While at my local looked-after children’s conference last year (I am the designated teacher for LAC at my school) I was introduced to the concept of emotion coaching. Now, I know this might sound a little too fluffy for some – I thought so too when I first heard about it – but since then it has become one of the strategies in my behaviour management toolbox, so bear with me…
What I learned that day was the importance of separating feelings from behaviour. The key point is that while all feelings are acceptable, all behaviours are not. So, let’s imagine you might be faced with a situation such as a child who is refusing to go into class because they hate maths; it’s fine for them to feel that they don’t like maths and have those feelings, but it’s not ok that they are refusing to go in. Of course, most of us would rather they didn’t hate any subject, but in terms of emotion coaching, all feelings are valid and accepted.
But, what do you do with that? Well, to put it very simply, you empathise with the child’s feelings first and then address the behaviour afterwards. To go back to my previous example of the child refusing to go to class, you might tell that child that you can hear how they feel about maths and you can tell they are really not enjoying it right now and you want to help them with that. Then, you would explain that despite how they feel, refusing to go into class and not following instructions is unacceptable. And you would follow this up according to your school’s behaviour management policy.
This is why I think emotion coaching isn’t as fluffy as it sounds: you aren’t changing your expectations or accepting this kind of behaviour. You are simply empathising first, which will often take the wind out of the proverbial sails in the heat of the moment. Acknowledging the child’s feelings can be enough to diffuse the situation, allowing you to move onto the next steps more quickly and effectively because they are hopefully able to listen to what you’re saying. I say "often" because, like any behaviour management strategy, this is definitely not a magic wand.
'It takes patience'
Emotion coaching has helped me to deal with several tricky situations since I began using the technique. I remember talking to a child about the fact that they had left the classroom without their teacher’s permission. The child was angry because a classmate had accused them of copying their work and they insisted that they hadn’t copied anyone. They couldn’t deal with this and walked out. Straight away, I empathised by saying I could appreciate that being accused of something you haven’t done must be very frustrating and annoying and, actually, I would feel annoyed by that too. I could almost visibly see the anger and tension leave this child as I acknowledged their feelings. I also said I would help them to figure out what to do with that situation. Then, I moved the conversation on to the fact that they had not followed their teacher’s instructions and, by leaving the classroom, had wasted time and missed work. They spent their lunchtime completing their missed work with no fuss at all and the situation was followed up usual. The difference was that by empathising with the child first, they calmed down a lot more quickly and were in a position to properly listen to what I was saying about why what they had done was unacceptable.
As you’re reading this, you might well be thinking, “Well, I empathise anyway” and that’s what I first thought, too. But then I realised that we’re quite likely to empathise naturally with a child who is upset but less likely to take this road with a child who is, say, being defiant and displaying rude behaviour. It can take an extra bit of patience and self-awareness to empathise first with a child behaving in that way.
Emotion coaching isn’t limited to children either: try empathising first when dealing with any tricky situation with a parent or colleague who is stressed, angry or upset. Showing a bit of empathy initially can change the direction that a negative situation is travelling in. And it doesn’t mean you have to lower your expectations or change what happens after in any way.
Claire Lotriet is assistant headteacher at Henwick Primary School in London. She blogs at www.clairelotriet.com