How are you feeling?

Few things divide educators more than emotional intelligence. Should it – and can it – be taught in schools? Kerra Maddern reports
27th April 2012, 1:00am


How are you feeling?

It is either sentimental claptrap or the answer to the bad behaviour that plagues classrooms. Emotional intelligence (EI), also known as emotional literacy, has been dismissed by some teachers as nonsense, and embraced by many others who believe it will benefit their colleagues and pupils. Its supporters teach children calming breathing techniques, faithfully ask for feedback after each lesson and regularly get pupils to share their current states of mind.

The concept is designed to get people to understand their emotions and then to learn to control them. It started in the US, but soon spread across the Atlantic. The former Labour government was won over, and provided money so that English schools could explore it in the form of the social and emotional aspects of learning (Seal) programme. Activities such as circle time and anger management classes became common.

But a change of UK government has brought a change of attitude. England’s schools minister Nick Gibb is particularly dismissive, commenting that “social and emotional learning is ghastly and likely to distract from the core subjects of academic education”.

Some academics also have concerns about the use of EI and claim there is no direct link between improving emotional intelligence and raising school standards. And not all teachers have been won over.

Despite this, many teachers continue to strive to create an emotionally intelligent school. They believe that if pupils feel good, and can work more cooperatively with other children, they will learn better, which is an appealing logic. School leaders who have championed EI also believe it can reduce exclusions.

Advocates say the concepts combine common sense with neuroscience to improve emotional health, and this leads to better relationships between teachers and pupils.

But what is the difference between a caring school with a happy atmosphere and one that has officially become emotionally intelligent?

In practice

“We must not assume that a happy school is also an emotionally literate school. It doesn’t prove children are emotionally resilient or can talk about what happened to them if a crisis happened,” says Colin Woodcock, an educational psychologist at Southampton City Council.

It was one of the first local authorities in England to encourage schools to become emotionally literate. The council employed emotional literacy support assistants, and eventually schools became so convinced of the need for them that they started employing the “Elsas” themselves.

There are now about 60 Elsas working in the city. They help children to conquer problems with anger management and boost self-esteem and friendship skills. If they work individually with children they use board games, talking activities and puppets or role play to communicate.

“Schools quickly found they make a difference,” says Mr Woodcock. “It’s important that Elsas are not seen as counsellors. They are teachers of skills. Their job is to create a sense of belonging among children and authentic warmth in a school. A good way to do that is to mimic the behaviour of a family celebrating achievements and capturing moments with photographs.”

Dawn Condon, an emotional literacy lead at Cantell Maths and Computing College in Southampton, patrols the school to make children aware of her work. This includes things as simple as meeting and greeting children before they go into lessons and making sure to stop and praise them, as well as intensive group or individual work with children who have severe emotional issues.

She was inspired to work with emotional literacy after she heard about the suicide of a teenager. “I feel very strongly that there needs to be somebody in school to help children. Some are in such an emotional state they can’t see further than their behaviour.”

In her workshops Ms Condon says she becomes like a “second mummy” because she gets to know the pupils so well, and they get to know her. She works hard to get children to trust her.

Getting it right

Robin Banerjee, professor of developmental psychology at the University of Sussex, says schools must invest “time and effort” in getting their emotional literacy work right.

“You can’t leap into doing activities without knowing what you want to achieve,” Banerjee says. “Everybody has to be on board. You also can’t just jump into group work if children don’t know how to work in that way. You have to teach them how.”

Supporters of EI advise that schools find ways to make children feel valued and part of the school community. Teachers have used buddy schemes and circle time to encourage discussion.

James Park, director of Antidote, an organisation set up to promote emotional intelligence, says using EI helps children to develop a wider set of skills. “Some people think schools are just about learning (perhaps the new government agrees with that) but if you don’t help children flourish as people you can’t help them develop their capacity to learn and work most fully.”

Mr Park says that the easiest place to encourage children to have conversations is in the classroom. He recommends using circle time and group “philosophy” discussions where a text, object or piece of music is used to stimulate debate. Teachers should ask children about their perspective on issues. “This should be done regularly, so it seems like part of school life,” he says.

The problems

Guy Claxton, the academic behind the popular Building Learning Power programme, fears that some teachers can use emotional intelligence in a “trivial” way.

“I find it odd that some schools think you can do this work through a little class discussion or by completing worksheets,” he says. “Children see through that straight away. Emotional intelligence is sometimes dumbed down to fit in with classroom structures and processes.”

Professor Claxton, who is co-director of the Centre for Real-World Learning and professor of learning sciences at the University of Winchester, has written that there is a risk that paying too much attention to children’s emotions might “make them more sensitive to disruption, more easily put off learning by their own fluctuating feelings, rather than less”.

It is also too simplistic to say to children they can only learn if they feel happy, he says. Emotions can also direct learning; children are engaged by a sad or scary piece of writing. Suffering from stress doesn’t mean you can’t remember facts, as anyone who has revised for an exam can testify.

Professor Claxton is also concerned that if children think they can always solve their problems by changing their emotions, this could make them feel frustrated when they cannot. “Teachers sometimes use (EI) to take the heat out of a legitimate response by a child to a situation. The pupil finds this belittling, boring and frustrating because they are not being listened to,” he says.

The best way to begin using emotional intelligence, according to Professor Claxton, is to start speaking to children about emotions and how to talk about them.

“You have got to help them expand their emotional vocabulary, help them to be more precise about describing them and be aware of the nuances of emotions,” he says.

“You could run training for teachers that will uncover the richness of emotions. Many schools do a very good job of preparing children for exams and helping them to behave well; we should also be preparing them to flourish and learn responsibility in this complicated world. A big part of being able to do that is understanding your emotional reactions, knowing the difference between scared and angry and to unpick them.

“If children are angry and upset, get them to close their eyes and count to 10. It’s very simple - something our grandparents knew - but children growing up (today) live with adults who can’t deal with conflict and they don’t get help to be emotionally intelligent at home.”

Professor Claxton also stresses the complicated nature of emotional intelligence. “Developing emotional intelligence is a project that can take a lifetime. How many adults can say they are in control of feelings such as jealousy or rejection?” he says.


Monitor your non-verbal communication in class, in particular your tone of voice, facial expression and posture.

Introduce “feeling barometers” - charts on the wall that children can use to signal how they are feeling. Encourage them to do this at the start and end of lessons.

Get feedback from children. Set up mini pupil forums, where you can have a 10-minute discussion with children.

Build choice in lessons - offer several tasks. This helps children to take ownership of their learning.

Reward children when they help each other, as well as when they do well themselves.

Have a learning wall in the staffroom where teachers can share ideas. Also introduce this in the classroom.

During a class, ask each member of the group in turn to use one word that captures how they feel about what they have heard so far - for example, “puzzled”. Acknowledge and accept each response without passing judgement on it before deciding how you will respond.

Consider sharing your feelings from time to time, not necessarily about what is going on in class but how you feel about the topic you are teaching.


Claxton, G. An Intelligent Look at Emotional Intelligence (2005).

Commissioned by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers.


Weare, K and Gray, G. What Works in Developing Children’s Emotional and Social Competence and Wellbeing? (2003) The Health Education Unit, University of Southampton.


Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (Seal) Programme in Secondary

Schools: National Evaluation (2010). Department for Education.


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