Why emotional and social learning is more important than ever

Posted on 5th May 2023 in School News, Prep Schools Guide, Wellbeing

Jude Worthington, Deputy Head of Junior Department at St John’s College School, explains how their Emotions for Learning curriculum has enhanced the wellbeing of their pupils.

The state of the mental health of our nation has never been more important, and it’s essential that our children have the tools they need to navigate the increasingly complex world we inhabit. We know children are struggling. The mental health statistics are increasingly alarming and our children live in a time of great uncertainty and change. Children need to know what is happening in their internal world, and how to change things on the outside. They need to understand the importance of relationships and how to build them with care and trust. They need ways to communicate when they feel lost or excited or sad, to be able to problem solve, be creative and curious, and they need to learn strategies that will carry them through tough times. They also need to learn the power of positive touch or a smile or a gentle hand on the shoulder and what it feels like to help someone else. Importantly, in a school environment, they need their teachers to develop deep relationships with them.

It is with this in mind that, thirteen years ago, we created a curriculum called ‘Emotions for Learning’ (E4L) for our four to nine-year olds. E4L, as it is affectionately known, is a curriculum designed to meet the emotional and social needs of children and support good mental health. E4L can help children better understand and identify their emotions; develop empathy, increase emotional regulation and manage stress. It also helps them build better relationships and interpersonal skills that will serve them in school and beyond, helping them succeed as adults. An emerging benefit of explicit E4L lessons is that it builds the emotional intelligence and agility that business and industry is starting to name among the most desired workforce skills.

For both their wellbeing and their future economic opportunities, an E4L based approach is more crucial than ever. E4L has been developed based on research about how young children’s minds develop and how social and emotional learning happens and it is not just another subject we teach but a way of being in the St John’s College School community, a part of our whole school culture and it is this embedding of E4L across the school day that makes it so effective. At the heart of this is the understanding that meaningful and connected relationships are crucial to supporting all children to thrive. 

E4L is an incredible foundation to build upon but how does it work beyond the theory and in the classroom? One of the most important things teachers learn is ‘Listening with Heart’. By tuning in to ourselves and the body language and thoughts and feelings of the person we are listening to we can create a safe, calm space in which to practise the art of deep listening. When teachers tune in, mirror children’s emotions, and model sensitive ways of communicating, children develop important abilities that are essential for the development of thinking and learning and for good mental health. When children learn to listen deeply they develop better relationships and become independent problem solvers. We ‘dialogue’ when problems invariably arise, which means listening without judgement and not stepping in to give the children the answers to problems but instead asking sensitive questions so they can explore their thoughts and feelings, identify a problem and work out a solution. Children learn to communicate and problem solve in a compassionate and connected way which supports good relationships and learning.

‘Action Story’ is what we call peer to peer massage which promotes safe, nurturing touch between children and teaches them about their body self, as well as encouraging them to become increasingly sensitive to the body self of others. Our teachers have observed children showing more empathy and concern for each other, plus a deeper and growing understanding of the importance of consent and asking to touch another body. Following an Action Story, the classroom calms, concentration and motivation improves and, as a result, children learn more effectively.

‘Stillings’ are guided visualisations we use to encourage children to tune in to themselves in a safe and relaxing space. They give children some of the quiet time and space they need for the unconscious processing of the day’s experiences.

We believe that young children learn about themselves in the first instance when others tune in to them and mirror what they see. Throughout the school day, our teachers spontaneously model different kinds of compliments by mirroring aspects of children’s behaviour and personal characteristics. The regular use of compliments encourages children to take in a positive image of themselves and appreciate the good in others. It also creates an atmosphere of mutual care and generosity in the school community. One child noticed another ate very slowly at lunch. She gave the compliment ‘I really like the way you eat so slowly and you never rush your food’.

By embedding E4L into explicit instruction, practice and our curriculum, we can help our children better navigate the difficult circumstances they’ll face throughout their lives. We can help them thrive, even in the midst of an unprecedented global pandemic, as the E4L curriculum gives the children a toolbox packed full of strategies to help them skilfully navigate their future world. Teachers and educators can’t change the circumstances that children face beyond their classrooms and schools, but by embracing E4L, we can help them discover new beliefs about who they are and the greatness of which they’re capable.

This article appears in the 2023 edition of John Catt's Preparatory Schools, which you can view here: