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Leadership Project: Developing Self-Regulation and Emotional Health with Year 6 Pupils by Louise Mapp
'In a very real sense we have two brains, one that thinks and one that feels.'
Relationships are at the core of our education system, but often enough relationships with oneself are not spoken about, let alone taught in our schools. Daily we ensure all children learn their fundamental skills in English and maths; we even pride ourselves on ensuring peer-to-peer relationships are well-established through behaviour leadership and collaborative learning structures such as Kagan techniques. But when do we ensure that children understand themselves as people first? How can they recognise behaviours and social cues from others if they can't recognise them in themselves?
Across the school, we noticed that a number of children were often unable to explain their behaviours and their emotional responses to situations, especially when restorative justice was failing to have an impact. While talking to children about their wellbeing or behaviour choices, they would often use the word angry to describe their emotions and use this as a reason for their behaviour. Children not only couldn’t distinguish clearly between the range of emotions they experience, but they were also giving responses that they thought an adult wanted to hear. They weren’t recognising and acknowledging their emotions and behaviours at a deeper level.
Through research we found the terms ‘emotional intelligence’ and ‘emotional competence’, explored them more closely and began to unpick them before deciding how to apply this at school level.
What is emotional intelligence?
‘The ability to perceive accurately, appraise and express emotion; the ability to access and/or generate feelings which facilitate thought; the ability to understand emotion and emotional knowledge; the ability to regulate emotions to promote emotional and intellectual growth.’ (Mayer and Salovey, 1997:10)
What is emotional competence?
‘Social and emotional competence is the ability to understand, manage and express the social and emotional aspects of one’s life in ways that enable the successful management of life tasks such as learning, forming relationships, solving everyday problems, and adapting to the complex demands of growth and development.’ Elias et al, (1997: 2.)
We decided that merging both terms into a collective ‘emotional health’ suited our needs. We wanted our children to have both emotional intelligence and competence, but also wanted to include confidence and having a healthy relationship with themselves as the ‘why’.
The Iceberg Model, by Tom Rees, shows that the behaviours that children display are the result of their emotions, values and thinking. But if they are not aligned and children can’t see how they connect then they will not be able to adapt or understand the way they behave or react to situations.
The first thing we did was select a group of pupils who were not meeting the threshold for some of our other interventions such as ‘Draw and Talk’ or counselling. A group of twelve children were identified from across Year 6 as it was decided that this cohort would benefit the most, and that this additional input would help with their transition to the next stage of their education. Plus, we wanted them to leave primary school with their moral purpose, emotions and behaviours singing the same tune, ensuring that they can be successful as citizens in our wider community.
After researching work done through the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families, it was decided that engaging these pupils through an online app would be the most appropriate and relevant approach to the programme. We decided to use an app called Stop, Breathe and Think to help children become independent, giving them tips and tricks for mindfulness and self-regulation. Not only did it enable children to independently regulate their emotions, but it helped the children feel in control and that they were leaders of their own emotions.
Within the first few sessions, however, it became clear that children were not able to communicate feelings and often couldn’t label them or even describe them. The problem was that the app asks children to name and choose their emotions to select an appropriate activity.
Children weren’t able to name the feeling, or in some cases even recognise what the feeling meant, often selecting angry, sad or excited and not being able to explain how or why.
Because of this, the following sessions focused on linking emotions to actions. Introducing the children to the metacognition triangle proved a useful way for children to understand that all the things they do, feel and think are linked.
We used this triangle as a starting point to deepen the children’s knowledge of their emotions. Giving them a range of emotions such as lonely, frustrated, restless and disappointed enabled them to explore a range of emotions in more depth and then match actions and thoughts. It was clear that some children hadn’t had the range of vocabulary to explain what it was like to feel restless, as they didn’t recognise this emotion in themselves.
During a metacognition triangle activity, the children were surprised to learn some the of new emotions and how the thoughts and actions linked to them. “I always get that buzzing feeling in my tummy when I’m angry; I thought it meant I was angry and I thought shouting meant I felt angry”, said one child in the group. Speaking to his teacher, it was clear that this child often went to angry as his default emotion and then, because he thought he was angry, he displayed the actions he thought were associated with anger, for example shouting, throwing and hurting. This then became a cycle of negative and worsening behaviour. Whereas by giving him the vocabulary to describe his actions, thoughts and feelings, he was able to deepen his knowledge and display appropriate linked behaviours. By understanding the concept of being worried, he was able to self-regulate or call upon an adult before it became a crisis situation. No longer did we see hitting, instead he became able to articulate his feelings. “I have a funny feeling in my tummy” or “My heart’s beating really fast” became the default reactions to feeling worried.
Once most common emotions had been explored this way, we created a feelings diary so that children were able to track their emotions and begin to see a pattern to help them self-regulate. During every intervention session, while using the Stop, Breath and Think app, they would complete a feelings diary and have a conversation about what led up to a feeling and how it impacted their relationships and behaviour. The next step would always be how they could use the technique independently to self-regulate the next time they felt this way.
During the spring term it was decided that this intervention could be taken into the classroom, as although the children were able to talk about their feelings during the weekly intervention, it almost never occurred during a crisis moment. It was essential that it was used in these moments to discover its true impact. Support staff were trained in the language of emotional health, the skill of identifying linked behaviours and the research behind this. We looked closely at factors such as attachment and low socio-economic background when seeking to understand the why, but practitioners were able to really get on board with the project when we spoke about relationships: relationships with peers, adults and oneself. It was key to ensuring it made a difference to the children; if they can’t see these emotions in themselves they wouldn’t be able to recognise them in each other. Being able to read people is the foundation for successful relationships, which are vital for them to succeed in the wider world.
Staff working with the selected group of children were able to use their relationships with and knowledge of the children to identify triggers and situations in which to use the app and key vocabulary. This became particularly important during times of tension or uncertainty for the children, perhaps when being taught by an unfamiliar teacher or in the lead up to the key stage 2 tests. It enabled children to regulate and refocus without the pastoral team’s intervention.
Class-based staff intervening in low-level incidents such as yellow cards effectively meant that children would be able to identify the reasoning behind the behaviour and emotion and rectify it before to snow-balled into a bigger incident. At first, this meant an increase in the number of yellow cards, however we soon noticed that negative behaviours in class began to decrease due to the timely intervention of staff. When talking to children it was because they saw the app as something positive, not something that would perpetuate negative behaviours and feelings. A child said, “When I get to that point where it all comes out I like to go on the app. I get a few minutes to myself and something to concentrate on rather than listening to an adult, which can make me more annoyed.”
The app was seen as something that could calm children while giving them something concrete to focus their attention on. At two to five minutes long, the activities were engaging enough to settle to children but not so long that they took them away from their learning; children were able to slot back into their learning efficiently. Staff also responded overwhelmingly positively: “Child M has learnt to recognise his triggers, he is able to give me a signal and collect the iPad and take it into the book corner or corridor. He can do all of this through non-verbal cues as I know speaking to him or trying to get his attention would be detrimental to the process.”
Other staff have similar opinions: “Giving the ownership over to the children has been liberating. Because they are able to understand their emotions now, they can take leadership over their behaviours and get to know themselves better.”
Data from the school behaviour system has also shown an improvement and we are starting to see an impact in the playground. But most of all the impact is evident in the children themselves; no longer is their default to ‘explode’ with sadness or anger, but instead they are beginning to be well-reasoned individuals who understand their own bodies and thoughts. They are proud of the changes they have made and are beginning to control their emotions with care. “It’s helped me to understand everything that was in my head. Sometimes it was a bit too much and I would make the wrong choice or lose friends. It’s made a difference to learning too. I don’t annoy my teacher or my friends. I definitely feel good about that.” Of course, like anyone, children have bad days. They understand that it is still ok to be angry, but knowing why and how to control and compartmentalise it has improved their wellbeing and their love for themselves. As a school that’s want we really want, children who are confident and have a healthy relationship with themselves and others around them.
Next year, will we will be expanding our work on emotional literacy and the use of the app across the whole school, using it within classes and on the playground to ensure all pupils have good emotional health, and as a tool for children to create healthy relationships with themselves and others. Key discussions will take place around school-wide implementation so that we can discover at what age anger tends to become the default emotion of our children, so we can ensure that we are using preventive work, not just reactive work, on emotional health.