Never felt better

6th April 2001 at 01:00
A project in Southampton aims to put pupils and staff in touch with their inner selves - and boost social and academic achievement. Reva Klein reports

Second that emotion

Emotional literacy in Southampton has several strands, including:

* a project to reduce exclusion rates at 14 secondary schools;

* targeted support to pupil referral units;

* a small-scale "insight into disaffection" project;

* a drive to combat racial harassment;

* review and development of EBD provision.

It has also set up Selig (Southampton Emotional Literacy Interest Group), an online network and cyber-forum for people to share information and ideas.

There is now also a Welig (in Wiltshire) and a Delig (Dunbartonshire). Nelig is the national network and service.

NoNEVER-6 Today's lesson is jealousy. Not how you spell it or whether it's a noun or a verb, but the emotion: what makes you feel jealous and how you can overcome it. "I sometimes feel jealous when someone has something I'd like," admits teacher Lesley Cox to her class of Year 3s. "What's important is what you do about it, how you cope with it, how we can make ourselves feel better."

Together, they talk about jealousies they have known, and explore strategies for dealing with the green-eyed monster.

Down the corridor, Year 1 is working out how to cope with situations like that of Sam, whose mum gives chewing gum to his brother, but not to him; or Billie, who was jealous when her sister was bought tap shoes. In groups of three, they work with teacher Gail Holliman and their learning support assistant, talking about the powerful feelings of envy they all have and suggesting ways of managing their anger.

A little later, at playtime, a Year 2 boy is standing on his own, looking unhappy. Eleven-year-old Kara Rhodes asks if he'd like someone to play with and, when he says yes, skilfully integrates him into the game of a couple of boys nearby. She's been trained to help children disentangle themselves from sticky situations or stop them feeling lonely in the playground.

Whether they know it or not, the children at Mason Moor primary school in Southampton are leading the way in showing how coming to terms with their emotions can help with literacy and numeracy abilities. The school is one of a dozen primaries and secondaries in the city developing an "emotional literacy" programme, supported and guided by the local education authority. By next September more than half the city's schools will have developed their own projects, and by autumn 2002, says the scheme's architect, chief educational psychologist Peter Sharp, all 90 will be involved.

Mr Sharp's thinking on integrating social and emotional development work into the curriculum and ethos of schools was inspired by the publication of Daniel Goleman's pioneering book Emotional Intelligence six years ago. Before that, he had been working on multiple intelligence initiatives, spurred on by Howard Gardner's seminal 1993 work, Multiple Intelligences.

The two are closely connected. But it was Goleman who popularised the ideas that British psychotherapist Susie Orbach has coined as emotional literacy. In short, it means that when children feel bad about what's happening at home, about being "thick", fat, thin or red-headed or not wearing the right labels, or about having to run the gauntlet of bullies to and from school every day, they won't be able to learn properly.

And when they're unable to express what they're feeling, when they believe they're the only ones with these problems, or they sense they're out of control, they will feel alienated, frightened and angry. Unable to communicate verbally what's bothering them, they will be disruptive, aggressive or withdrawn.

Teachers have known this stuff, consciously or otherwise, for years. It's hardly rocket science. But since Daniel Goleman provided compelling research and engaging stories to support his theories, these ideas have spread to millions worldwide. His notion that EQ (as he nicknamed emotional intelligence) can be more important than IQ and, unlike IQ, can be learned, has captured the imagination of the corporate world, from the Confederation of British Industry to BT.

Daniel Goleman maintains that emotional intelligence - the ability to control impulses, to feel empathy, to master fear and melancholy, to summon optimism and to get on with people - is vital if we are to make it as human beings, personally and professionally. Without it, no matter how academically brilliant, we are consigned to being unloving and unlovable nerds, unable to connect with others and, as a result, unable to realise our full potential. As Peter Sharp puts it, rather awkwardly: "To feel good equals to learn good."

To help headteachers and staff develop their ideas and programmes, Mr Sharp brought together several sources of funding. Participating schools all have clear aims and objectives and a rigorous methodological approach to the development of their project.

One of the more unusual strands to Southampton's emotional literacy drive is Peter Sharp's determination that it should encompass LEA managers. So far, 22 heads of LEA services as well as all the educational psychologists and inspectors have taken part in "introspective and experiential learning to explore who we are". This includes having their EQ measured. One of the exercises involves colleagues writing their perceptions of managers' emotional literacy skills. "There's been a substantial range between managers' perceptions of themselves and how others see them," he says.

But what's the point? "I can't advise anyone to promote emotional literacy," says Peter Sharp, "until I work on it myself."

Getting educational psychologists and LEA inspectors to share their mind maps is doubtless enlightening at some level or other, but the real fireworks happen in the classrooms of schools such as Mason Moor, where the holistic approach to emotional literacy is giving children skills they need to survive. "It's difficult for the staff to envisage the lives our children have, the homes they live in," says Ann Neal, acting deputy head and in charge of emotional literacy at the school.

Together with headteacher Sue Nicholson, on secondment as a school improvement adviser to the LEA, she has devised a curriculum that helps children understand, express and control the emotions that can sometimes overwhelm them. Every few weeks a feeling or emotion is chosen for the whole school to examine and reflect upon. Before jealousy and contentment, it was greed and generosity. Teachers work out lesson plans and lead discussions, the librarian does a big display on the theme and children make pictures, write poems and create their own displays.

It sounds soft and cosy but, says Sue Nicholson, "this isn't touchy-feely. We've chosen to take a curricular focus because we believe that so much of our pupils' self esteem is wrapped up in their literacy skills - but they can't learn until they have self-esteem. We're giving them the vocabulary to express their feelings so they have a range of words to draw on and, we hope, apply in their writing."

Although the school's test results have been rising year on year, Ms Nicholson avoids attributing the improvement to the project. As one of the country's lowest-achieving schools six years ago, Mason Moor was in the first cohort for the national literacy project, which she believes was a major factor in the rise of test scores.

In terms of behaviour, similarly, she refuses to claim the project has worked miracles. "One area we've been working on is children's inappropriate response to conflicts. We found they were hitting each other a lot because they had no language that would help them resolve their rows."

This led her to ask for the educational psychology service's help in developing an assertive vocabulary with the children, rehearsing with them words they could use when they find themselves in conflict.

"With some children we've seen improvements; with others not," she says. "We can't cure social problems, but we can help build up their resilience and communication skills, so, with any luck, they'll take what they've learned back home and use it in domestic conflicts."

While Peter Sharp admits that developing such programmes is far easier in primary than secondary schools because of scale, structure, curriculum and what he calls the "relatively hostile environments" of secondaries, several high schools are involved in the project. At Woolston secondary the programme started with a few children with emotional and behavioural problems before expanding to take in the whole school, including staff and parents. "We had curriculum audits, in which staff identified where they were delivering emotional literacy," says Woolston's deputy head and emotional literacy co-ordinator, Juliet Lehrle. "And we've run workshops for all Year 7 parents on literacy, numeracy and emotional literacy, looking at brain structure and issues such as handling anger."

With the educational psychology service, the school devised a questionnaire to assess the emotional literacy of Year 7 and 10 students, then set up structures for dealing with criticisms. When students reported an inability to open up as much as they'd like in PSE, the school restructured the way the subject was run, making groups smaller and providing more training for teachers. In Year 7, the focus is on feelings and bullying, and across the year groups there are sessions on anger management and impulse control.

Part of the school's vision is, says headteacher John Master, "looking at what motivates teachers and what makes them effective as teachers. We're looking at effective pedagogies, at identifying the learning styles of all the children."

It's not he says, the answer to everything. "We still have children losing their tempers and having fights, and we're feeling our way with all of this. It's difficult to say which approaches are making a positive impact. But there's no doubt that this makes it easier for some children to stay in mainstream."

Ann Neal at Mason Moor primary goes further. "The staff were spending so much time dealing with children's emotional baggage that it was causing a lot of stress. By valuing and prioritising emotional literacy as a whole-school approach, we're getting through to children's learning as well. This isn't just advanced behaviour management - it's about working towards the maturity of everybody, including staff."

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