Julie Leoni, emotional literacy coordinator at the Marches School in Shropshire, reflects on the need for teachers to take risks if they are to encourage creative risk-taking in their students

I went to a meeting recently with three county advisers, two headteachers, an educational psychologist and a baby! It was about our project to encourage students in Key Stages 1 and 2 to take risks. The premise behind this question is that young people tend to be conservative in their designs. Dave, the design and technology adviser, had worked with me on how SEAL approaches can be used across the curriculum. He set up a couple of design and technology projects and I worked alongside him using SEAL ideas to help raise awareness of the opportunities for emotional literacy which arose.


One of the ways I suggested for linking the two subject areas was to focus on building self-esteem. Research has shown that pupils with high self-esteem are more willing to:

  • learn from their mistakes
  • take positive risks
  • ask for help

Pupils with low self-esteem, by contrast, are more likely to take negative risks, such as using drugs, drinking, cheating and driving cars fast. They are less likely to have an accurate assessment of their abilities and are more likely to blame external factors for their failure. Dave thought that, although valid, this approach was already in the educational world. He wanted something more original!

Secure base

So I turned to attachment theory, which argues that children are more likely to go off into the world and explore, taking the risks that exploration entails, when they know that there is a secure base to which they can return. Children who are insecurely attached are either very clingy as they don’t feel safe moving away from their carer, or else they take dangerous risks because they don’t feel that the base cares.

Heather Geddes has written about how schools can offer children a secure base when the adults in it  offer opportunities to attach and experience the sort of ‘empathetic attunement’ that enables young people to contain their emotions. This means that children need to know that their teachers and school will:

  • be there for them
  • listen to and understand how they are feeling
  • allow them to experience all their emotions in a safe way.

Process At the meeting, we quickly identified that, if we want young people to take risks, we need to empower teachers to take risks themselves. Despite our acknowledgement that risk-taking needs a certain amount of freedom to flourish, the meeting started with a list of things that teachers would have to do! Also, the various agencies involved with the project were all separate, with lists of targets to meet. As the meeting progressed, we began to see that, for the project to be the best it could be, we needed to facilitate open discussion between all those involved so that they could take ownership of what they would do and how. In order for teachers to help kids take risks, we needed to take risks on opening up the agenda and the process.

Accepting nature

A recent article in the Observer magazine commemorated the big storm in the south-east of England 20 years ago which wiped out acres of trees. The National Trust organised a huge clear-up in the wake of the storm and then replanted. They and now wish they hadn’t. Where they had just let nature get on with things on her own, there was a ‘richer variety of trees and ecology’. When trees are not tended and watered, they ‘grow more strongly if they are forced to send out roots for moisture’. ‘Naturally propagated plants show more genetic variety and strength than mass plantations’. Their conclusion was that ‘humans like to control everything’ but they need to ‘accept whatever nature gives us’. Why don’t we just accept what nature gives us and let it unfold to manifest its potential? Fear, probably. I get more and more controlling, the more afraid I become. We want to make order out of the chaos, in order to give the illusion of having some control over ourselves, others and the environment. I’m not suggesting that all is chaos or that control is bad, but its about letting there be enough chaos for the new to flourish.

Baby in tow

I will shortly be doing some training with Ben in tow again. Risky? I should say so. Yes, there is potential for chaos. Yes, I am nervous about how I will cope, how he will cope, how my co-presenters will cope but most of all, how the punters will cope.

However, I do trust that Ben is securely attached and so will feel OK in a room full of people. I feel secure enough with my co-presenters to know that we can be real about the situation and adapt and respond to the situation as we go, so I feel I can take the risk of being a mum as well as a presenter. I also hope that by being real with the people on the course, and building attachments, we can create some chaos, but allow some stars to emerge!