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Knowing me, knowing you;Subject of the week;Personal, social, and health education

You can't expect children to take responsibility for their behaviour if they don't understand their feelings. This is where developing emotional literacy comes in, writes Angela Phillips

I've been in teaching for 23 years and this is the best thing I've ever done," claims Andy Dukes, joint head of personal, social and health education at The Wey Valley school in Weymouth, Dorset. "It feels like I have come home; it has brought together all the things I believe in and I'm seeing it work."

The object of his enthusiasm is a two-year project with Sowelu Education Consultants, designed to support the improvement of pupil behaviour, develop tutor skills, revise the PSHE programme and provide whole-school training on "values in context".

Sowelu is run by Julia Bird and Lynne Gerlach, both Office for Standards in Education inspectors with more than 20 years' experience in education and a special interest in promoting emotional literacy. Most of the work they do targets children with behavioural problems, but the fundamental messages of emotional literacy should, they believe, underpin all learning and, in particular, the teaching of PSHE.

"Teachers have a responsibility for supporting social and emotional development," says Lynne Gerlach, "but they haven't been taught how. The assumption is that this will just happen, that you can talk about morality, for example, and the children will understand. But taking a moral action requires empathy, and empathy is impossible until a child understands his or her own feelings. Without that they are not in a position to take a moral action."

There's nothing "wishy-washy and touchy-feely" about this, says Lynne Gerlach. "We provide a theoretical and research-based framework which helps teachers to understand why children continue to do things even though they know they are damaging. Why 'just say no' is so dramatically ineffective."

They use as a starting point the five domains of emotional literacy as developed by American author Daniel Golman in his book Emotional Intelligence: knowing one's emotions, managing emotions, motivating oneself and others, recognising emotion in others and handling relationships. They recognise also that children constantly make use of interaction with adults to repair or fill in their development needs. Children who have been unloved, or too closely controlled, for example, will look for opportunities to replay those bits of the development process which they have missed.

Part of the job of teaching is to recognise the way in which a child's behaviour displays an underlying developmental need. The other part is to work out ways to meet those needs and help children to repair past damage or relearn past developmental lessons so that they can then function in a classroom and take part in learning.

"With some children," Lynne Gerlach explains, "this might mean first addressing basic safety and nurturing needs before they can move on, to learn to think and see the consequences of their actions. Then the teacher needs to engage with children in adult-to-adult mode. These children need to be invited to think and know that others believe they can think."

Given the uniquely personal nature of the work, the importance of the childteacher and pupilpeer interactions in PSHE can't be overestimated. "When teachers can use this relationship to address developmental needs and develop emotional literacy, it lays a secure foundation for drug prevention, sex education and education for citizenship," explains Lynne Gerlach.

Ros Bayley, an education consultant herself, participated in one of the sessions run by Sowelu at the London Institute of Education. "I was very impressed with the way Julia and Lynne opened doors for teachers," she says. "They helped them to be much more conscious of how they communicate. Some were able to see, for the first time, that they were inadvertently undermining children. You cannot develop a programme of PSHE unless you tackle emotional literacy. You can't foster in others what you don't have yourself. You have to start with the teachers and enable them to be emotionally literate."

Sowelu provides teacher training through its work with local education authorities, schools and groups of teachers, and is now developing a computer program. It allows teachers to identify behaviours and needs, and gives suggestions for tackling them in ways which will enhance children's self-esteem and help them to take responsibility for their own behaviour.

The greatest value of all lies in the way in which, by helping people to understand behaviour in context, the programme will enhance teachers' own communication skills. Or, as Lynne Gerlach puts it, "teachers themselves become more effective models of people who can think as well as feel".

And that, fundamentally, is what PSHE is all about.

Sowelu is running residential training on "Supporting emotional development to improve learning" at Dartington Hall Conference Centre, Dartington, Devon, from July 19-21. Tel: 0181 892 3885 or 01548 821192 for details

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