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Why the teaching of emotional literacy is so important

Julia Sharman

Julia has over 20 years’ experience working in the education sector as a specialist and advisory teacher for SEN and mental health, as well as a Local Authority Coordinator leading on educational projects and community learning in the public, private and voluntary sectors and freelance writer. She is a specialist teacher for children with dyslexia, and was previously an advisory teacher for children with mental health problems. Julia currently work with children with medical and health needs, including those with mental health issues.

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Many years ago a headteacher, of long standing, said to me that ‘children do not suffer from depression’. This of course is not true, and was a rather naïve statement to make. Although to be fair, mental health conditions weren’t as widely recognised then as they are now. It is now accepted that children and young people can suffer from all manner of stress, depression, loss and anxiety disorders which may affect how they cope on a day-to-day basis, and can result in negative behaviour and thoughts which in turn can impact on their ability to learn and relationships with their peers.

"It is important to help children understand that feelings can not only change over time and are not permanent, but also that some feelings are brought on by change."

For many children it is very difficult for them to understand these feelings let alone articulate them. There are many reasons which may contribute to the appearance, and to the recognition, of emotional disruption. Emotional disruption can affect any child at any time, and what may affect one child mildly, others may affect much more heavily.

There are services available for children with profound difficulties that range from family therapy to behavioural techniques. MIND (2014) report that anyone can suffer from emotional disruption and ‘statically 1 in 3 of us will’. Teaching emotional literacy is important for developing self-confidence, boosting self-esteem, social and emotional development, and encouraging emotional self-management over impulse reactions.

As teachers we want our students to fulfil their potential, so it’s important to think about how we can help them do this. Putting academia aside, one of the most valuable lessons we can teach and support is emotional literacy. Developing emotional literacy aids a child’s mental health and also physical well-being, as both are inextricably linked. Healthy emotional development helps to shape the rest of their lives, and being emotionally literate helps them express their own emotions effectively, appropriately and productively, while also developing positive social interactions with other people in society.

In addition to being able to understand their own emotions, it also enables them to develop the ability to listen to others, to develop empathy, helps to improve their quality of life and relationships. It is also important to help children understand that feelings can not only change over time and are not permanent, but also that some feelings are brought on by change. suggest that more education professionals should be trained in understanding and helping develop emotional literacy. This can be done through a range of activities which:

  • Encourage co-operation with others.
  • Build self-esteem through positive social interaction.
  • Demonstrate effective social behaviour.
  • Create imaginary situations to discuss the feelings of others.
  • Use age appropriate story telling as a tool. Various aspects of emotional matters and development can be explored and in a safe way.
  • Create a healthy and successful learning environment.
  • Modelling is an effective teaching method so teachers need to look after and understand their own emotional health.

A research report written on behalf of the Department for Education, What Works in Developing Children’s Emotional and Social Competence and Wellbeing? by Katherine Weare and Gay Gray (2003); found that emotional literacy needs to be a long-term vision, which includes emotional and social competence in every aspect of the school. Every teacher needs to believe that they and their subject have an active part to play in the total enterprise, whatever their specialism.

Finally, they will require education and support to make this a reality. Healthy Schools, Targeted Mental Health in Schools and Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL) have played their part in helping teachers build and deliver emotional literacy. The Department for Education has set the key aims of teaching Emotional Literacy as thus:

  • To help students to become aware of their emotions and how their emotions underpin their behaviour and their choices.
  • To help students to become aware of the effect of their behaviour on their environment, their relationships and their learning.
  • To help students learn life skills for success.

Recommend reading: Nurturing Emotional Literacy - a practical guide for Teachers, Parents and those in the Caring Profession by Peter Sharp.

How do you teach emotional literacy? Share your thoughts below.


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