Know yourself inside and out

The way we recognise other people's feelings, and our understanding and means of dealing with our own emotions, are essential parts of growth.

Teacher and author Francis Gilbert finds out how schools can nurture emotional intelligence

It was my first ever lesson, and no one was listening to a word I was saying. I decided to tackle the worst offender, a sullen boy who was pushing and shouting at the boy sitting next to him. I insisted angrily that he got on with the task in hand. "Fuck off Sir," he replied. "I'm just trying to have a kip here."

When I started working in a tough comprehensive in the London borough of Tower Hamlets in the 1990s, I encountered worse behaviour. In one lesson, the pupils pushed all the chairs out of the room while swearing at the top of their voices, some smoking as they did so.

Now that I am more confident, such catastrophes don't befall me. However, as I have moved from school to school during my 14 years in teaching, low level disruption continues to be draining and time-consuming.

The best teaching scheme I have ever come across, and one that genuinely improves pupil behaviour, is currently in use in a number of Wiltshire schools. Janet Grant, a year learning manager at Corsham school in Chippenham, and two other teacher trainers, Suzanne Corrywright and Sue Allen, have devised a wonderful set of lessons called "VisionWorks: empowering students through emotional intelligence". The programme is based on the ideas of Daniel Goleman, the American author of the book Emotional Intelligence.

I first came across the Wiltshire scheme in a mailing, a few years ago. I was a form tutor, struggling to deal with some serious behavioural problems with my Year 8 group. I had a disturbed girl in my form who stirred up all kinds of trouble between other members of the group. Spotting some of the exercises suggested in the mailing - and being the "magpie" teacher that I am, forever thieving other people's ideas - I tried them out in a diluted form with my class. My school at the time wouldn't pay for the full programme (PSHE budgets are miniscule) so I had to make do with the activities on offer through the mailing. One idea was to ask the pupils to describe their feelings at different moments in the school day: feelings of fear, of excitement, of nervousness, of elation. This simple exercise was surprisingly successful and I never forgot its effectiveness in calming children.

When, some years later, I was still teaching these basic rudiments to my form group - and I was researching yob culture for my book Yob Nation - I contacted the writers of the programme to ask them about the ways in which they tackled anti-social behaviour in schools. The scheme they showed me made me think they could really assist with stopping mindless thuggery in schools and society in general: my depressing book concludes that it is only genuine education which can solve Britain's current problems with yobbery.

Suzanne Corrywright believes that decent EQ (emotional intelligence) programmes not only help curtail anti-social behaviour, but can improve results. "Daniel Goleman always spoke of how he hoped his work would be used in schools," she says. "Ironically, it was picked up by American business schools which, seeing that the ability to relate with others was the most significant key to success, used his principles to make an EQ test, which is a more reliable predictor of success than IQ tests. Only now, many years after the book was written, are his ideas being picked up by schools for dealing with issues such as bullying and anti-social behaviour."

In Goleman's view, emotional intelligence is the ability to recognise, understand and express your feelings - and then understand those of others.

Janet Grant cites the example of one Corsham pupil to illustrate how the programme works. When she first encountered "Shana" in Year 7, she was having a rough time. Her parents were divorced but still at war with each other, her work was deteriorating, and she was bullying other children.

However, like all Year 7 pupils at Corsham, she took part every week in 20-minute tutor sessions aimed at improving emotional intelligence. At the same time, she was assigned a buddy, which she was initially very resentful about. The buddy system is central to the emotional literacy sessions.

Pupils take a name randomly out of the tutor bowl and have to work with that child for half the term. The idea is that pupils learn to work with someone outside their friendship group.

Shana wouldn't talk to her buddy to begin with, but during one lesson, she was invited to make a mask of the symbolic "face" that she presents to the outside world. "She made this amazing mask, which was coloured black and red and encased in barbed wire," says Janet Grant. "Some of the other pupils didn't understand the concept of the mask and so Shana went around the class explaining it to them. She told them about how the barbed wire was how she looked to the outside world; that she was prickly to ward them off."

Towards the end of Year 7, Janet Grant happened to take a message to Shana's class. She found the students without their tutor, sitting in a circle, listening to each other in silence, as they arranged an old people's tea party entirely of their own free will. "The programme has meant that pupils know everyone in the tutor group, and are much less inclined to argue with each other," says Mrs Grant. "There is much more of a spirit of co-operation."

What makes the programme so appealing for me - as a teacher who has endured his fair share of bad behaviour - is that it implicitly recognises that the individual teacher is not to blame for poorly-disciplined students. It realises that improving the way children behave must be a whole-school effort. Children must be given a language with which to analyse their emotions before they can alter the way they respond to those emotions.

The warning signs have proliferated for a long time. A Teachers' TV survey earlier this year discovered that nearly seven out of 10 teachers think that there is a discipline crisis in our schools. On the streets, the incidence of violent crime and yobbish behaviour is rising at an alarming rate. Last year Ofsted - in a publication called "Managing Challenging Behaviour" - confirmed what teachers already know; pupils with emotional and behavioural difficulties are the most difficult for schools to manage.

Between 2001-03, there was a 25 per cent increase in the number of children sent to pupil referral units. "The most common form of poor behaviour is persistent, low level disruption of lessons that wears down staff and interrupts learning," say the report's authors. A significant number of these students, they acknowledge, face disadvantage and disturbance in their family lives. Teaching materials like the ones proving effective at Corsham school were never more needed.

For more information on VisionWorks, log on to: 01249 760 486, ask for Sue AllenFrancis Gilbert is the author of I'm A Teacher, Get Me Out Of Here and Yob Nation.

He is head of English in a comprehensive in outer London.

Emotionally intelligent tips for improving pupils' behaviour

* Give pupils a language to describe their emotions; get them used to talking about their feelings.

* Pay attention to those who are behaving well. Try and ignore misbehaviour. Make sure you reward good behaviour, not bad.

* Be specific with your praise. Say exactly what you like about a pupil's work or attitude. People always feel better when they know precisely what it is that they have done well. That way they can repeat that behaviour more easily.

* Get your pupils to think very carefully about where they are sitting, before the lesson. Ask them to choose to sit next to someone they don't normally sit next to, and to decide in advance who this will be.

* If a class is too noisy and not listening to you, split them up into smaller groups, "handpicked" by you, and give everyone in the group a position of responsibility. A central tenet of emotional intelligence is that people should have feelings of power and control.

* Give your instructions in a calm fashion. Try to avoid shouting and appearing angry. Show that you have control over your own emotions.

* Never give in to panic. Panicking inhibits your ability to make rational and good decisions.

* Walk away from confrontations. The emotionally intelligent teacher always buys him or herself time to think about how best to deal with a situation.

* Don't tell off badly behaved students, but ask them how they are feeling about the lesson and why they are feeling that way.

* Institute an emotional literacy programme during your tutor times.

Encourage the whole school to participate.

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