The imperative for emotionally intelligence

The Imperative for Emotionally Intelligent Schools
Mental Health Awareness Week UK 9th – 15th May 2022

There is no doubt that the heavy hand of the anxious times we have been living in, has a legacy which is being played out in the behaviour, the thinking, the feeling, and even the physical symptoms of young people in schools. This shows up in many different ways in the classroom and in school life.

We are seeing a proliferation of behavioural concerns – disruptive, anti-social behaviour, on a sliding scale from lower levels right through to defiant and explosive behaviour. Teachers are noticing that the attentional focus of their pupils is often in short supply. And pastoral leads are finding it harder to support a rising tide of vulnerable students who in terms of their mental health and behaviour are communicating distress and discomfort in their inner lives.

Right across the board of the many school I work with, pastoral leads report higher levels of neediness, and difficulty with self-regulation. School avoidance still remains high, as do concerns about self harm, eating disorders, and suicidal ideation. School nurses, counsellors, Heads of Year, and pastoral leads are dealing with behavioural issues and disclosures, the quantity and quality of which is at times, overwhelming.

In many schools, there is a backlog of pupils whose presentation in school is indicative of potential neurodiversity, and difficulty even for well resourced parents to secure assessments privately. The picture when it comes to specialist interventions and assessments via CAMHS remains a waiting game in many boroughs.

This, must not be a counsel of despair, however. The times we are in call for action. In part this may be from lobbying for better funding of Children’s Services and CAMHS. These structural societal changes are important. But it does also call for schools to be resourceful as they are – by default – left holding vulnerable and high-risk mental health needs and vulnerabilities for longer and longer times.

I am a great believer in the power of 1. And in honing in on what we can do to resource ourselves – and each other – in times of difficulty.

Without doubt, it is difficult, and frustrating to work with pupils who are simply not available to learn. Whether it is their life circumstances outside the school, their experiences of alienation or hostility in their peer-group, or the landscape of their inner world which has been and is becoming sensitised to anxiety, whatever we can do as individuals to alleviate stress levels, is going to be important.

Because what we give off, we get back. That’s how we learn. That’s how mirror neurons and the nervous system work. We are feeling creatures who think. Every moment of every school day filled with interactions, we are making the judgment to approach or avoid. And young people look to their teachers and caregivers to see if we have the bandwidth for them.

We need to look at how we can make healthy adaptations, and harness the considerable power of social connection to foster calm, resilience, and wellbeing. After all it has been the enforced disconnections that have helped create the perfect wellbeing & mental health storm we’re in.

So although the focus of the Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK today is on loneliness, my focus here is on reconnection and how we show up in school life can help us stay connected with ourselves and connect better with others in a high stakes, high pressure school year. As we still play pandemic catch up and adjust to the final adjustments back to a ‘new normal’ that feels anything but.

Case study.
On a recent school visit, I was in a meeting in an office next door to a classroom. It was a warm day, and though the office door was closed, the classroom door was open. As a backdrop to the engrossing discussion I was having, the noise of the teacher’s directions, his projected voice was intermittently present.
At one point, the rhythm and tone of what he was saying changed and became much louder, more choppy and directional. Both of us in the room next door were arrested by the volume and intensity of the exchange. The teacher was obviously at the end of his tether with a student who was not listening, and who was talking while the teacher was talking. It was a barrage of criticism delivered forcefully at high volume, and at speed. I noticed how – despite being completely disengaged from the exchange it affected me on a bodily level:
• Neither the person I was meeting, nor I were able to continue our conversation whilst this was happening. Our attention funnelled to the exchange – a very live example of how neuroception (the nervous system’s unconscious perception of threat) meant that the distant threat of aggression had salience.
• We found it difficult to resume the conversation – our memory of the recent detail was hijacked and it wasn’t until we’d both taken time to recover and get back to safety that we could reconnect with our original topic and purpose.
• I found my heart rate increase, and the rush of blood to my feet. I noticed the blood temporarily drain from the face of my companion. My breath became shallow. I could hear my heart beat inside my ear, and, of course the words being shouted.

Now we’ve all been there, from time to time, when boundaries have been crossed, and perhaps recrossed…and I am going to leave you to your own thoughts about the event I describe. Key questions that I do think worth posing, are to engage reflection of the impact of such an exchange.

Case study – reflective challenge…A resource for team discussion.

  1. How effective is such communication? What might its real purpose be?
  2. What will the pupil involved remember most about the lesson?
  3. What will the rest of the class remember most?
  4. What impact did that interaction have on the teacher themselves? Their cortisol levels, and the meaning they’d be making around that interaction and the young person? Remembering that bad interactions cast a long shadow 12 hours + and often at least until the next encounter.
  5. How long did it take the pupil being targeted to come back to being available to listen to the content of the lesson?
  6. How did it effect the class – how long before their social engagement system reconnected and allowed their focus to open to the content?
  7. What deeper impacts might that exchange have had on pupils within that group who suffer from anxiety? Performance anxiety? Anxiety about speaking out in class? Those who already have a high level of stress are sensitised to further anxiety – their allostatic load (‘resting’ stress level) is already high and they will predict anxious situations more, and exaggerate their impact more, and remember them more)
  8. What impacts might that exchange have had on vulnerable pupils with background of trauma, domestic violence, verbal abuse in the home?
  9. What sort of unconscious communications are taking place – both for the individual targeted, and to the rest of the class?
  10. How might engagement in lessons in the future be affected?
  11. After the event, what meanings might be made – inner narratives – exist about the relationships in that classroom?
  12. In how many classrooms up and down the country are perhaps similar choppy frustrations and demands for compliance being made by people under pressure of the weight of the first ‘undisrupted’ academic school year and the return to formal assessments, and interrogation of value added data…

Strategic school case study – moving on from Behaviourism: ‘A disciple is a student, not a recipient of behavioural consequence.’ Dr Dan Siegel

Having worked over many years as a Safeguarding Link governor at a primary school in Inner City / Central London, pre-pandemic, we were looking down the barrel of a similar high level of demand where needy and vulnerable pupils were unable to self-regulate. We had a large proportion of looked-after children with trauma in the background. The area was pivoting – the demographics reflected the incredible diversity of Central London. Wealthy families with high aspirations living in high ticket new-build yuppie hutches, next to families totally reliant on foodbanks, refugees, and under resourced families living under intense pressure.

The school was outstanding, and had extremely impressive academic results. Pupil progress was excellent. How was this achieved and sustained? By recognising the inadequacy of only having a specialist team for problematic behavioural presentations, and widening the capacity for teachers, teaching assistants, to work with pupils with a more therapeutic mindset. Going beyond behaviour policies or behaviourism to developing attachment aware behaviour regulation approaches.

This proved to be a far more inclusive approach – meaning that more children were able to stay in the classroom and bring their focus as learners. The whole school population benefitted from having a more extensive toolkit of emotion regulation techniques. The teachers were able to co-regulate with struggling pupils and work with them with more traction.

It meant that there was a far, far more effective triaging of pupils who showed signs of struggle because teachers were better equipped to engage with low to mid-range problems on the ground. This meant that the pastoral, safeguarding, and SEND team were better able to apply mid to high end interventions and the all-important family liaison was more effective. Stress levels were reduced, because teachers could be observant of and be on the receiving end of the typical and atypical behavioural irritations with less stress. They understood Marshall Rosenberg’s important mantra:
“All behaviour is a communication – a skill not yet learned, or a need not yet met.”

So they could make better decisions and connections with the children manifesting difficulty with focus, disruptive or avoidant tendencies from a point of lower activation. This meant situations did not escalate, the classroom stayed a safer and more accessible place.

There was a more effective and more nuanced toolkit of interventions they could use. The hammer of the yellow or red card behavioural approach could be discarded when clearly a screw was needed (metaphorically), and with the layering of training and growing in confidence of a more informed, curious and connecting mindset, there was less behavioural friction because the grown ups in the rooms had more of a swiss army set of implements to use to work with the children.

When more adults in schools are able to take a less judgmental and more curious, empathic attitude towards behaviour and put relationships first, connection always precedes effective redirection.  Focusing on the feelings and emotions that might drive certain behaviour, rather than the behaviour itself – and then working with resourcing the child better around their point of engagement / disengagement means that they are empowered to recognise the signs that they need to self-regulate, and know how to do so effectively.

This helps in all performance related situations – from playing a part in a concert, play, or assembly, to taking an exam or simply needing to work quietly, productively, and collaboratively. It’s nothing to do with lowering expectations – but being able to get better accountability around maintaining clear boundaries and expectations.  

Being an emotionally intelligent school means raising the bar in order to lower the stress.

Signs of stuckness – or that your school or team is not operating at this level:

  1. It’s accepted that there are a number of teachers who ‘don’t do pastoral’. This is the myth – particularly in academically ambitious (secondary) schools that you are a subject teacher first and last. No. Without the young people in front of you, your subject teaching wouldn’t exit. We are teachers of children first. Then we teach our subject.
  2. There are cultural divisions between ‘pastoral’ and ‘academic’ within the institution rather than an integrated collective and active responsibility for both.
  3. Accountability conversations with young people about their engagement and behaviour in class are deferred to or delegated to pastoral staff at a too early stage. Incidents happen and teachers are in the habit of recording and reporting misdemeanours without circling back to the child.
  4. There are numbers of children for whom the behaviour policy protocols do not work eg rising up the detentions ladder too fast and too mechanically. The key question is WHY it’s not working.
  5. The pastoral team are exhausted and burning out – almost as soon as the term begins. There’s a tendency to see pastoral responsibility is seen as onerous rather than rewarding. This may be benchmarked by the relative interests in applying for academic middle management posts as opposed to academic ones, and a lack of diversity (gender) in the applications.
  6. There are large numbers of pupils awaiting assessments for one thing or another to ‘fix’ the problem or to provide a reason for the disengagement.
  7. Relationships are fraught between teachers and ‘problem’ pupils, and there are fixed mindsets or negative attributions about the situation.
  8. Lots of ruminative venting about declining standards.
  9. Pupils and teachers feeling and being disconnected.

Without some sort of change, greater awareness of mental health, how are we going to meet the needs of the children in front of us, on the ground? Because one thing’s for sure, we can’t rely on the availability of specialists for everything.

Being an emotionally intelligent school requires a buy in among all the adults. The problems we see in young people as we emerge from the pandemic mean we need to do more than respond to their behaviour, we need to be able to attune better – and help them attune to their inner life.

As Dr Rick Hanson says (Neurodharma), “Good relationships are based on good interactions. If you want to improve the relationship, you need to improve the interactions.” And the number one way we can improve our interactions is to be more agile, open, and attuned listeners and receivers. This is expanding our ‘professional curiosity’ (Laming 2003) about the child as a rounded being. And working more relevantly with what’s really going on than the surface behaviour indicates.

When caregivers are interested and attentive to that subjective experience, the child can learn to understand their own internal world. This develops insight and helps teach them that the internal world is important and in many cases, work-able. When we do this we develop empathy, a drive and desire to feel other people’s feelings and understand other people’s points of view. We help open up what may be a fearful, insecure, rigid mindset to greater cognitive agility, the ability to incorporate new ideas, and relate.

Relational experiences help young people and teens soothe – it’s why they come back again and again to the talented Head of Year or super-attuned nurse, when actually if their relationship with some of their subject teachers was better they’d be able to broaden and build their capabilities and self-image in the areas they feel the most challenge. From birth, we learn to co-regulate first, self-regulate later.

What’s in the room is that there are 3 entities to the relationship. The child, the teacher and the relational field. (Dr Dan Siegel). The energy and information flow between them which is influenced by the historic interactions. This may be a positive relational field – in which case, there’s a receptive and collaborative thrust that helps fuel that progress. It’s why John Hattie’s research shows one of the top influential factors in a child’s educational progress is the quality of the relationship with the teacher and the ability to invite, engage, excite, support and challenge.  

Past experiences contribute to that energy flow. It’s an inescapable part of our mental life – patterns of communication, energy, and information flow. Dr Stephen Porges also speaks again and again on the capacity social connection has to recharge and recover the overloaded or disengaged, overwhelmed human nervous system and reduce the allostatic load…(the cumulative burden of life events). 

How can we develop this capacity for ‘mindsight’ as Dr Dan Siegel puts it? (
On my checklist for action would be raising the bar on expectations and accountability on behaviour, engagement, and relationship. And looking at the following ideas for training to help bring about a change in culture:

  1. Boosting the capacity and confidence of the whole team around having difficult conversations.
  2. Understanding of attachment theory and attachment aware behaviour regulation.
  3. Understanding of how to differentiate for emotion, and teach a menu of self-regulation techniques and tools so that pupils can learn to self-regulate around predictable points of stress and tension both in their academic work and in their personal lives.
  4. Training in trauma-informed school-based practices and approaches. We have before us whole cohorts of children who have a much higher likelihood of having had traumatic experiences due to the strains of the pandemic on family life, the loss of peers and school, sudden bereavements, life threatening illnesses. Acrimonious conflicts between carers, emotionally abusive environments, domestic abuse.

All these aspects can be key to being able to be better containers – to receive signs of dysregulation with less stress, and help process the feelings and the thinking without buckling or projecting back.

Professor Richard Layard on this side of the pond, and Professor Marc Brackett at Yale on the other side of the pond both converge on the view that societally we still prefer spending more money and effort on dealing with the results of our emotional problems rather than trying to prevent them, or educate each other on how to work through them more effectively.It feels inconceivable that it takes pressure from experts, and the Chair writing to the Prime Minister to get the Covid 19 Public Inquiry to examine the effects on children. It says it all about a cultural and political blindness or blinkeredness to be attentive in a proactive and invested way to improving the lived experiences of young people – or non-voters. And in the meantime, they say it takes a village to raise a child. But it feels like the village has retreated in survival mode, leaving schools to carry the can. This means that systemically young people slip through the net of the care they need. We need to speak up for this – but we also need to develop the practical, professional, and personal resilience as individuals, and institutions, to relate to young people better. Especially the ones who struggle to relate to us and others – better. To be less concerned with systemic equality with behaviour sanctions and tariffs, and more equitable in looking to understand and meet every child from where they are at in terms of their engagement, motivation, and inner capacity, and build from there. It’s not rocket science. It’s basic psychology. And good human sense – which one day may become good common sense.If this resonates with you and what you are seeing in school life – let me know. I hope this helps… Share. Lobby. Advocate. But also be the change you want to see.With love and gratitude,Emma.Bookings for 2022-2023 academic year now gathering pace. Contact me if you are interested in using me for training or CPD. 

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