Emotional rescue

Children can learn to understand each other better. Mark Edwards explains how

It is 9.15am on a sunny morning in a Year 3 classroom. Nathan has already broken three pencils and it looks as though he is about to do the same to another boy's nose. An argument had started in the playground five minutes earlier and is fast escalating into a potentially dangerous situation.

Liz, the teacher, moves swiftly. Within a few minutes she has calmed one boy and reassured the other that everything is under control. Fifteen minutes later, both boys are laughing and chatting together.

No, Liz does not possess a magic wand and no, it doesn't always happen as quickly and effectively as this. However, the children in this particular class are lucky - their teacher is training for a diploma in what is becoming known as "emotional literacy", and the benefits are already becoming evident. While there is a plethora of advice about "behaviour management", little attention has yet been given to the emotions that drive different kinds of behaviour.

Emotional literacy is seen by its advocates as crucially important in negotiating life in the 21st century's hyper-fast lane, no matter what age you are. The world of industry is forever telling educators that we need to produce people skilled in working with others, yet we spend little time developing this in schools, beyond sticking up lists of rules about being "kind to each other". It is often assumed that children already know how to do this, but do they?

Claude Steiner, who coined the phrase, describes emotional literacy as being "made up of three abilities - the ability to understand your emotions, the ability to listen to others and empathise with their emotions and the ability to express emotions productively."

Children arrive in school each day carrying a lot more than their books and packed lunches; there is "emotional baggage" as well, often undetected until someone feels it as a shove, a kick or a string of abusive language. One of the cornerstones of emotional literacy, as Claude Steiner says, is listening. The ability to empathise, to put yourself in someone else's shoes, is critical to learning to live with others. To put it succinctly: learn to listen; and listen to learn. Children can be taught the simple steps needed to do this.

Nearly all teachers will be familiar with the type of scenario in which the dialogue usually runs along the lines of "He started it" - "No, she did" and carries on in similar vein until the teacher calls a halt and pronounces judgement. (Writer and ex-headteacher Fred Sedgwick once commented that 30 years of teaching had not equipped him to deal with this one!) Rather than act as police, jury and judge, the teacher can instead facilitate an "emotionally literate" exchange between the two children. The main rule is : keep it simple!

First, though it may not always be necessary, teach the children to calm themselves down. One effective way of doing this is to use a Brain Gym exercise called "hook-ups" (see above). Ask them to count silently up to 10 or 20. Once they are in a reasonable state of calmness then ask them to talk to each other, rather than to you, and to use the word "you" rather than "he" or "she".

It is also important to teach them to use a "nice" tone of voice (you can have some fun role-playing this on another occasion) and for them to maintain eye contact with each other. All that they need to do is state specifically, and in a few words, what the other child did and how they felt about it. Give them the specific phrase to use: "When you I . I felt I ." Then they must listen to the other child do the same. There does not have to be a resolution of the problem at this stage - it is enough for each child to feel that they have been listened to, and they are learning some very important skills which will stand them in good stead for the future. You may find that the children, especially younger ones, start to giggle; this is fine, and a sign that tension has been dissipated. But be sure to see the process through so that each child has been heard.

Emotionally literate classrooms blossom in emotionally literate schools, but teachers need not feel isolated if colleagues do not share their enthusiasm. There is much that can be done to support the familiar "Our class rules" list; for example, a "feelings vocabulary" can be constructed by the children and displayed, accompanied by pictures of a variety of facial expressions cut out from magazines. Resources such as Jenny Mosley's circle time books and training can be invaluable, and a national organisation, Antidote, is working successfully with a number of schools.

Try it. You could save a fortune in pencils.

Mark Edwards is an educational consultant and writer. He can be contacted via e-mail: mark4ed@ aol.com. You can visit the Antidote website at: www.antidote.org.uk


1. Stand or sit and cross one ankle over the other.

2. Cross hands at the wrist with palms together and clasp fingers.

3.Bring clasped hands toward chest in a downward twisting motion.

4.Rest hands on chest and push tongue against roof of mouth, just behind teeth.

5.Hold the position, noticing the feeling of calmness that starts to happen.

Once taught, children can use the technique themselves when they feel it is necessary.

Further reading You can find Jenny Mosley resources at www.circle-time.co.uk.

Claud Steiner and Paul Perry, Achieving Emotional Literacy (Bloomsbury, pound;6.99).

Peter Sharp, Nurturing Emotional Literacy (David Fulton, pound;16).

Lucky Duck publish several books on this subject. For a list, call 0117 973 2881 or e-mail: publishing@luckyduck.co.uk

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