How are you feeling?

20th April 2012 at 01:00
Few things divide educators more than emotional intelligence. Should it - and can it - be taught in schools?

It is either sentimental claptrap or the answer to the bad behaviour that plagues classrooms.

Emotional intelligence (EI), also known as emotional literacy, has been dismissed by some teachers as nonsense, and embraced by many others who believe it will benefit their colleagues and pupils. Its supporters teach children calming breathing techniques, faithfully ask for feedback after each lesson and regularly get pupils to share their current states of mind.

The concept is designed to get people to understand their emotions and then to learn to control them. It started in the US, but soon spread across the Atlantic. The former Labour government was won over, and provided money so that English schools could explore it in the form of the social and emotional aspects of learning (Seal) programme.

They were convinced that this would curb a growing tide of rudeness, violence and lack of respect. Activities such as circle time and anger management classes became common.

But now we live in different political times. Schools minister Nick Gibb is particularly dismissive, commenting that "social and emotional learning is ghastly and likely to distract from the core subjects of academic education".

Some academics also have concerns about the use of EI and claim there is no direct link between improving emotional intelligence and raising school standards. And not all teachers have been won over (see the panel on page 7, where our behaviour columnist describes it as "offensive and moronic").

Despite this, many teachers continue to strive to create an emotionally intelligent school. They believe that if pupils feel good, and can work more cooperatively with other children, they will learn better, which is an appealing logic. School leaders who have championed EI also believe it can reduce exclusions.

We all strive to be emotionally intelligent; regulating emotions is part of being human, and many teachers will use some concepts of EI as a matter of course. However, advocates say they combine common sense with neuroscience to improve emotional health, and this leads to better relationships between teachers and pupils.

But what is the difference between a caring school with a happy atmosphere and one that has officially become emotionally intelligent?

In practice

"We must not assume that a happy school is also an emotionally literate school. It doesn't prove children are emotionally resilient or can talk about what happened to them if a crisis happened," says Colin Woodcock, an educational psychologist at Southampton City Council. "Becoming emotionally literate is a good thing to do even if a school is flourishing and happy."

Southampton City Council was one of the first local authorities in England to encourage schools to become emotionally literate. The council employed emotional literacy support assistants, and eventually schools became so convinced of the need for them that they started employing the "Elsas" themselves.

There are now around 60 Elsas working in the city. They help children to conquer problems with anger management and boost self-esteem and friendship skills. If they work individually with children they use board games, talking activities and puppets or role play to communicate.

"Schools found very quickly they make a difference," says Woodcock. "It's important that Elsas are not seen as counsellors. They are teachers of skills. Their job is to create a sense of belonging among children and authentic warmth in a school. A good way to do that is to mimic the behaviour of a family - celebrating achievements and capturing moments with photographs."

Dawn Condon, an emotional literacy lead at Cantell Maths and Computing College in Southampton, patrols the school to make children aware of her work. This includes things as simple as meeting and greeting children before they go into lessons and making sure to stop and praise them, as well as intensive group or individual work with children who have severe emotional issues.

"Children have to be ready to learn, and if they are upset or angry then they are not," she says. "I'm there to look after their emotional needs. I firmly believe that if they are creating in class they are not angry or naughty.

"Classrooms are more emotional now; our moral values are different and there are lots of cultures in one environment. Teenagers also have very complex emotions to do with gender, identity and puberty. They face issues with self-harming, assaults, drugs, alcohol, gangs, divorce and death."

Condon was inspired to work with emotional literacy after she heard about the suicide of a teenager. "I feel very strongly that there needs to be somebody in school to help children. Some are in such an emotional state they can't see further than their behaviour."

In her workshops Condon says she becomes like a "second mummy" because she gets to know the pupils so well, and they get to know her. She works hard to get children to trust her.

"I have to show the goods and that this works, and I've shown that it does with 99 per cent of pupils," she says. "In our school, we respect each other; we are willing to listen to one another. Posters around the school reinforce this ethos, as do assemblies where children are frequently praised."

At Redbridge Primary in Southampton, children can learn to express their feelings through lunchtime clubs and PSHE lessons. Those who need extra help work with an Elsa, Debra Dyke, who runs therapeutic story-writing and anger management courses and eight-week programmes covering listening skills, conflict, friendship, loss and bereavement, and relationship breakdowns.

"Some have issues with confidence and self-esteem; for others it's anger management. Our reaction is proactive rather than reactive, because we teach them strategies," Dyke says.

Getting it right

According to Jackie Beere, a former headteacher and advanced skills teacher turned author, it's wrong for teachers to start using emotional intelligence if they don't believe in it themselves.

"They have to model it. The worst thing they can do is try to deliver it when they are not emotionally intelligent themselves," she says, adding that teachers wanting to use EI effectively must be open to trying new things and willing to take constructive criticism.

Robin Banerjee, professor of developmental psychology at the University of Sussex, says schools must invest "time and effort" in getting their emotional literacy work right.

"You can't leap into doing activities without knowing what you want to achieve," Banerjee says. "Everybody has to be on board. It's not something you can do just by running small group work and ticking some boxes.

"You also can't just jump into group work if children don't know how to work in that way. You have to teach them how."

Supporters of EI advise that schools find ways to make children feel valued and part of the school community. Teachers have used buddy schemes and circle time to encourage discussion.

James Park, director of Antidote, an organisation set up to promote emotional intelligence, says using EI helps children to develop a wider set of skills. "Some people think schools are just about learning (perhaps the new government agrees with that) but if you don't help children flourish as people you can't help them develop their capacity to learn and work most fully."

Park says the easiest place to encourage children to have conversations is in the classroom. He recommends using circle time and group "philosophy" discussions where a text, object or piece of music is used to stimulate debate. Teachers should ask children about their perspective on issues. "This should be done regularly, so it seems like part of school life, rather than erratically, because then it doesn't become part of the culture," he says.

The problems

Guy Claxton, the academic behind the popular Building Learning Power programme, fears that some teachers can use emotional intelligence in a "trivial" way.

"I find it odd that some schools think you can do this work through a little class discussion or by completing worksheets," he says. "Children see through that straight away. Emotional intelligence is sometimes dumbed down to fit in with classroom structures and processes."

Claxton, who is co-director of the Centre for Real-World Learning and professor of learning sciences at the University of Winchester, has written that there is a risk that paying too much attention to children's emotions might "make them more sensitive to disruption, more easily put off learning by their own fluctuating feelings, rather than less".

It is also too simplistic to say to children they can only learn if they feel happy, he says. Emotions can also direct learning; children are engaged by a sad or scary piece of writing. Suffering from stress doesn't mean you can't remember facts, as anyone who has revised for an exam can testify.

Claxton is also concerned that if children think they can always solve their problems by changing their emotions, this could make them feel frustrated when they cannot. "Teachers sometimes use (EI) to take the heat out of a legitimate response by a child to a situation. The pupil finds this belittling, boring and frustrating because they are not being listened to," he says.

The best way to begin using emotional intelligence, according to Claxton, is to start speaking to children about emotions and how to talk about them. "You've got to help them expand their emotional vocabulary, help them to be more precise about describing them and be aware of the nuances of emotions," he says.

"You could run training for teachers that will uncover the richness of emotions. Many schools do a very good job of preparing children for exams and helping them to behave well; we should also be preparing them to flourish and learn responsibility in this complicated world. A big part of being able to do that is understanding your emotional reactions, knowing the difference between scared and angry and to unpick them.

"If children are angry and upset, get them to close their eyes and count to 10. It's very simple - something our grandparents knew - but children growing up (today) live with adults who can't deal with conflict and they don't get help to be emotionally intelligent at home."

Claxton also stresses the complicated nature of emotional intelligence. "Developing emotional intelligence is a project that can take a lifetime. How many adults can say they are in control of feelings such as jealousy or rejection?" he says.

James Park that agrees there are risks, including teachers seeing EI simply as a way to tackle bad behaviour. "Like the government, some teachers stick to warning systems and zero tolerance, preferring control to thinking about emotions," he says. "They think it's a simple way to fix situations."

But he suggests the benefits of teaching EI properly would surprise the sceptics. This view is shared by Katherine Weare, emeritus professor at the University of Southampton. "People go on as if it's some weird voodoo thing that will break the nation's backbone," she says. "It's actually just good education. Why would you not want to be a thoughtful and empathetic school?"


- Monitor your non-verbal communication in class, in particular your tone of voice, facial expression and posture. Ask what effect it is likely to have on how learners feel, and decide if and how you should modify it.

- Introduce "feeling barometers" - charts on the wall that children can use to signal how they are feeling. Encourage them to do this at the start and end of lessons.

- Get feedback from children. Give pupils questionnaires to complete. Set up mini pupil forums, where you can have a 10-minute discussion with children. Ask a colleague to observe.

- Build choice in lessons - offer several tasks. This helps children to take ownership of their learning. If children complain about the tasks they have been set ask them to suggest alternatives. Put the onus on them to take responsibility for their learning.

- Reward children when they help each other, as well as when they do well themselves.

- Have a learning wall in the staffroom where teachers can share ideas. Also introduce this in the classroom.

- During a class, ask each member of the group in turn to use one word that captures how they feel about what they have heard so far - for example, "bored", "enthused", "puzzled", "intrigued". Acknowledge and accept each response without passing judgement on it before deciding how you will respond to what the group as a whole has said.

- Consider conveying your feelings to the learners from time to time, not necessarily about what is going on in class but about how you have felt about the topic you are teaching, or about how you felt when you were learning about it. Be wary of going too far in revealing your feelings and going beyond what is appropriate for the teacher-learner relationship.


Claxton, G. An Intelligent Look at Emotional Intelligence (2005). Commissioned by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. http:bit.lyHeLso1

Weare, K and Gray, G. What Works in Developing Children's Emotional and Social Competence and Wellbeing? (2003) The Health Education Unit, University of Southampton.


Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (Seal) Programme in Secondary Schools: National Evaluation (2010). Department for Education.



This is one of the stupidest crazes in education, and believe me, that is saying something. Emotional intelligence is a complete misnomer. Just by analysing the terms "emotional" and "intelligence", we can see why. How can an emotion be "intelligent"? How can intelligence correspond to an emotion? They are two completely different spheres of human experience.

Usually when people talk about "teaching emotional intelligence", they mean "making them agree with how I feel about things". That isn't a reference to intelligence, it's a justification to indoctrinate a child's emotions. As an educator and a human I have every right to tell a child how they should behave in school situations. But who gave us the right to tell them how to feel? This is an odd, pointlessly authoritarian assault on their inner lives for which I am not aware we have any mandate.

It's a smug, superficially attractive strategy that relies on the assumption that we know how to "feel" better than them. Would you trust your own emotional palette as a Platonic ideal, to emulate and inspire? I don't feel that confident about it. Plus, I am not a trained child psychologist. The idea that we have any right or professional ability to mess around with our pupils' noodles is offensive and moronic at the same time, which is quite a trick.

What we can do is teach children how to behave in useful and moral ways that correspond to their interaction with their communities. Behaviour, not thoughts; not feelings. Children have precious few spaces in the world where they can be themselves and be free. Their own heads are the last thing they've got. We owe them that much, to keep our untrained, witless hands off them.

Tom Bennett is author of The Behaviour Guru and TESpro's behaviour column (see page 9).

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