How emotional literacy supports wellbeing and how educators can help pupils develop this key skill, from Cat Allott.

With the latest research showing that 1 in every 6 children has some form of mental health condition, 1 teaching children the strategies to recognise, monitor and regulate their emotions will allow them to prioritise their mental health throughout later life.

What is emotional literacy?

Emotional literacy is the term given to being able to express feelings and emotions through a variety of forms of communication. It is teaching children the skills to be able to understand their own emotions and to help them acquire the strategies necessary for managing strong emotions in a safe, acceptable manner.

Children who do not have the cognitive ability nor the language to communicate their thoughts and feelings may express distress by presenting challenging behaviours such as refusal, verbal outbursts, physical aggression against themselves or others – to name a few. Emotional literacy aims to support these children to develop the vocabulary to understand, and later, to regulate their emotions, to minimise these distressing behaviour incidents and reduce occurrence of emotional crises.

By supporting children to develop their emotional literacy and strategies for coping with emotions, we can help them to deal with adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). If we can help them understand what they have experienced and communicate how this affected them, we can go further and help repair some of the cognitive damage caused by toxic stress. Through this emotional literacy work with children, we
can help them recognise their own emotions and teach them empathy, so that they can recognise other people’s feelings and how they can react.

How can emotional literacy support pupils’ wellbeing?

With numerous disruptions to education throughout the pandemic, the impact on children’s learning and development has been significant. The focus has been on academic ‘catch-up’ to try and close the concerning gap in core subjects which, of course, is a vitally important issue. It’s certainly worth considering though, the impact isolations and lockdowns have had on children’s’ social development. Children have missed out on the day-to-day interactions and play opportunities that are vital for their cognitive development. These are the opportunities that help them to learn to understand the world around them and how they relate to and fit into it; develop a sense of identity, morals and values; learn social skills such as paying attention and listening, sharing and turn-taking and, ultimately, how to socially interact with others and regulate their behaviour.

The past couple of turbulent years have had an impact on the emotional wellbeing of the pupils we teach. For many, lockdowns will have been unstructured and isolating. Some children may have suffered bereavements, witnessed volatile relationships in the home or experienced the effects of financial worries. For pupils who are still developing their emotional awareness, the absence of a school environment to explore their emotions can have a negative effect on their mental health and wellbeing.

As educators, we are responsible for the holistic learning of pupils, not just their academic achievements. By providing children with opportunities to develop their emotional literacy, we are supporting their emotional wellbeing, which is a foundation upon which academic achievements can be built.

How can you develop pupil’s emotional literacy?

As with all learning, emotional literacy needs to be explicitly taught so that children can develop their own skills through experience. We can help them develop these skills through positive relational approaches and interactions. It’s important that we accept children as they present, meaning that for some, they may not have the language skills to communicate stress. As trusted adults, it is up to us to be mindful of our own reactions to ensure we create a safe environment for them to express their emotions. There are many approaches that we can use to teach emotional literacy and it is up to us to find the best combinations to suit individual children.

Provide a model of emotional responses

Use simple language and gestures to demonstrate how you’re feeling and why. For example, if the rain means it is indoor play, use appropriate actions and vocabulary to demonstrate that you feel frustrated by this. This will help pupils begin to recognise emotions in others and themselves and learn appropriate strategies to communicate these emotions – as well as build a sense of empathy. Similarly, if you observe a child expressing their emotions in an inappropriate way, encourage them to explain how they’re feeling and why in a similar way to how you modelled.

Develop emotional vocabulary

Use body language to show how you’re feeling and reinforce this with the vocabulary you use to tell them how you’re feeling. Always provide an explanation for why you feel a certain way as a good model. For example, model clenching your firsts and frowning, making your body tense. Explain that you’re feeling cross because… When a child has a good understanding of basic emotional vocabulary, you can stretch this further using synonyms e.g., “I was just so annoyed when… I’m feeling really irritated now”.

Promote empathy

To demonstrate empathy, children first need to experience empathy. Empathy is a taught skill that is developed through first-hand experiences. Empathise with the children you teach, validate their emotions. Using phrases such as, “I can see that you’re feeling excited!”, “I imagine that X made you feel _”, “I can see that you’re feeling angry right now. How can I help?”. This relational approach will soothe pupils, and, with time, they will begin to mirror these responses as they develop a sense of empathy. Encourage children to explore the way others feel and why they feel that way. Explore body language, facial expressions and vocabulary to support this.

How can you create a safe learning environment to explore emotions?

A relational approach to emotional literacy is beneficial to all pupils, not just those with social, emotional or mental health difficulties. By creating a classroom culture where it is safe to discuss and explore feelings will develop an ethos where taking care of our mental health and wellbeing becomes an integral part of learning. Show children that you’re here to listen to them. If, for example, there’s been an incident where some children have fallen out over football, explore it. Don’t be afraid to spend 5 minutes at the start of maths to discuss the incident, emotions and reactions as a teaching opportunity. This will allow children to regulate their emotions, move forward and feel prepared for learning.

Dedicate a part of the classroom to emotional wellbeing. An emotional check-in board is an easy way for pupils to show how they’re feeling and provides educators with a visual way to identify if a pupil needs a private conversation with an adult to explore and regulate their
emotions.

What if a pupil needs further support?

Teaching assistants are often given dedicated time to support pupils who need further emotional literacy interventions to help them work on recognising and regulating their emotions. This can be through nurture groups, Emotional Literacy Support Assistant (ELSA) activities or guided play. Twinkl Teaching Assistants have a variety of emotional literacy planning and resources to support these interventions, which you can find here.

Author

  • Cat Allott

    Cat is a segment assistant for Twinkl's Teaching Assistant segment. After working as a teaching assistant for a time, she completed her teacher training and taught in KS2. With a background in speech and language therapy and working in a variety of educational settings, she is keen to raise the profile of teaching assistants.
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