Some participants in a phone-in programme about the roll-out of SEAL thought that happiness could not or should not be taught, and that it was simply a question of ‘common sense’. Emotional literacy coordinator Julie Leoni explains why she disagrees

I was on BBC local radio at the start of the month, talking about the roll-out of SEAL to secondary schools. My appearance was sandwiched between discussions of speed signs in rural villages and how there is a national shortage of coat hangers (not in my house there isn’t!).

Mixed responses

The interviewer, who came to my house, seemed genuinely supportive of the whole agenda. However, the phone-in discussion afterwards was mixed. There were those who thought ‘happiness’:

  • could not be taught
  • should not be taught
  • was just common sense any way.

Buddhists and Sufis, of course, will tell you that happiness really cannot be taught; as it is just one of the many fleeting emotions which humans experience: the only true bliss is when we realise that we are more than the sum of the these emotions. Meditation is the art of watching your feelings, and experiencing them, without getting lost in them. This is something that SEAL aims to help children do. To those who argue that SEAL is not appropriate for school, I would ask how well they know what SEAL is. How can motivation, self-esteem, interpersonal skills, self-awareness and control not be important in school life?

Common-sense brigade

I have to admit to slightly envying the final group of dissenters, the ‘isn’t it common sense?’, brigade. I remember sitting in a Croydon bar many years ago with Sally, when we were young, childfree, flat-stomached and single. I was telling her about how much my therapist had helped me. Sally, in all honesty, asked what I needed it for. When I gave her examples of how it had helped me like myself more, allowing me to feel angry and act positively in response to it, rather than just crying in frustration, she asked ‘don’t you just know that?’. Well, I didn’t just know that. Sally knew it and to be with her and her family is an inspiration. She nurtures, supports and motivates herself as well as others. Her kids are self-aware and kind without a degree of angst or malice. Sally ‘just knew’ it because her parents just knew it and her kids will just know it because she does and she chose a life partner who also does. But I am the child of parents who divorced and left me without a working model of how to have a successful marriage; only what I have observed from friends and cousins over the years. Both my parents suffered as a result of the war. My mum was evacuated at the age of five; so never really lived with her parents or siblings. My father was a Jew in Italy, whose father went off to fight in the resistance, leaving him and his mother to hide and survive as best they could. My memories of childhood were that we didn’t really talk about feelings and, if either parent said ‘jump’, my sister and I would jump higher. But, given their own lost attachments and trauma, my parents did a very good job of bringing us up.

Me, an expert?

On the radio, I was introduced as an ‘expert’ in emotional literacy and I felt the old shadow of self-doubt tap me on the shoulder. Who on earth did I think I was? Me, an expert in emotional literacy? You have got to be joking. For the last 10 days, I have been a sleep-deprived harridan. With baby Ben now 15 weeks old, I have shouted at Matty for not getting ready in the morning even though I know he’s only four: the result is that going to school is an enormous step and he too is exhausted. I criticise my husband for pretty much everything from not taking the bin out and not setting boundaries to not being calm with Matty (because obviously Little Miss Perfect is allowed to lose it with her kids, but no one else is!).

Work in progress

So, I am a work in progress, just as my parents were. I don’t ‘just know’ how to ask for what I need, to negotiate solutions, so give myself time out as well as everyone else, I have to keep reminding myself of it and old habits die hard. I need to practice the new ways of being with people who will forgive me for making mistakes and who will model how I would like to be. As a teacher, I am more able to do that and to be the supporter for other people’s journey, maybe because my own experiences of education at all levels has been so positive and I have worked with so many amazing mentors. As a parent and wife, I need all the positive role modelling and awareness-raising that I can get. I consciously look for it now, just as I did when I was a kid, going round to friends’ houses and looking at how they did family life, all the time looking for clues.

And that’s why SEAL is so important in schools because there are fewer and fewer families like Sally’s and more and more like mine. And all of us are works in progress.