Why social and emotional learning skills are as important as knowledge (sponsored article)

5th March 2018 at 16:00
Don't teach social and emotional skills because they help with exams or because the government tells you to, says one teacher. Teach them because it's the right thing to do

The old aphorism that “nobody will care how much you know until they know how much you care” sits proudly atop many a school policy; the go-to epigraph for the staff handbook.

For some teachers, this neat little quote sums up everything important about education. Others roll their eyes at the sentimentality, preferring to get on with their job of, you know, teaching. So who is right? Should schools be focussing on nurturing the ‘whole child’, or getting on with the business of transmitting the best that has been thought, said and done?

The answer, of course, is that the two aren’t mutually exclusive. At my school, we’ve embraced the shift towards the renewed focus on knowledge, building a curriculum rooted in rich, intellectual content.

We believe that for our children to have lives of choice and opportunity, a clutch of great exam results is critical, but this can only be achieved alongside a considerate approach to their personal, social and emotional development.

And that’s hard. With curriculum time squeezed, and every timetable choice representing an opportunity cost in one direction or the other, the temptation is to cram as much in and move on as quickly as possible. At the back of every teacher’s mind is the nagging truth set out by headteacher John Tomsett, that "the best pastoral care for students from socio-economically deprived backgrounds is a good set of examination results".

Sink or swim

It’s easy for a tacit ‘sink or swim’ model to creep in, leaving children feeling overwhelmed and stressed if they aren’t able to keep up with the high expectations adults place upon them.

But there is hope. There is a lot that schools can do to ensure that children are confident and happy while also achieving their full potential. Indeed, across the country, teachers are quietly getting on with doing just that. It’s easy to instrumentalise the softer skills and justify them on the grounds of supporting academic results or chances of success in a job. But I can’t help but feel that this misses the point.

We don’t do it because it helps with exam results (although evidence suggests that they are linked), or because the government has dictated it. We do it because it’s the right thing to do; nobody likes to see another person hurting, especially if that’s a child who hasn’t quite made sense of the world yet. It’s the part of the job that makes being a teacher a very special privilege, and those are the conversations that are most likely to be remembered by students for the rest of their lives.

This speaks to the number one priority for all teachers: to ensure that children are safe and happy at school. Not only is this a fundamental right, it will best safeguard them from attachment difficulties that could go on to affect their ability to form healthy relationships in the future. And although the "robots are going to replace us" slogan is sometimes overblown, it’s undeniable that emotional intelligence and social acuity are critical to many jobs, and so prized by employers.

How to teach SEL

Social and emotional skills need to be ‘caught’ as much as they are ‘taught’. Perhaps the most powerful weapon that schools have is to constantly model positive, respectful relationships with each other. Children look to adults as blueprints of what they can become, and so the first question to ask yourself is how you interact with other adults around the school.

1.  Build a culture of courtesy 

A culture of courtesy, gratitude and honesty requires huge amounts of energy, but envelops children and programmes a million positive habits which they will take with them into adulthood. Sometimes this can be a subtle shift. At Reach Academy, we greet every child, every day, with a handshake and a smile as soon as they enter the classroom. It’s my favourite part of the day, and sends a clear message. You’re welcome. You’re valued. We care. It also is a chance to immediately spot any children who look as if they are feeling down and need someone to talk to before the day begins.

2. Break the taboo around feelings

Breaking the taboo around talking about feelings is crucial. Recently, HRH the Duchess of Cambridge visited our school to talk about mental health. For many of our children, it was the first time that they’d heard the subject spoken about openly. But then it dawned on me that of course they didn’t know much about it, as we so seldom take the time to discuss it together.

3. Use the ‘peace pathway’

Once we did start to talk about mental health, it became clear that one of the major obstacles to children’s emotional health is the relationships that they have with their peers. Conflict resolution is hard (even for adults) and so putting scaffolds in place for the children is just as important as in any maths lesson. We use the ‘peace pathway’, which provides a structure for difficult conversations children might need to have with each other. It goes like this:

‘I didn’t like it when you…It made me feel…’

“I’m sorry for making you feel… I won’t…. again.”

“I forgive you, shall we do a high five?”


Early intervention

Of course, there are, sadly, times when these classroom-level interventions won’t match the magnitude of the problem. We believe in early intervention at Reach, and so have on-site counsellors through the charity Place2Be available to both children and staff. They can set up regular therapy sessions with children to support them with difficulties at home or school. They also provide a ‘drop-in’ service, normalising the notion of taking ownership for your own mental health and dealing with problems before they build up. I now can’t imagine teaching in a school without it.

It’s perfectly possible for schools to value both knowledge and social and emotional skills. In fact, anything less would be a moral failing. They are the dual tickets that children need to take them to the Good Life. Is more funding, investment and infrastructure needed? Sure. But in the meantime, teachers will quietly get on with the job anyway.

Jon Brunskill is a Year 4 teacher and the foundation curriculum lead at Reach Academy Feltham. He tweets at @jon_brunskill