James Park, director of Antidote, explains the benefits for everyone in creating and leading an emotionally literate school and shows how it can be done.

Emotional literacy is a philosophy of leadership. It holds that organisations are most likely to improve when careful attention is given to the quality of communication and relationships; when people at every level know they can speak honestly about what they think and feel, and that what they say will be heard and acted upon.

Leading an emotionally literate school, therefore, involves taking care of communication and relationships between staff, students, parents and others so as to ensure that all the information available about how to improve teaching and learning can flow organically to the places where it can influence classroom practice and overall management.

In such a school, each student needs to feel that when he or she can say ‘I would learn better if…’, they are contributing to a process that, over time, changes the way people are taught. And senior managers need to feel sufficiently confident in each other to be able to speak openly and then to embrace the insights, hunches and reflections that each person comes up with as a springboard for creative thinking. Parents too need to feel that they are participants in the overall conversation.

Such openness is more likely if there are times when staff and students can put aside external pressures, as well as management agendas, so that they can engage in open conversations around questions such as:

  • What is really going on here?
  • How does what is going on affect teaching and learning?
  • What can we do to make things even better?

Obstacles to progress

We all know that there are significant obstacles in the way of such open conversations. A preoccupation with short-term targets makes it difficult to focus on strategies which are only likely to have a big impact in the medium term. Finding time to improve the quality of communication and relationships may seem impossible when so much basic information about school organisation needs to be exchanged. And staff used to complying with directives from central government may find it difficult to see the point of engaging in their own creative exploration.

Added to that, managers may have their own reasons resisting the idea of providing staff and students with significant opportunities to engage in shaping school strategies. And anyway power hierarchies across staff and student communities can easily get in the way of people feeling able to describe their experience and thinking about how that experience might be improved.

However, with growing evidence that an emotionally literate approach can unlock the barriers to learning faced by many young people and release even more potential in those who are currently doing well, leaders need to confront these sorts of obstacles and find ways to shift them.

They cannot, after all, any longer complain that they have not been given permission to adopt an emotionally literate approach. The Every Child Matters agenda requires that schools do what it takes to ensure that all children feel safe, can achieve and make a positive contribution. And the DfES has released a Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL) curriculum for primary schools.

Creating frameworks

Antidote has developed an approach to helping schools open up communication and relationships through four years of collaborative research with Gallions Primary School in the London Borough of Newham (see box, below).

Out of this work came a framework for thinking about what sort of emotional experience people needed if they were to be open with each other. Staff and students identified that they needed to feel:

  • capable – that other people wanted them to succeed
  • listened to – because what they said had a chance of bringing about change
  • accepted – for who they are, rather than their willingness to conform to others’ expectations
  • safe – because their emotional experience was taken into account
  • included – with a role to play that leads to their feeling valued.

Case Study

Antidote’s work with Gallions Primary School in the London Borough of Newham started by exploring what was really going on for staff as well as students. Staff decided that they needed first to make sense of their own relationships before they could address what was going on for students.

A series of discussions between teachers, learning assistants and office staff helped to evolve organisational structure designed to improve communication and strengthen the degree of management support people received. This made it possible for people to talk more openly and to come forward with their own ideas.

‘Antidote started the staff talking as a group,’ recalls headteacher Bernadette Thompson, ‘and imperceptibly the emotional climate began to change. People were coming to me saying, “We have a problem here but we’ve thought of a couple of solutions that might work.” Before they used to say, “We have a problem here. We’ll leave it with you”.’

In this livelier climate, staff began to talk about their feeling that circle time did not go deeply enough. It didn’t enable students to address the issues they found pressing, particularly the high level of social anxiety provoked by their relationships with adults and with each other. Out of this discussion came a decision to train all teachers in Philosophy for Children(P4C) as a method that would simultaneously foster children’s thinking skills while also increasing their emotional and social awareness.

The effect of this approach on children’s thinking as well as their capacity to work collaboratively and resolve problems together was striking, particularly so in a number of children at risk of exclusion, with recognised learning difficulties or limited English.

‘Within a few months of doing philosophy,’ says teacher Lisa Naylor, ‘their ability to listen and respond improved almost beyond belief. There was a more cooperative feel to the class. Empathy was regularly displayed both in the classroom and the playground. The children showed clear development as critical thinkers too. At the end of the year they worked together, with no adult involvement, to write and act a play to show to the school.’

With philosophy embedded in the weekly timetable for all classes in years 1-6, an enquiring approach became a central thread through staff and student communications. This helped to ensure the success of several further developments, including a peer mediation programme.

We also developed an online survey tool – the School Emotional Environment for Learning Survey (SEELS) – which enables the whole-school community to provide a confidential report on how their personal experience against those five dimensions. This can then be fed back to people as a picture of what is going on. Presenting emotional experience as hard data helps to turn personal opinions, that can be easily dismissed, into facts that need to be addressed. Important things that have remained below the surface enter an arena where they can be talked about.

The process of working with SEELS data works to stimulate people’s curiosity about the different experience that others have of being in the same year group or school. People become focused on what is going on across the whole-school community, helping build a picture of what is happening that will make sense to everyone, so that people are agreed on what needs to change before they start competing to come up with solutions.

Committed leadership

It is sometimes said that the process of shaping a more emotionally literate organisation needs to ‘start from the top’ with its leader’s commitment to personal transformation. The boss needs be the ‘first mover’ to show others how they need to change.

Such an approach risks encouraging the sort of grandiosity that blocks emotionally literate communication. Our experience is that it is much more important for everyone to feel they have a role to play in bringing about change. Small changes across a whole organisation are more powerful and sustainable than big changes in one part of it, whether  that part is the headteacher or a difficult class.

The most important quality a head can develop, therefore, is openness. When told that only 20% of staff say they always feel listened to, it is easy to crush movement with a defensive statement along the lines of ‘I always consult them on important decisions’. Far better to say instead ‘I wonder why’. And when told that 40% of students almost never feel ‘included’, curiosity needs to prevail over ‘Well, if they did some work for once, we would take them more seriously and value them more highly.’


Starting with an exploration of what is going on helps to ensure that whatever strategies emerge are seen as responses to the organisation’s real needs, rather than something imposed from above ‘because they worked elsewhere’.

Often, what needs to happen is not anything new, rather a shift in the way things are done: helping class teachers find a new perspective on groupwork, for example, deepening the sorts of conversations that take place in peer support sessions and broadening the agenda for the school council as well as staff meetings.

However, the most exciting breakthroughs come from the way improvements in the way students talk to each other makes it possible to move from an approach focused on teaching to one that emphasises learning. This also makes it possible to more closely align staff-school and student agendas.

Clearly, children start out much more interested in questions of identity and relationship – ‘Who am I?’; ‘How do I fit in with everyone else?’ and ‘What am I going to do with my life?’ – than they are in the formal content of the curriculum. To become fully engaged in learning, they need to recognise how they find answers to these questions both through the process of studying with others and from the content of what they study – through the way they read literature, understand historical conflicts and explore the process of scientific discovery. An emotionally literate approach makes it possible for students to become more creative, resilient and strategic learners.

Key elements in an emotional literacy strategy

  • Start by exploring what things really feel like for the people in place, taking time to understand what is working well and what seems to be causing difficulty
  • Seek out the empathy and creativity within the school, and find ways to build on existing work, rather than diverting energy to an entirely new initiative
  • Collaborate with staff and students to develop new ways of working in response to their interests and needs
  • Use every opportunity for ongoing reflection with leadership,  staff and students, evaluating and celebrating the work as it evolves
    Ask and keep asking: What is going on here? What might make it feel better?

    To find out how Antidote works with schools to help them shape emotional environments that give young people the best possible opportunity to learn and to grow, go to www.antidote.org.uk

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