Emotional literacy in the classroom

Tom Lawley, English teacher at Woodbridge School, argues that teachers must be part of the solution to our mental health crisis

I came across a typically worthy article in the TES recently. It was decrying, loudly, the appalling state of mental health services in this country. Here is something I came across in the article – and I quote this word for word: “Whilst all this is happening, it is parents and teachers who are expected to ‘mop up’ children in crisis. Parents and teachers generally aren’t qualified therapists, but even if they were to practise on their child or pupil, it would constitute a ‘conflict of interest’ (it’s important for efficacity of treatment that you don’t know your therapist in another capacity or vice-versa).”

I had to go back and read this several times to make sense of it. Then I walked away, and came back, and read it again. Same result. Nothing. I understood all the words but somehow it simply made no sense to me.

I feel I have to state my own interest here. I myself am not a mental health professional, I am a teacher and a parent.

I was a prep school head of English; I am in no way qualified to provide a therapeutic service any more than I could service your boiler. But to argue that parents and teachers should not be part of the solution to our mental health crisis is at best ridiculous and at worst downright dangerous.

Independent schools’ literature is full of words like individuality, character and confidence; schools have been talking about ‘shaping minds’ for generations. Thankfully it is no longer the case that the words ‘building resilience’ are generally closely followed by the phrase, ‘it never did me any harm’. But we live in a time when mental health is what people refer to as a thing. The best schools have their own policies on it now; in some schools, the mental health policy even applies to the staff. Gosh.

There is a tendency in all schools though, to treat mental health support as if it exists in a silo, to treat it as something separate. When help is needed experts can be called in by the DSL, they can counsel children and advise staff, and then leave. Or else, when the need arises, children are sent out to spend time with these other qualified professionals while teachers get on with what they are paid to do, teach.

Train to improve

Lindy Wheeler, my writing partner, is a qualified (and extremely experienced) therapist and school counsellor.

Her Human Toolbox Programme aims to apply a clear framework for tackling mental health in schools. From her Bury St Edmunds practice she trains TAs, teachers and counsellors to become qualified practitioners in her programme, which in the simplest terms, helps equip children and adults with some very well-needed clarity with regard to how they can manage their own emotional wellbeing.

The programme is based on the premise that children and adults have the innate tools to manage their emotional wellbeing, and simply need to be taught to use them.

I came to Lindy’s training course as an English teacher with a very personal interest in emotional wellbeing and a professional fascination with language as a force for good with regard to mental literacy. This shared mutual interest gave rise to It’s All About Bodd, a book aimed at KS1–2 children that helps introduce them, and their parents, to the concepts and ideas of the Human Toolbox.

Related reading: Headmaster, Dr Julian Murphy, argues that realism – not a ‘you can do anything’ culture – is key to young people acquiring resilience and good mental health

The best schools that I have known (and my own experience is almost exclusively within the independent sector) have seen their children co-existing in a multi-faceted web of such networks. Just one child might simultaneously be part of a sports team, a music ensemble or band, a tutor group (often organised vertically, as at Woodbridge School) and also be part of a cast for a school play. That same child would have a sense of identity that saw himself aligned with a particular ‘house’ within the school. In addition to all of these support structures, he or she would also have a sense of belonging to, pride in and allegiance towards their own school.

The organising structure that, to my mind, commands the very least loyalty among children, is the year group. Yet for many schools this is the primary structure with which many children – particularly in the state sector sadly – are encouraged to identify. In Sir Ken Robinson’s Changing the Education Paradigm (if you’ve not seen this take a look on YouTube) we are shown that we are trying to educate our children in schools and using methods that in many ways have not moved on in 100 years. This factory model, he maintains, continues to be the main organising force behind our schools: they educate in batches which take little account of the individual needs of children and they subject them to standardised tests that promote conformity above creative or imaginative thinking.

People, not punishment

In When Adults Change Everything Changes, Paul Dix talks convincingly of a culture of hostility that exists between children and adults. ‘Difficult’ children are labelled and parcelled from school to school where their experiences of hostile groups of adults never change. They are given up on, passed up a conveyor belt of angry adults who are unable to understand or meet their needs. They are processed through sets of policies which confer on them the notoriety that they desire, and which culminate in the exclusion they so desperately don’t need. He sums it up nicely: “Damaged children need people, not punishment. It is time we gave them what they need to succeed, not simply what we feel they deserve.”

As he also points out, it is completely impossible in a classroom to separate the roles of teacher, behaviour manager and (mental health) mentor. It’s not good enough to talk about workloads and claim that teachers are stretched enough as it is: this is what the best teachers and the best schools are already doing. Isn’t a clear, kind, consistent inclusivity what we are all striving for anyway?

To argue that parents and teachers should not be part of the solution to our mental health crisis is at best ridiculous and at worst downright dangerous

Children need to constantly be reminded of the amazing tools they have at their disposal, so emotional literacy among all staff is vital. According to Dix: “Once you understand how even a low-level threat can trigger an emotional response, it changes everything: the way you speak to students, how you give feedback on their work, how you speak to them when you are angry.” The government has stated policies need to be in place that safeguards the mental wellbeing of both teachers and children. Quid custodiet Ipsos custodies?

Prep schools in particular provide a wonderful opportunity for teachers to model responsible behaviour. Where else do the same teachers and children interact in such a varied landscape? On the games pitch, in a play and in the classroom the same teacher can use the same language and model the same approach towards challenges and building resilience. This is the very stuff of the independent school and it is hard work. Teachers need to know that their senior management team are as worried about their staff’s mental health as they are about the children’s.

Teachers can be the solution to our mental health crisis, but we need to take more responsibility. As we move into the third decade of the 21st century it is time to throw aside the fixed mindset that continues to tie schools to the industrialised 19th century. The needs of our children have changed, maybe we need to change also.

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