Emotional literacy

The foundation we forget to teach

Whatever you teach, argues Richard Evans, helping students know themselves is equally important. Acquiring emotional literacy transforms lives – yours and theirs.  

Feature Image: Courtesy of Brian D’Cruz Hypno Plus https://www.briandcruzhypnoplus.com/

Prime Role?

Wherever you (the educator) teach in the world, in whichever school or sector, I’m guessing that your prime role is to help inspire pupils to build skills, understanding and knowledge from a curriculum bursting with learning about angles and atoms, rivers and wars. And for this you are afforded the lion’s share of your time: four to five classes a day, five days a week.

What you have no time to teach

Your subsidiary role, I’m also guessing, is to help develop pupils’ empathy and kindness, to help them grow in confidence and self-worth. And for this – notwithstanding lessons in PSHE, or the opportunities you take, or create, in class – you are afforded next to no time at all: the odd registration, five minutes at break, the occasional chat after school.

If this is so, it would appear that we (the education system) value the academic education of our children more highly than their emotional one.

My question is: why?

The importance of self-knowledge

To navigate school successfully – to be in a good place to learn – you (the pupil) surely need to be developing, alongside your knowledge of subject, your knowledge of self. To be solving questions such as: Why is it that I no longer put my hand up in class? Or never have? Why can’t I ever find my homework? Why am I not sleeping, or having breakfast, or arriving on time for lessons? Why am I not checking my work?

Understanding these not-uncommon personal issues – ones that can last a whole education – is far from straightforward for many of our pupils. So why does our school system so often assume it is so?

The usual advice

‘Just put more effort into your work,’ the system advises, when its young guests’ work falls below standards. Or when focus is lacking, just ‘concentrate harder’ or ‘go to bed earlier’. And when pupils’ conduct towards one another is harmful, ‘just think before you speak; be kinder to people’. And when they give up too easily or yawn and seem bored, it tells them to ‘be more resilient … more conscientious … more grateful … more engaged’. There’s a cyclical list, isn’t there, of well-intentioned phrases that we educators trot out, but were we to stop and think, we’d realise we’d left out the all-important, unique-to-each-person, how.

Why the usual advice fails

How do you put more effort into your work, when you couldn’t care less about it? Or concentrate harder when your focus can last just seconds? How do you think before you speak when your mind is racing, when you feel offended, or enraged? How can you be more resilient when you don’t even know what that looks like – on you, in your life?

How, in short, can you work to the best of your abilities when your best abilities rely on accessing an emotional literacy with which you’ve not yet been equipped? Surely, in our schools today, knowledge and self-knowledge should be taught in tandem, on a par, so that emotional intelligence can underpin the pursuit of its more academic peer.

Passport to self-knowledge

It was with these thoughts in mind that a colleague and I embarked on an experiment some five years ago: to create a tool, called the passport, that would help pupils develop the emotional skills necessary to solve the age-old problems of school – to put a hand up in class; complete homework on time; to act on instructions in class. And in so doing, open up a scope of learning they’d previously struggled to access. In time, with open dialogue and a focus on feelings and needs, and the how, shy pupils started to inch up their hands, others produced a first piece of homework, others still reduced their interruptions in class. The result? Pupils’ resilience, their organisation, their confidence and self-worth, started to inch upwards too.

Wider question

But the experiment perhaps begs a wider question: why education itself doesn’t start providing in earnest this foundation, this sub-layer of self-knowledge, from the day you step over its threshold to the day you leave – with emotional literacy no less a focus than academic study.

Because by teaching you (the pupil) what it is to have emotional understanding, and therefore control, over yourself and your learning, you will start to understand why making mistakes sends you puce with rage; why you shout out and with such frequency; or even that you may have a special educational need, for which there’s help you can access.

It doesn’t have to be like that

So that when you’re in your 30s or 50s or 90s, and having those moments of realisation we all have, you don’t have to look back and think: ‘That’s why I did that at school. Why I couldn’t flourish or make friends. Why I recoiled and withdrew – one academic year after another. Which continued into adult life: into my relationships and jobs, and the opportunities I never took.’

It doesn’t have to be like that. We can do this stuff at school. Teach emotional intelligence alongside academic intelligence and all our young guests will stand to benefit – at the time and beyond. It surely stands to reason: a sounder, self-reflective mind makes for a more-rounded pupil; a more-rounded pupil for a sounder education all-round.


Richard Evans is a secondary school teacher with a particular interest in, and passion for, helping pupils who struggle with literacy. A former journalist, he has spent the last decade learning from pupils in lower sets and in nurture and tuition groups.

Richard’s book Independent Thinking on Emotional Literacy (Independent Thinking Press, 2020) is out now and available here.


Feature Image: Courtesy of Brian D’Cruz Hypno Plus https://www.briandcruzhypnoplus.com/