Emotional literacy is a skill much more innate in children than in adults. This means that, when teaching SEAL, we need to be in touch with our own emotions and needs, explains emotional literacy coordinator Julie Leoni

My four-and-three-quarter-year-old, Matty, sometimes says to me: ‘I’m the oldest, I know!’ No matter how often I explain that, although he might be older than his walking-already-brother he isn’t older than me, he just doesn’t believe it.

One day, as I was walking along the Welsh lanes with my 10-month-old Ben, in between thunderstorms and sun shine, watching the lambs nuzzle their mothers for milk, I realised that, in one way at least, he might be right.

My mind made jumps from lambs feeding to not-so-baby still feeding: now that Ben’s conscious enough to know which bit of my body he’d like to attach to, he’ll grab hold of my top and peer down it hopefully! Recently, he did the same thing to my much better endowed neighbour, who chuckled and then snuggled him tight. My thought on observing this scene was that, if SEAL is about self-awareness, motivation and getting on with people, Ben was displaying top-class SEAL skills!

Interactive babies
Ben sits in waiting rooms, grinning, dribbling and staring so determinedly that even the most sallow and sad face will eventually turn towards him and light up. Before you know it, they are both engaged in the silly face peepoo routine! He’s wired to engage and makes sure he gets his needs met.

Ben loves watching lambs. Sheep are okay, but it is the lambs he loves. Does he know they’re children like him? Does he have an awareness of shared experience as he watches them trail after their impatient mothers? My sense is that he does.

When Matty was about two, we took him to the zoo for the first time. The day went well until towards the end, when we reached the elephant house. There we were watching the elephants being fed and put to bed for the night, when the baby elephant keeled over in the straw under his mother’s feet. ‘What’s happened?!’ cried Matty and burst into sobs of sadness. No matter how often we explained that the elephant was so tired it had just fallen asleep, he was convinced he had watched something more sinister.

‘Why won’t it get up?’ he said. ‘Why won’t its mummy help it?’ He thought the baby elephant had died and was inconsolable.

Early-onset empathy
I read the other day that empathy used to be seen as a higher-order skill, which was only acquired in later childhood. I was amazed: my experience of Matty was that he was empathetic from a very young age. And that is what the research was also saying, that children far younger than had previously been thought showed empathy.

So are the emotional literacy skills of empathy, motivation, self-awareness and social skills inbuilt? Managing emotion is to do with culture isn’t it? So for example, my mum’s generation was stiff upper lip when it came to mourning, whereas in some cultures wailing is expected. I was brought up with the message that one shouldn’t ‘wash our dirty linen in public’. Yet, 40 years on, here we are encouraging talk and sharing. So I can see that the managing feelings and in part, social skills are things that we have to learn.

Becoming deskilled
But what if, we are born with innate emotional literacy skills that we lose through the impact of our families, schools and culture? Immediately after birth, babies are now put in skin to skin contact, usually with the mother, as this is known to encourage bonding. If you put a new-born baby on its mother’s tummy, within the hour it will have wiggled its way to her breast. So we have an inbuilt motivation to complete tasks even if we have never attempted them before.

But then, as we get older, we learn how not to be emotional. As Donkey says to Shrek ‘you’re so covered up in layers, onion boy, you forgot to show your own feelings’!

The problems arise when our needs and feelings come into contact with those of someone else. I want quiet time as I’m tired; Matty wants to read a story so as to have contact and cuddles; Ben wants to climb onto the table as he wants to develop his motor skills and watch the dog out of the window. Matty has to learn patience, Ben has to learn caution and I have to learn tolerance: none are easy skills and that’s where socialisation and SEAL come in.

Start with the adults
The implications for SEAL are that we really do have to start with the adults. If it is through the big people in our lives that we learn to cover up our needs and feelings, then the more open and aware we become as adults, the less covering up the young people in our care will need to do.

And, since we are the transmitters of cultural norms, if it really isn’t OK in this culture to hit people who make us cross, then we need to be modelling as well as teaching that to young people who may have family cultures which do not fit the norm. So we need to be clear in what we want to transmit regarding our culture to young people, but also open to what we can learn from the young people regarding our own emotions and needs, which we might have kept covered for years.