Stepping out of their shells
In Debbie Catherall's Year 2 class, no one goes for long without some vocal appreciation from their classmates. Today it's Thomas and Stephanie's turn, and they stand up to hear what the others think of them. Hands fly up around the room.
"I think you're special because you're always very good at art," Alexandra tells Thomas. " I think you're a nice girl because you're always kind to your friends," says Debbie to Stephanie. "Thank you," each replies calmly, with a noticeable lack of adult-style awkwardness.
Compliments is a five-minute activity that takes place in the class at Golftyn county primary, Flintshire, north Wales, every day.And the children love it. The practice is just one part of a school-wide emotional literacy programme that's been running for several years in a number of schools in Flintshire. It's called Paths, short for "promoting alternative thinking strategies", and aims to teach pupils how to recognise and manage their emotions so they can communicate their feelings, relate to other people, and resist impulses that lead to negative behaviour such as aggression or anger.
Its oldest graduates here are still only 11 years old, but already the evidence suggests the strategies have had a substantial effect on learning skills, discipline and even test scores.
Paths was developed in the United States more than two decades ago, but found its way to Wales when the Flintshire primary care service was set up in 1996. The team had a year in which to decide on policy and practice, and when they consulted the local community, one of the strongest messages that came back was about behaviour in school.
"Time and time again," says clinical psychologist Sara Hammond-Rowley, current head of the service, "teachers were saying, 'Children start school with fewer skills than they used to 10 or 15 years ago'. They were talking about being able to sit still, being able to listen, being able to play in the playground or in the classroom. And they were asking, 'Can you help?'"
Dianne Cairns, senior child mental health practitioner at the service, began an extensive search to seek out any educational resources that might fit the bill. Her investigations led her to Paths and its creator, Mark Greenberg, director of the prevention research center at Penn State University in Philadelphia. After a visit to meet Mr Greenberg's team to see the programme in action, the LEA decided to introduce it in several Flintshire schools.
"We wanted to promote active listening, but also teach the children emotional intelligence so they could manage themselves and their social relationships, better," says Ms Cairns, "Give or take some Americanisms in the text materials, Paths seemed to be just what we were looking for."
The results from trials in the US suggest that Paths can reduce outbursts of aggressive behaviour by more than 30 per cent, improve emotional literacy by nearly 70 per cent, and boost academic results by 20 per cent.
Ms Cairns and Ms Hammond-Rowley were equally impressed by the way the strategy links with recent findings about how the brain works, particularly the prefrontal cortex - the section of grey matter that lurks right behind your forehead.
"This part of the brain is responsible for planning, thinking ahead, delaying gratification, and being able to manage your emotions," says Mr Greenberg. "We believe this frontal ability is the underlying master-skill humans have evolved to bring together emotion, reason and cognition to be successful." The prefrontal cortex develops rapidly between the ages of three and eight, and the right stimulation can have a huge effect.
Back in Ms Catherall's class, all this cutting-edge neuroscience translates into lessons in which pupils learn about feelings - their own and those of other people. They learn that there are "comfortable" feelings, such as happiness, excitement or the pleasure of receiving a compliment; but there are also "uncomfortable" ones, such as hate, anger or jealousy. All feelings are natural, and none is bad - but some behaviours can be, if you act without thinking.
A stop-and-think technique, known as "turtle" is a central part of Paths.
For the youngest children, Turtle is a real puppet who can pull his head into his shell when he's faced with a problem and think things through before acting. In later years there's no puppet, but "doing turtle" remains the expression for taking time to stop, take a deep breath, think through the situation and how you feel before deciding what to do.
Teachers are provided with the materials to deliver specific Paths lessons, but the idea is that the messages, and even the language, are integrated across the whole curriculum.
In a lesson about "frustration", for example, children learn the word "frustrated", look at cartoons and photographs of people who appear to be frustrated, and carry out supplementary activities chosen by the teacher.
The concept of frustration is then revisited later in relation to characters in history, English, or any other part of the school curriculum.
Teachers are also encouraged to talk about times when they feel frustrated and how they deal with it, to help the pupils recognise how such feelings can crop up in everyday life.
The concepts can also be applied outside the classroom, and this seems to happen spontaneously, says Ms Catherall. "The children do seem to understand what's happening in other people's heads and how this relates to behaviours. And they've got the language, That's important. If incidents happen in the playground, they know they're hurting inside and they've hit out, and they've got the language to describe how they feel and what happened."
It is difficult to untangle the effects of Paths from the natural effects of maturation in the children, but a local study showed good results, and feedback from schools has been positive.
Golftyn's headteacher, Paul Schleising, is certainly a fan. "When I meet other heads, the general perception is always that pupils' behaviour is getting worse, but my experience is the opposite. Children here are not getting worse, and Paths has had a positive effect. We still have issues in the playground, but the fact that the children can deal with the majority of them themselves is very encouraging."
Another result has been an improvement in Sats scores; teachers say pupils are able to sit still and concentrate better on what they're doing.
If it all sounds too good to be true, it should be noted that the programme has not been a success everywhere. But the failures have been instructive, says Ms Cairns. "We've learned that the whole school needs to be involved to make Paths work, so the headteacher needs to be committed, and at least one other senior member of staff. It tends to work best if a PSHE or special needs co-ordinator is involved. Where it hasn't worked is where the materials have been dished out to teachers without support or training."
Word about Paths is spreading. It's already employed in Conwy, Denbighshire and Rhondda, and the materials are soon to be translated into Welsh, so they can be promoted by LEAs throughout the principality. Further afield, Paths has been adopted by clusters of schools in Cambridge, Norfolk, Manchester, Portsmouth and Scotland.
Mark Greenberg is naturally delighted, as are the team in Flintshire. And a new verb, "to do turtle" has officially entered the vocabulary.
www.channing-bete.compositiveyouthpages pathspaths.html.Or, for a downloadable PDF:http:modelprograms.samhsa.govpdfs FactSheetspaths.pdf