowledge to achieve tasks which they require assistance with (Liang et al., 2022). This concept can be implemented in classrooms where students’ interactions build a sense of community. A sense of community provided in classrooms operates as a pedagogical resource that offers students a sense of accomplishment, worth and individuality (Frydenberg et al., 2009). Classrooms providing a sense of community provide non-judgmental, trusting, valued relationships where students explore their feelings and the feelings of others while learning social skills in low-risk environments (Frydenberg et al., 2009). As a result, students are more likely to experience an atmosphere of value, security and appreciation at school which encourages learning (Frydenberg et al., 2009). Students who feel a sense of value and worth at school, want to attend and extend their academic knowledge.

Academic Performance

A wide range of rationales affects students and their academic success. Research has shown school social-emotional programs benefit academic achievements (Ashdown & Bernard, 2012). Suggesting for students to succeed, children need the ability to start play, connect with peers, negotiate suggestions, and resolve conflicts (Reynolds et al., 2011). Denham and Brown (2010) state that students with social-emotional skills usually display confident attitudes, a greater connection to the school, and minimal challenging and dangerous behaviour while exhibiting academic achievements.

This suggests that students who are proficient in SEL have an additional contribution in the classroom, for they are consistently recognised by peers and teachers and are provided different directions and encouraging responses by their teachers (Denham & Brown, 2010). Students with minimal SEL skills display a higher possibility of disengaging in school and, therefore, usually present inadequately in educational settings consequently finishing school early and continuing with antisocial behaviours (Denham & Brown, 2010). This disengagement with the community can cause unemployment and criminal action.


Sadly, bullying is becoming more common. Recently, cyberbullying has become among the highest forms of bullying (Graham et al., 2021). This behaviour is typical of young adolescents; in Australia, about 7% of children between 8–14 years have been cyberbullied, while 3.5% have cyberbullied others frequently (Cross et al., 2015). Cyberbullying affects adolescent victims’ social, emotional, and educational wellbeing, like traditional bullying (Cross et al., 2015). These victims usually experience emotional distress like anxiety, social isolation, depression, low educational wellbeing, and solitude, which leads to school absences and low academic success (Cross et al., 2015). As a result, Bullied students have a negative view of the school..

Bullying victims are more inclined to be disengaged from school and focus on smoking, substance abuse, and sexual behaviours (Bonell et al., 2018). Bonell et al. (2018) support promoting mental health in Australian schools by implementing social-emotional programs addressing students wellbeing and other health harms. With social-emotional skills being implemented in schools, students will be exposed to the damage they contribute to while bullying, and strategies to implement which assist when being bullied.

What are the impacts of a lack of social-emotional skills in schools?

What allows some people to manage situations better when exposed to the same thing? Our social-emotional skills allow us to manage situations when exposed to challenges within our lives. Australian research shows that 13% to 19% of toddlers aged 1.5 to 3 years present with substantial clinical complications with behavioural functions or social-emotional issues (Blewitt et al., 2021). These statistics increase to approximately 20% by the age six, unfortunately, only 16% of these children receive help from professional mental health services (Blewitt et al., 2021). Therefore, this brings our attention to the evidence which verifies a connection between social-emotional skills and positive results on mental health in youth (Parker & Hodgson, 2020).

A very high percentage of Australian students are overweight, bullied and suffer from mental health issues, affecting their life (Bundy et al., 2017). Playgrounds at schools encourage gross motor skills, social interactions and negotiation skills (Bundy et al., 2017). Consequently, schools need to provide opportunities to encourage physical and psychosocial development through social skills (Bundy et al., 2017).


The importance of relationships can be seen in Vygotsky’s theories. Vygotsky states:

if we removed human activity from the system of social relationships and social life, it would not exist and would have no structure. With all its varied forms, the human individual’s activity is a system in the system of social relations. It does not exist without these relations (Wertsch, 1985, p. 211).

Vygotsky believed students learn better through labour activity, where they learn by doing the activity and from their mistakes in a social setting rather than an instructional setting in formal school (Wertsch, 1985). Therefore, as Vygotsky believed, a socially formed mind is fostered by patterns of regular social connections resulting in students’ academic development (Whitington & McInnes, 2017). As a result, this is achieved through SEL and educational pedagogies like play-based and enquiry-based learning.

Research confirms that social-emotional skills are the foundation for continuous learning and wellbeing, which are moulded by children’s primary rapports (Blewitt et al., 2021). While family are recognised as the primary influence on children’s wellbeing, their environment, and childhood educators, play a significant role in maintaining healthy development (Blewitt et al., 2021). This shows that a high-quality environment develops short- and long-term education, health, and professional outcomes (Blewitt et al., 2021). Therefore, providing a positive, promising future for the next generation.

Students With Disabilities

One in six people in Australia is diagnosed with a disability (Australian Government, 2022). Of these 4.4 million people, one in four, declare mental health or behaviour as their primary disability (Australian Government, 2022). Research shows that Australians with disabilities are more likely to develop mental health concerns because of personal and environmental influences (Vaz et al., 2015). Mental health issues in children with a disability are frequently undiagnosed and untreated, resulting in difficulties with social integration (Vaz et al., 2015). With issues joining the community, this will lead to loneliness which affects their mental health.

Ratcliffe et al., (2014) state that mental health disorders affect one in seven typical developing children, which have been associated with poor social and emotional abilities with personal, social, and academic difficulties. This is compared to approximately seven in ten children who experience mental health disorders with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) whose social skills are misunderstood (Ratcliffe et al., 2014). In Australia, ASD impacts approximately 51 per 10,000 children, without co-morbid Intellectual Disability (ID), and who usually attend ‘mainstream’ schools (Ratcliffe et al., 2014). Social-emotional skills are needed to cater to all students Social-emotional skills are needed to cater to all students., including students with ASD who usually require visual teaching strategies like video modelling, social stories, and social skills groups (Ratcliffe et al., 2014). These social-emotional skills implemented in schools will help make these students feel inclusive therefore, encouraging a more significant development in a wide range of areas.

Another common disability within schools is Attention-Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) a common neurodevelopmental disorder affecting one in twenty Australians and their social skills (ADHD Australia, 2019). Individuals with ADHD find it difficult to regulate emotions and sometimes display violations, which results in peer rejection (Barnes et al., 2017). Evidence shows that people with ADHD have reduced social play and social skills compared to children without ADHD (Barnes et al., 2017). These social difficulties have a higher risk of adverse results like alcohol and substance abuse, criminality, anxiety, eating disorders and health concerns that may impact life expectancy (ADHD Australia, 2019; Barnes et al., 2017). This signifies the importance of ensuring each student is catered for in all areas of learning to include social-emotional skills.

What Are We Doing?

These issues will not be fixed overnight, but together as a community, school, family and friends we can guide and provide the required opportunities to cater for each child’s holistic needs. The Australian Government and some organisations are implementing programs to reduce the above issues.

School Curriculum

There is a wide range of SEL programs for schools to implement. The Australian Curriculum states that personal and social capability skills are to be implemented into all learning areas throughout each stage of schooling (Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority [ACARA], 2014). By allowing teachers to target specific skills to student/s learning needs and encouraging involvement and commitment to their learning (ACARA, 2014). Therefore, students foster personal and social capability as they learn about their world, themselves and others, while managing relationships, work and learning (ACARA, 2013). The students will learn to reflect upon recognising and regulating emotions, forming empathy skills, identifying, and appreciating positive relationships, making moral choices, operating successfully in groups, managing difficult circumstances constructively and progressing leadership abilities (ACARA, 2013). Daniel Goleman, a pioneer in emotional intelligence, supports this by stating that social and emotional programs need to be taught each year of schooling; these programs influence the entire school environment (Bernard, 2006). Daniel highlights research showing a decrease in bullying, enriched playground behaviour, positive attitudes regarding school learning, improved motivation and engagement, higher attendance, and less anxiety, anger and depression (Bernard, 2006). This means as a community we can support schools to implement these programs to guide and benefit our children for today and the future.

Personal and social capabilities comprise four interrelated components in the learning continuum, self-management, self-awareness, social awareness, and social management (ACARA, 2014). The Melbourne Declaration on the Educational Goals for Young Australians (MCEETYA) believes that personal and social capability guides students to develop into productive and successful learners (ACARA, 2013). This supports the importance of helping students to expand their academic skills and inspire children to strive to reach their full potential personally and socially (ACARA, 2013). ACARA, (2013), states personal and social capability guides students to be resourceful and secure individuals with “a sense of self-worth, self-awareness and personal identity that enables them to manage their emotional, mental, spiritual and physical wellbeing’, with a sense of hope and ‘optimism about their lives and the future” (Australian Education Ministers, 2008, p. 9). These skills are significant in providing the best possible opportunity for our future generation.

Self-Awareness, Self-Management, Social Awareness, Responsible Decision Making, and Relationships Skills (CASEL 5)

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) helps create evidence-based social and emotional learning as an implemented learning area in the education system. The Collaborative for Academic Social & Emotional Learning developed five core competence areas, self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making, social awareness, and relationships skills (CASEL 5) (Rawson, 2021). CASEL (2019) states:

the process through which all young people and adults gain and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions. (p. 1)

The CASEL 5 is taught and implemented from childhood to adulthood across various countries, including Australia (CASEL, 2019). This allows individuals to strive for academic achievements, school and community connection, health and wellbeing, and rewarding careers (CASEL, 2019). Figure 1 is the “CASEL wheel”; the centre comprises the five core social and emotional competencies (CASEL, 2019). These extensive interconnected areas encourage learning and development (CASEL, 2019). Four crucial locations and associates circulate these core social skills (CASEL, 2019).

Self-awareness is the skill of identifying and comprehending your personal feelings, emotions, views, and values and how they influence your behaviour (Australian Government, 2021). This essential skill recognises emotions, self-perception, strengths, self-confidence, and self-efficacy (Australian Government, 2021). Self-management is the power to control and regulate your emotions and actions, like working with stress and regulating impulses and motivation (Australian Government, 2021). The critical self-management skills are regulating impulses, controlling stress, self-discipline, self-motivation, and establishing and achieving ambitions and organisation abilities (Australian Government, 2021). Social awareness appreciates and understands people from diverse backgrounds while recognising and valuing social and ethical norms of choices (Australian Government, 2021). These essential skills include respect, viewpoints, compassion, valuing diversity and appreciating others (Australian Government, 2021). Relationship skills focus on encouraging supportive, beneficial and positive relationships by focusing on skills like communicating, collaborating with others, withstanding peer pressure, navigating conflicts, teamwork and developing rapport (Australian Government, 2021). The final area is responsible decision-making, where the students learn to make informed and sensible choices regarding their behaviour and social relations with others (Australian Government, 2021). The critical areas of focus in this area recognise issues, evaluating circumstances, problem-solving skills, self-evaluation, self-reflection, and ethical obligation (Australian Government, 2021). The Australian Government (2021) believes students show more remarkable growth when taught skills from each domain collectively allowing their skills and knowledge to be extended in all areas.

Therapy Dogs

Some schools and areas of mental health like counsellors and psychotherapy recognise the benefits of therapy dogs. Social-emotional programs can sometimes include dogs for their accepting, trustworthy, non-judgemental ‘friends’ that encourage relaxation, and alters and extends humans’ attention span (Sorin & Lloyd, 2014). A dog in educational settings can be beneficial by increasing literacy outcomes in students, self-esteem and confidence (Sorin & Lloyd, 2014). Therefore, when children read to their non-judgmental ‘friend’ the therapy dog, students focus increases, their literacy skills are enriched and their confidence soars (Sorin & Lloyd, 2014). These highly trained dogs assist children in relaxing, opening up, and striving higher while reading to their loyal and calm friend.

Studies show dogs notice human behaviour and emotions by interpreting voice tone, body language, and gestures while gauging emotional situations and attempting to identify emotions and thoughts (Spence, 2022). Not only do these highly trained dogs notice human behaviour but research confirms that therapy dogs can decrease stress Not only do these highly trained dogs notice human behaviour but research confirms that therapy dogs can decrease stress. (cortisol levels) and heighten attachment responses that activate oxytocin, a hormone that enhances trust in people (Spence, 2022). Making man’s best friend an asset in any environment, especially schools.

A 2020 study by the Human-Animal Bond Research Institute of 101 students revealed children aged between 7 to 12 had lower stress levels if they had a dog (Spence, 2022). This is significant since research shows therapy dogs have proven to reduce stress, anxiety and depression, ease loneliness, and encourage exercise resulting in improved cardiovascular health while encouraging students’ social skills as they connect around the dog (D’cruz, 2022). A growing number of schools within Australia are taking advantage of this opportunity and introducing therapy dogs into their schools to assist with many issues including social-emotional skills in students. Student contact with dogs does not need to be complicated to be beneficial. Turner (2011) believes a student patting or observing a dog can lower someone’s blood pressure, and encourage feelings of relief, while just observing animals can reduce stress and encourage a positive mood. Therapy dogs have been beneficial in schools, counselling, and psychology clinics, using these dogs to extend social-emotional skills and academic development.

Social-Emotional Skills in Schools in the Future

What does the future hold for Australians? It is a known fact that crime in our country is on the rise. Whitten et al. (2017) believe that early interventions for children and adolescents will limit future behavioural issues while supporting their wellbeing. These interventions assist with the development of language, academic skills, social-emotional skills, and school, family and other social settings (Whitten et al., 2017). Waters et al. (2010) promote the work of Pastoral care within schools. Pastoral care focuses on working with the diverse needs of students, while promoting key areas of health and wellbeing, encouraging resilience, develop academic care, and social strength (Waters et al., 2010). These social-emotional skills, encouraged by Pastoral carers, staff at school, commitment to school and positive influences, will hopefully result in lower negative behaviour and criminal activity, a positive outlook in life with relationships, work and community commitment.

Technology is rapidly changing all workplaces. Employers state that the changing nature of workplaces and implementing technology makes complicates future recruitment but believe developing and sustaining social skills can operate as an ‘insurance’ for people (Piercy & Steele, 2016). Payton and Knight’s (2018) survey supports this by revealing that within all areas of occupations, companies believe effective communication is among the highest requirements for future employment. Employers believe future employment must maintain a culture where staff collaborate, share resources, increase productivity, and accomplish goals while displaying skills like communication, positive relationships, teamwork, social and cultural awareness (Payton & Knight, 2018). Therefore, with the world changing students need to succeed and extend their social-emotional skills to ensure they are employable.


Australia has recently recognised the enormous need for social skills in our schools. These skills support shaping our future generations. This literature review describes how school social-emotional skills develop students’ academic skills, relationship building, and resilience and builds a holistic child. Developing solid social-emotional skills is essential for students’ daily wellbeing, engagement with others, and learning at school and beyond. Healthy development in social-emotional skills is crucial for each individuals mental health and growth in other domains. A wide range of factors affects a student’s social-emotional skill set and wellbeing; as a result, programs need to be accessible to cater to every individual student’s holistic needs.


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