How to... help students to manage their emotions

Coaching pupils to manage their emotions can have long-term benefits for their mental health and behaviour, says one headteacher

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All too often, teachers find themselves shouldering the burden of the mental health of their pupils – struggling to act as counsellors and social workers, as well as educators.

Undoubtedly, teachers do have a role to play but there are also programmes being trialled in schools that are designed to empower students to take care of their own mental health and to better manage the stresses and strains of everyday life.

One of these programmes is emotion coaching. This is a practical strategy that helps children to become more aware of their emotions and to manage their feelings more effectively.

There are three main steps to the technique. The first step is about recognising and validating the feelings of the young person. The second step involves setting behavioural limits where appropriate and the final step is all about helping the child to problem-solve and ultimately empowering them to overcome future difficulties by managing their own behaviour. This approach is not an alternative to a schools behaviour policy − rather it should be seen as a way of complementing it.

Long-term improvements

Emotion coaching is currently being successfully rolled out across Somerset by the county council and Education, Health, Care and Prison (EHCAP) services. We have seen excellent results so far. Not only is the technique providing new strategies for behaviour management, it is also contributing to long-term improvements in pupils’ mental health and wellbeing.

I would encourage teachers to visit the EHCAP website to learn more about emotion coaching and to download free resources to help implement the technique in schools.

But to get you started, here are some tips that anyone can put to immediate use:

  1. Show empathy
    Talk calmly with pupils who are experiencing strong emotions, such as anger, and be sure to validate how they are feeling before you impose sanctions or discuss strategies. An excellent opener is: “I can see that you get angry when that happens. I would feel angry if that happened to me. It’s normal to feel like that.” This often will provide the connection you need to develop the conversation further.
  2. Problem-solve for the future
    Speak with students about how they could approach things differently if the situation is repeated in future. Ask: "Next time you’re feeling like this, what could you do? How do you think you would react if this happens again?"
  3. Make children aware
    Coach children to use the steps above to approach problems they experience with peers. This will help in resolving playground spats quickly, without the need for staff to intervene.
  4. Start small with staff training
    Begin by training a small handful of key staff who are well placed to deal with emotional situations. This might include teaching assistants and pastoral staff. These team members will then be able to cascade the technique to other colleagues.

Daniel Hartley is head of Minehead Middle School in Somerset

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