In the first episode of her diary, drama teacher Julie Leoni writes about reconciling her emotional literacy programme with the school’s focus on targets and achievement.

The school where I work is a large, 11-16 co-educational comprehensive in the Marches, on the English-Welsh border. It does not have much ethnic diversity. However, it has been part of an education action zone and now an excellence cluster, on account of its geographical and cultural isolation.

I am in charge of drama in the school, and run an emotional literacy course as part of this. With no national curriculum for drama, this means that there is room to experiment and play. As well as being a drama teacher, I am also coordinating the roll-out of SEAL (the primary emotional literacy curriculum) across the county. Additionally, I do some work for the Open University and Antidote.

Relating to the head

In previous issues of Raising Achievement, the account of my PhD research on the emotional interactions between students and staff that lead to exclusion. After taking some time away from teaching to write the PhD and have a child, I came back to the school to find a new headteacher in place. He was not immediately responsive to ideas about emotional literacy coming from a part-time head of drama who had just returned from maternity leave.

It has taken a long time for the two of us to build a professional relationship where we accept that we are very different, but recognise we are equally committed to doing the best for our young people.

Head’s concerns

The head’s concerns were to:

  • raise the A*-C pass rate
  • improve our access to technology
  • become a centre of excellence for teaching.

When I first uttered the words ‘emotional literacy’ to him, he challenged me with the question: ‘How will it improve results?’ It was a fair question. I found it hard to come up with evidence to support my claim that it will. My own research showed how overwhelming feelings made it difficult for children to study. Research from the US has indicated that meditation (part of what we do in class) improves concentration and social relationships. As a result, exam results soar.

The reality is, however, that there is little input/output research of the sort that says: ‘We did emotional literacy in lessons and, as a direct result, our exam grades soared.’ Exam results are quantitative measures of outcome. Emotional literacy, by contrast, is a qualitative measure of process. So, it needs to be ‘assessed’ using qualitative methods such as the interview, the research journal and so on.

Assessing progress

I will not, therefore, be giving the pupils levels for their work. Just imagine the grade descriptors: ‘Level 3, shares sometimes and can negotiate as long as s/he gets his/her own way.’ The students are, though, constantly being asked to consider how they move on and what they could do differently.

So, after one session on teamwork, Ben fed back that he was pleased Kris had learned to not get too close to other people. Kris is on the autistic spectrum and often touches and pushes his classmates in a way that they dislike. Kris looked pink with pride at his success. The rest of the group joined in the applause as a recognition of the big step forward he had made.

In a check-in, Emma thought through how she might have handled a row with her friend differently and, when we did an empathy exercise, she was even able to let go of her own anger and see how her friend had been feeling. 

The pupils will also be asked to fill in self-reflection forms at the end of each half term. We have done pretty well so far on ‘formative oral and peer assessment’ (a tick for the Ofsted box). We are also addressing issues of pupil voice and Every Child Matters (more boxes ticked). We will be ahead of the game when Secondary SEAL finally emerges and, most important of all, we are building positive relationships.

The sessions

One of the fears about emotional literacy work in school is that it ‘wastes time’, and is a distraction from the main business of exams. This is not just the headteacher’s fear, it is a tension that I recognise within myself. After 18 years of teaching structured lessons, I still have to work with the little voice inside me that wants to hurry up the process. It has taken years of therapy, meditation and listening to the demands of my three year old to anchor me more often in the present so that I can just ‘be’, open and receptive, rather than trying to transmit information.

My emotional literacy lessons do have a structure, though. It goes something like this:

  • a game
  • the check-in, focusing on how we are feeling right now (no names allowed and no need to explain causes unless you want to)
  • a meditation
  • the main part of the lesson.

Some of the boys find sitting and ‘talking’ difficult; so if the check-in is long, I break it up with a physical game. Sometimes I use the body during meditation, relaxing the muscles as well as the mind. We end with a plenary in the form of another circle to check out learning and feelings. One Year 7 student said: ‘We should do this in every lesson, it helps us calm down and we find out so much about people’.

Normal drama

The feedback from students at the end of my PhD was that, as well as doing all that ‘warm fuzzy stuff’, they still wanted ‘normal’ drama. So far this year, we have worked on vocal skills and started to work on how we use our body to create a character. This just goes to show that you cannot do anything in drama without working with other people and stirring up feelings. Even if you can work with a friend, you may be watched by those you don’t know or don’t like. You may have to give feedback to friends and enemies alike, and sometimes, if Miss is being a real pain, she chooses the groups!


What makes my lessons different from the rest of teaching in the school is that much of the learning arises from the pupils themselves:

  • what they bring to the exercises and check-ins
  • how they advise each other to deal with situations
  • what they ask for to meet their needs.

I am more of a conductor than a leader: working with talented musicians who all know how to play their own instrument (themselves) but sometimes need some help to make themselves heard, to play to their own style, to abandon habits which hold them back.  As with all concerts, some instruments sound more loudly than others at different times and every player has a unique sound. However, the end result is not just learning for the individual, but the creation of something new and beautiful every time, for everyone.

Nurturing attachments

Most of my memories of school are of people I was lucky enough to have: teachers who I loved and respected, and of friendships which brought heartache and joy. For me, the emotional literacy work will be a success if nurturing and secure attachments are formed and if the young people find a space where they are the teachers, the students, the confidantes, the coaches and the sages. When that happens, they become the centre of the curriculum.

Billy and Josie

When Billy Bob told us today that he had been in internal isolation because he lost his temper, Josie told him how sad she was when he wasn’t in her lessons. She said she wanted him to tell her, or Vince or Kye, if he felt himself getting wound up because then they could help him or ask the teacher to give him some time out. She offered him solutions and new ways of behaving.

Hearing this, Billy Bob looked like he had been immersed in a warm bath after a cold trudge through sludge. He was able to listen and let himself be cared for. It felt very powerful.

Carl Rogers, the founder of client-centred psychotherapy, said that his core conditions of unconditional positive regard, empathy and congruence were as necessary in schools as in the therapy room. I think that he would have found evidence to support his claim in the check-in described above.
I provided a model of behaving and being, the space, the boundaries and the time. The young people were then able to create the core conditions amongst themselves. Not only had Billy been given other options for how to behave when he was angry, he had also shared his anger in a verbal way which did not harm others. He found his anger accepted and understood and was able to allow himself to engage with others at a more intimate level.  Josie spoke of her care for Billy and this was accepted by the group, without teasing. She modelled for them how nurturing friendship can be. She also got positive feedback herself, because several members of the class supported her and told her how well she had spoken.

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