Getting to grips with emotions

19th May 2006 at 01:00
Low self-esteem can impair a person's ability to think constructively, but help is at hand, says Douglas Blane

Emotional intelligence and thinking skills sound like different things. Thinking takes place in the brain and is a high order activity that should be nurtured and cultivated. Emotions belong to the body and must be firmly suppressed.

That at least has been the prevailing view since the dawn of Western philosophy, but modern research has shown it to be completely inadequate: In a well-integrated person, emotions guide, support and motivate thinking, producing results that the most sophisticated computer is incapable of replicating.

But there are times when the classical view is close to the truth. If emotions are causing pain, thinking is inevitably impaired.

"That's why it is so important for teachers and pupils to understand the emotions," says Elizabeth Morris, principal of the School for Emotional Literacy. "Too many youngsters are sorry souls, who need nurturing if they are to learn at all.

"If you grow up surrounded by people who consistently call you a little shit, then that's what you'll believe. You don't have a lot of option. But if people value and respect you, it is equally hard not to value and respect yourself."

With a background as a clinical psychologist, Elizabeth Morris founded the School for Emotional Literacy in 1996. "It had become clear to me that a big problem for a lot of people was lack of self-esteem. I could also see that many people didn't understand their own or other people's feelings. I wondered how to make the most impact."

The solution, she decided, was to work with adults - "because that's where I had 20 years' expertise" - but with adults who themselves worked with children. "So what I've been doing for 10 years is finding solutions for the mainstream classroom and increasingly for special needs groups."

Although the School of Emotional Literacy is still based in Gloucestershire, its principal returned to Edinburgh three years ago, and has been working with a growing number of Scottish education authorities on a variety of projects since.

"We have a programme called Transforming Relationships in West Dunbartonshire, Edinburgh, and Clackmannanshire, which is particularly useful for secondary school staff, to help develop their empathy with young people - and through that to improve kids' behaviour and achievement."

Opening teachers' eyes to children's lives outside the classroom is key to this programme, says Ms Morris. "We get a mixed group together and ask them to shadow each other. So we might put a science teacher with a youth worker out on the streets, which gives the teacher a different view of what young people have to deal with.

"It's not like being told they must have empathy, so they don't feel under pressure. We teach them how to listen and more positive ways of talking.

But it's the attitude change that does most to build their empathy."

A transitions project at Grangemouth High is currently delivering evidence of the value of fostering emotional intelligence in school. "Children identified as vulnerable when they came to secondary are now in third year and doing well, compared to what was expected of them, and the following year-groups are starting to show similar benefits."

The programme that explores emotional literacy in most depth is a one-year postgraduate certificate course, currently running in Glasgow and Edinburgh, aimed at people who work with primary age children. "They tend to have a child-centred attitude already, and are aiming to deepen their understanding," says Ms Morris.

The course combines taught sessions with an action research project chosen by the student, which can range from peer mediation and stress reduction to equine therapy, the use of horses to generate and explore emotions.

While CPD remains the main focus of the school's efforts, the benefits of providing a resource that can be used right away by teachers and support staff is becoming increasingly clear, says Ms Morris.

"Edinburgh City commissioned us to write an emotional literacy curriculum, which we have tested in a number of schools, including those like Juniper Green and South Morningside that have fewer disadvantaged kids.

"What we've found is that it makes an impact in any school. Working on emotional literacy benefits every child."

School of Emotional Literacy, tel 01452 741

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