The pandemic has shone a spotlight on many things: key workers, zoom, DIY. But it has also sharpened the focus on what schools can do to support the social and emotional wellbeing of children.
This is a tricky area for many reasons:
First, unlike other subjects, teachers don’t have their own school experience to lean on - I certainly don’t remember being taught about self-regulation, failure or relationship boundaries when I was at school.
There is also a lack of effective resources to support student wellbeing. Yes, there are emotion fans, gratitude trees and rainbow worry worksheets but I am yet to find a robust package that explicitly teaches children how to manage themselves and the world around them.
Assessment in this area is also a real challenge. How do we assess the progress of a child’s social and emotional ability? How do we judge whether a child is at the expected standard for resilience? What is the expected standard for resilience?
Ultimately, we all know that social and emotional learning is crucial but the lack of experience, resources and means of assessment often make it the first subject to be neglected on a timetable that is already bursting at the seams.
I don’t pretend to have all of the answers but after spending two years teaching social and emotional lessons in a range of London schools, I thought it might be worth sharing some ideas that support and engage children in this area of their development.
1) A Culture of Openess
No class of children arrives prepared to talk openly about their thoughts and feelings. They need to trust their teacher and believe that they will uphold an environment that will address any conspiratorial whispers or eye rolls.
Ultimately, adults need to be the model, emphasising the crucial importance that being open plays in wellbeing, perhaps even modelling their own concerns and fears. Difficult, I know, but once an open culture is established where self-awareness is the target, children start engaging with themselves and the world around them.
2) Explicit Teaching of Skills
Just like all subjects, social and emotional skills need to be broken down into small chunks. It sounds obvious, right? The problem is that the social and emotional themes we are asked to cover often need to be crammed into an impossible small window of time.
Take the teaching of resilience for instance.
For many years, I was guilty of the ‘Just Be Resilient’ teaching philosophy. I never looked into what made a resilient person. The result? Very average lessons delivered by a poorly prepared teacher (me) pushing definitions and examples with little or no impact.
As a school, we started realising that the explicit teaching of resilience was integral to positive learning behaviour so we spent numerous staff meetings unpicking it. This led to the creation of a resilience sequence (managing emotions, embracing failure, taking responsibility etc) that included key questions and practical strategies. Progress happened almost immediately. Children started asking questions, became more aware of their triggers and began applying resilience tools to every-day life.
The point is, children need these enormous concepts broken down into carefully planned sequences that include actual guidance. This not only gives the children time to develop the knowledge but most crucially, the opportunity to apply these principles in their own lives.
We have found that images of social and emotional concepts not only deepen understanding but also add to engagement. Here are a few examples:
These representations also provide a shared language across the school community. Phrases like the Tornado Zone (anger), Pit of Failure and bubbles of emotion can be a reference point throughout the school day. They can be used to support learning and also as the basis to follow-up conversations if boundaries have been pushed.
What was the trigger that made you fall into the Tornado Zone?
What did you do to climb out of the Pit of Failure?
If regularly revisited and visible in the classroom, the representations help to create routines when children are faced with challenges. Once the shared language and routines are embedded then it doesn’t take long for children to start turning their new knowledge into actions.
4) The Power of Story
The more lessons I taught the more I realised that many children feel alone. They think they are the only ones to feel anxious on a Monday morning, while they ponder tests, PE or merely having someone to talk to at break time. They see their peers smiling, seemingly gliding through school life without a worry in the world.
Imagine the relief when a child reads a story that articulates their exact fears. Suddenly they realise that they are not the only one.
Stories help children to see that everybody struggles, which is immensely powerful when creating a culture of openness. Stories also provide the platform for children to discuss their own thoughts and feelings through the lives of fictional characters.
Introducing a story that includes misconceptions is also a good way to start a lesson.
The deliberate inclusion of misconceptions in a story taps into a child’s desire to prove something (or someone) wrong. Not only will this kickstart discussion but will also give teachers an opportunity to assess the knowledge that children already have.
Stories are not just used to contextualise a lesson but also to show the consequences of poor decisions. For example, communicating the danger of violence through story is a powerful way to incentivise children to develop the tools to manage anger.
5) Learning Though Activities
Applying the new content to real-life scenarios emphasises the relevance and prepares children for challenges that they might face later in their lives.
Such tasks provoke debate that often elicit misconceptions. The use of drama is also beneficial whether that is role-playing, hotseating or presenting a concept to the class.
The format of these lessons creates lots of discussion so the children are grateful for five minutes of space at the end of the lesson to reflect on the relevant points to them. You can provide questions to direct children to the objective but I have found that the best outcomes occur when children are allowed complete freedom. It won’t happen immediately but it doesn’t take long for children to relish the five minutes of quiet reflection.