Former deputy head Marilyn Tew describes how some of the students she has worked with used TalkiT – a profiling tool that she developed and wrote about previously in Emotional Literacy Update – to overcome the emotional literacy issues that blocked their learning.

TalkiT is a profiling tool that uses computer software to generate feedback profiles for young people in relation to their emotional literacy. Developed through research into what young people aged 11 to 13 say is important to do well at school, it shows that the way their view of success is almost entirely personal and social in nature. At this age and stage, they are preoccupied with making sense of themselves and their social context. Their overriding life questions are: ‘Who am I?’ and ‘How do I fit in?’ Only when attention is given to these issues, do they envisage being able to engage with the processes of learning.

The stories that follow examine how young people overcame significant difficulties in their personal or social realms that blocked their ability to learn.

Tackling maths
Krystal lacks confidence. In discussion, she identifies maths as a subject that makes her feel particularly under-confident. In other areas, she is a fun-loving and cheerful girl, willing to take part and well integrated into the social group. In maths, she either:

  • shuffles into the room, procrastinates about getting out her books, looks at the topic on the board and states ‘I can’t do that’ in a flat voice
  • enters the room spoiling for a fight. In this state, she sits down, refuses to get out her books, looks daggers at the teacher and deflects any attempt to get her to engage with the lesson, using an aggressive tone of voice and insolent comments.

Krystal is not unique in her well-developed avoidance strategies for a subject that she finds challenging. The interesting question is ‘What does Krystal get out of this behaviour?’

In emotional terms, she is getting some of her needs met. She is in a situation where she feels disempowered. She knows that, if she attempts to do the maths work, it will be a very short time before she is stuck. She doesn’t like the feelings associated with not being in control; so she seizes power by her refusal to engage with the lesson. She uses her strength to cover up her weakness.

Realistic tasks Krystal responded to being set realistic tasks and receiving plenty of praise for effort. She needed to understand that keeping going is the key to success. It helped to start with short tasks that provided a quick return for effort, before moving to more demanding work. The sense of achievement derived from being able to do the first task created the motivation to keep going at the second, more difficult task.

Getting on track
Gary isn’t a malicious person; he is just always in trouble. He isn’t very well organised and his focus of attention is definitely the lesson that he is currently in. He forgets most things, from his cooking ingredients, to his PE kit and his homework. Teachers might be relieved to know that he also forgets to walk the dog, put the rubbish out and give notes to his parents.

Gary isn’t a malicious person; he is just always in trouble. He isn’t very well organised and his focus of attention is definitely the lesson that he is currently in.

Lacking awareness
In class, he does not seem to have any awareness of his surroundings or any common sense. He will talk when the teacher is talking. He fiddles with equipment, both his own and other people’s, gets easily distracted by events anywhere in the room and will stand up and walk over to another student if the impulse takes him. In science, he is particularly challenging because he messes about with any equipment available, putting it to whatever creative use occurs to him in the moment.

The result of Gary’s impulsive behaviour is under-achievement and constant conflict with teachers. Gary doesn’t understand why he is in trouble. He sees it as a form of victimisation, saying things like:

  • ‘They are always picking on me.’
  • ‘The others do it too, but I’m the one in trouble all the time.’
  • ‘It’s not fair.’

Increasing self-awareness
Working with Gary to increase his self-awareness was very successful. I accompanied him to lessons and made careful observational notes to feed back to him. The observations provided fuel for discussions. Role-plays were particularly successful in enabling him to see what he was doing. Gary took different roles in the scenarios and gained personal insights, alongside empathy with the people around him.

Finding passion
One day, a breakthrough came when we did an exercise together. We started by looking at what he wanted to do when he left school. He was passionate about racing cars and wanted to be a racing car driver. I didn’t worry about the practical likelihood of that happening. I just took a piece of paper, drew a mountain on it and wrote his ambition at the summit.

I then gave him a pack of cards which I had made, representing all his subjects and teachers. I got him first to rank all his subjects from the one he liked best to the one he liked least. I then asked him to rank his teachers from the one he got on with best to the one he found most difficult.

Favoured teachers
The results of this sorting exercise and the ensuing conversation revealed that Gary least enjoyed lessons with teachers he didn’t like, irrespective of the subject and his affinity with the information. He was amazed when he realised that he let his feelings for teachers dictate how well he did in a subject. We then looked at what he needed in order to realise his ambition of being a racing driver. We put the short-term goals on the mountain drawing and suddenly Gary put his head in his hands and said ‘It’s no good is it? I’ve been too bad to get what I want.’

From this point onwards we began to work productively together. He began to:

  • think about his behaviour in lessons
  • take responsibility for his actions
  • gain both better academic results and better relationships with teachers.

Things were not transformed overnight, but Gary was now working with the school rather than against it, and really thinking about how he could stay on track.

Developing integrity
Ellen lacks integrity. The people around her say that she lies. Ellen doesn’t agree. She believes that she is telling things as they are when she makes up stories about herself, her family, her history and her friendships. It isn’t that Ellen deliberately sets out to lie, rather that the realities of her life are so unpalatable that she prefers the life that she builds around herself in the stories that she tells.

The only place of real integrity for Ellen is in relation to her ice-skating. She has found a talent for skating that is real. This is the only place where she feels she has the freedom to be true to who she is. On the ice she has genuine skill, measured in the faces of her coach, her fellow skaters and the competition judges.

Building from success
Building from the place of genuine success was the beginning of greater integrity for Ellen. I visited the ice rink on a Sunday morning to watch her practice. My knowledge of her skating became a bridge across which Ellen could walk to make a relationship with me in school. Slowly, very slowly, the trust built and she became more honest about the realities of her situation. She talked of her adoptive family, her true family, the mother who didn’t and still doesn’t want her and the many painful events that had caused her to make up a happier life. Each disclosure diminished the need for fabrication and helped Ellen to become a more integrated person. I can’t say that she didn’t make up stories any more. She did, however, gain in confidence to be who she was rather than some make-believe person who deceived no-one and alienated many.

Things were not transformed overnight, but Gary was now working with the school rather than against it, and really thinking about how he could stay on track

Dealing with anger
Chantal is a beautiful, tall and graceful girl. She has long blonde hair, rich hazel eyes, a perfect figure, and she cuts herself. She likes the feeling even though it hurts. She takes a pair of scissors, a compass or a penknife and she cuts her forearms from wrist to elbow. She hides her arms from her mother, wearing long sleeves even on hot days. However, her friends at school know what she does and are in a perpetual state of anxiety, fearing that she will slit her wrists and die.

Pent-up anger
Talking to Chantal reveals a lot of pent up anger. She is angry with her mentally unwell mother for not caring enough about her. Her older brother is unsympathetic and stressed in his own way as a result of dealing with his mum’s emotional state. Dad is off the scene from any practical point of view. The household is turbulent and unpredictable. Mum swings from high levels of attention, borne on a tide of guilt, to complete withdrawal in an attempt to deal with her own internal depressive state.

Chantal’s emotional needs for security, love, affection and a sense of belonging are not being met. She is angry. She learned long ago, however, that getting angry at home doesn’t have any productive effect on her situation: so she has turned her anger on herself.

A lot of talking Working with Chantal involved a lot of talking. She started by taking no responsibility for her actions. She said she wanted to die; there was no point in being alive, no-one cared whether she lived or died, so why bother? The cutting was of no consequence. It just made her feel better by bringing a brief sense of relief. She couldn’t understand why her classmates were even interested in the cuts on her arms, let alone why they would want to stop her. Talking over a period of time enabled her to see that her friends did care. They were concerned. She began to develop a degree of empathy for her mum’s position and some healthier ways of talking about her anger. Eventually she found better ways of dealing with her angry feelings and finally stopped cutting herself.

Marilyn Tew’s book School Effectiveness: Student Success through Emotional Literacy will be available in the summer of 2006, published by Lucky Duck/Sage at £17.99
You can find out more about Marilyn Tew and TalkiT at

TalkiT dimensions Self-awareness – including confidence, shyness, optimism, imagination, truthfulness and honesty or integrity. Self-control – which relates to coping with anger and frustration Motivation – including staying on track with school expectations and keeping going in the face of difficulty or boredom Getting on with others – including working together, fitting in and good communication

Understanding others – includes empathy as a measure of seeing the world from another person’s perspective and being helpful, which is a person’s actions resulting from being empathic.