Many primary schools are turning circle time into therapy sessions, a new book by Kathryn Ecclestone and Dennis Hayes of Nottingham university will claim. They will criticise the popular sessions in which pupils gather with their teacher to share stories, songs and anecdotes.
Their book, published next year, attacks government-approved guidance, which states that circle time should be used for "building bridges", "facilitating dialogue" and providing problem pupils with "unconditional acceptance".
Dr Ecclestone said: "It's an approach which puts into pupils' heads the idea that all risk and excitement is bad and that any form of challenge is stressful "By concentrating on emotional reactions to learning, rather than learning itself, you suggest a very diminished view of what young people are capable of. In the end, this is not the way to create confident A-level students."
Dr Ecclestone is a well-known opponent of educational fads, while Dr Hayes is vice-president of the university and college lecturers' union Natfhe.
Circle time has been popularised over the past 10 years, primarily by educationist Jenny Moseley, whose work has been endorsed by the Department for Education and Skills.
Advice on the government website TeacherNet urges staff to use circle time as a "safe environment", where: "It's not about coercion, reprimand or correction. It's about emotional understanding, personal empowerment and making connections."
Ms Moseley said: "It's not about mollycoddling, it's about kids talking and taking responsibility for their own learning. If children have emotional problems, they can sabotage each other's learning."
Elizabeth Morris, principal at education consultancy the School of Emotional Literacy, said schools could not ignore the social and emotional education their pupils required. "Without it they would be poor and unhappy collaborators in 21st-century society," she said.
A report, in 2004, by the National Foundation for Educational Research found that circle time appeared to be a simple activity, but was fraught with pitfalls for unwary teachers. Examples of difficult sessions included one in which a pupil talked about a pet dying, prompting other children to burst into tears.
Margaret Miller, head of de Vere primary school in Halstead, Essex, said circle time was a key part of student democracy.
At de Vere, every class takes part in a three-weekly cycle of circle time, where personal issues are raised; a class meeting, which considers matters affecting the whole class; and a further meeting, where the class decides which concerns are raised at school council.
"Feelings and emotions are aired, but they are given a focus," Mrs Miller said. "It's about giving the pupils a voice."
The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education is due to be published by Routledge in early 2007