What Should Educators Know About Teaching Emotions?
Primary schools understand the importance of physical activity and a balanced diet for children's health even if they don't always get it right. You don't need an impeccable lunch menu to recognise a nutritional meal. If you're not already offering a broad range of sporting activities, perhaps you're working towards it.
Mental health, on the other hand, is a relatively new subject for primary schools. We once presumed children don't suffer with mental health issues until their teens when hormones explode and pressures intensify. Now, we know it's common for pupils as young as four to struggle with constructive forms of emotional expression.
While increases in the number of young children with mental health problems may seem worrying, it's partly explained by a higher rate of reporting. We're prioritising mental health better. We's talking more. We're making more time for children to figure out how they feel.
Teaching emotional coping skills is a big part of this. In our blog, we discuss some things schools should know about teaching emotions.
Isn't teaching emotions a waste of time when there are academic challenges to prepare for?
This is something we hear a lot, usually from teachers who feel under pressure to maintain results no matter what. It's rare to meet educators who really don't believe in teaching emotional awareness. Our answer is to point to the many studies which show children who learn social and emotional skills perform better academically.
This isn't new age teaching; pupils who can regulate their emotions can also manage the stress of essays, exams, peer pressure and parent expectations.
What is the best way to teach children how to regulate their emotions?
When teaching emotions, schools should operate on two levels. The first is the classic framework we all know and love - explain, demonstrate, practise. As part of structured lessons, discuss the benefits and downsides of emotions. Which are negative? Which are positive? Why might we need to control some emotions? Use class discussions, group activities and worksheets to explore different scenarios and match them with appropriate coping and control strategies.
The second is informal learning. Every day, there will be an opportunity to engage with an emotional pupil in class. Use these teachable moments to offer alternative ways (deep breathing, slow counting, body scanning, etc) to express anger, sadness, embarrassment or other negative emotions.
What if some pupils don't feel comfortable talking about their emotions?
In a class, there will always be outgoing pupils who are happy to share personal stories. Children don't always need to participate vocally to benefit from PSHE lessons. In fact, you should be sensitive to the possibility certain topics may quietly affect some more than others. Preface talking activities with a reminder that it's okay to use a fictional story or experience. Often, relating through a character or a persona is a good way for anxious children to talk about themselves.
Make it clear you're always available to talk with pupils about any problem which may be worrying them.
Are there disadvantages to teaching emotions in primary school?
Sometimes there are pitfalls. Rarely, teachers will clash with parents about the types of behaviours being labelled 'negative' or unconstructive.' PSHE topics tend to be sensitive anyway and it's important to understand not everybody thinks they're a good use of time. It's helpful to make a distinction between class and home. Whatever rules a pupil may follow at home, your rules are separate. They may be different, but it doesn't mean they have to undermine or negate home rules. Regardless, they are not optional.
Teachers have a responsibility to speak carefully about a child's home routines. UNLESS there is suspicion a pupil is in danger, take care not to make judgements which may single them out as 'weird' or lesser to the rest of the class.
Can emotional learning be beneficial for physical activity and sports?
Just as emotional learning isn't separate from academic outcomes, it's not unrelated to physical skills. We know sports are very emotional activities. Often, success on the sporting field depends on a player's ability to express and suppress their aggression at appropriate times. The best athletes in the world are masters at controlling their emotions.
It's true that sports builds character. However, certain types of character are necessary for truly exceling at sport.