Emotional literacy: The secret to learning engagement

Written by: Sanjo Jeffrey | Published:
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Being emotionally literate can help students to engage with learning, but it is through dialogue that emotional literacy develops and makes its contributions to learning. Sanjo Jeffrey discusses

Emotional literacy and emotional intelligence focus on people getting along because they understand their own emotions and the emotions of others.

Interacting positively with one another especially now that we are citizens of a global community is very important and emotional literacy is the key that opens this door.

Being brilliant and having a high IQ is not enough to achieve success in the world. In fact, Goleman (1998), an advocate of emotional literacy emphasises “Emotional Quotient” as essential for excellence in any field.

Nowadays there is greater need for people to connect and make use of their social skills above and beyond their “book intelligence”.

In a world where change is as sure as daybreak, Goleman (1998) posits that “a lack of emotional intelligences in … an unstable environment means certain failure”.

Employers have recognised that there was a missing component in their business plans. They had to make a change and review their recruitment processes.

Schools have also had to make a change. They have had to change the product they were creating by changing the process of production. Instead of just teaching the students how to do a problem they also needed to teach the children how to talk about their emotions so that they could get “in tune” with themselves and others, and work together to solve the problem.

According to a 1994 follow-up study of a PhD study (cited in Goleman 1998), “emotional intelligence abilities were about four times more important than IQ in determining professional success and prestige”.

So it stands to reason that if schools are to continue to be relevant and useful, they too have to focus on the emotions.

This is both appropriate and complementary to the national curriculum. Research findings from Antidote (2003) tell us that “emotional literacy ensures young people are ready to absorb the knowledge and develop the skills laid down in the curriculum … (other processes) do not stimulate young people’s desire and capacity to learn. That is why we argue that, ultimately, emotional literacy needs to be practised within the study of every curriculum subject”.

Schools all want their students to absorb knowledge and develop skills and if there is a tool that will encourage this then it should be used with great enthusiasm.

Rudd (2003) posits that: “The years between the ages of about 12 and 20 are dense with changes for young people. Emotions are particularly changeable during this time. Importantly, the way teenagers are at present can mould them into what they become as adults. For this reason, now is a good time to allow teenagers the opportunity to increase their emotional intelligence, not only to enhance their health but also in order to become good citizens.”

When students are helped out of emotional states that are not conducive to learning and are given opportunities to create a positive learning space then they will be able to achieve general success and excellence while being positive, responsible citizens.

Research by Antidote (2003) supports this. The “capacity to transform feelings is enormously useful in fostering learning power. By becoming more emotionally fluent, students can find ways of putting themselves into the sort of states that are more appropriate for whatever task they are engaged in, whether it is trying to analyse a problem, absorb masses of information, write an essay, prepare for an exam, come up with a creative idea”.

But can this translate to practice at the chalkface? Do ordinary teachers practise emotional intelligence in their everyday classrooms beyond the prying eyes of graduate students and Ofsted inspectors? Indeed, they do.

When I taught at a pupil referral unit my students did not always handle their emotions in a very positive way. Sometimes they lacked the vocabulary to express how they felt. However, when students knew that staff members were truly interested in them as people and individuals, then situations that could have been volatile or unproductive were easily turned around.

Steiner (1997) reiterates this when he states that “to be emotionally literate is to be able to handle emotions in a way that improves your personal power and improves the quality of life around you. Emotional literacy improves relationships”.

Let me confess that I do not always get it right, but when I do, it opens an avenue to build on that I grab with both hands.

Student Y was the usual reticent young person whose responses to requests, statements, overtures were “dunno”, “no”, “that’s bare long”. Week after week, the same thing happened in lessons and little work was accomplished and little change in relationship.

Then one day I noticed that while we sat in the IT room he was busy at the computer. His eyes were closed and he was typing rapidly. I was amazed to see that he was typing with great accuracy so I quietly commended him. His response was not the usual. He eagerly invited me to dictate something to him to see if he could type it error free. We spoke about his interest in typing and had a very good conversation, free from his usual responses.

I had shown an interest in him, in his interests and shown him that I was interested in him as a person and so began a positive relationship, which then saw him working with me on an activity for the school newsletter. He suggested that he lead the activity, which he did, making all the final decisions. It also led to him allowing me to talk with him when he was angry to help him calm himself down.

Student Z was a year 9 student. She had a very low reading age and struggled in lessons accordingly. In science, the teacher had prepared a lesson on reproduction. She was very interested and began asking a lot of questions. The questions soon focussed on parenting and specifically the relationship between the science teacher and her children.

Although the student was actively participating, not all her questions were developing the topic the way the teacher had wanted the lesson to go, however the teacher realised that a conversation was taking place, a dialogue was ensuing that could be used to develop a stronger rapport with the student for the future.

The conversation moved towards how the teacher in question raised her daughters, the activities she participated in with them, what she did for them, how she treated them, how she disciplined them and so on. The conversation offered this student something she was not getting from adults at home – a listening ear and time to talk and be listened too.

Park (2003) posits that: “It is through dialogue that emotional literacy develops and makes its contributions to learning. Dialogue does not involve particular skills or techniques, just a genuine interest in one’s fellow participants.”

This teacher’s interest in the student’s questions even though it did not develop the lesson objective went a far way in developing a relationship with the student.

According to Goleman (1998): “Emotional awareness starts with attunement to the streams of feeling that is a constant presence in all of us and with recognition of how these emotions shape what we perceive, think and do. From that awareness comes another; that our feelings affect those we deal with.”

Often students have been heard to say to an unsmiling stern-faced teacher, “Miss, smile: you make the lesson so boring!” If the teacher does not create that positive environment for learning by modelling positive “vibes”, she is defeating the purpose for being in the classroom. She is not able to facilitate learning. She sets the tone, the emotional atmosphere, the conducive state for learning.

For me, I know the necessity and importance of employing emotional literacy for my students and for my subject area. I need to get the students engaged without them even realising it and I must create a safe, enjoyable haven for them in my classroom so that they will want to come to the room and learn.

For teachers of students deemed disaffected, troubled, having poor self-esteem or students for whom learning is difficult, the use of emotional literacy is an effective and powerful tool.

The best advert for emotional literacy is the teacher who models it for her students every day. Goethe, cited in Adams (2008), states: “If you treat an individual as he is, he will stay that way. But if you treat him as if he were what he could be, he will become what he could be.”

Schools need to equip students with more than the three Rs. They need to make a “commitment to teaching the fourth R – i.e. life and social skills of problem-solving, empathy, cooperation and emotional literacy (or) schools will be failing many pupils” (Rae, 1998).

  • Sanjo Jeffrey is SENCO at Copthall School in north London.

Further information & resources

  • Adams: Emotional Literacy Ages 7-12, Hopscotch, 2008.
  • Goleman: Working with Emotional Intelligence, Bloomsbury Publishing, 1998.
  • Antidote: The Emotional Literacy Handbook: Promoting whole-school strategies, David Fulton Publishers in association with Antidote, Campaign for Emotional Literacy, 2003.
  • Rudd: Talking is for teens: Emotional literacy for key stages 3 and 4, Lucky Duck Publishing, 2003.
  • Rae: Dealing with Emotion: An emotional literacy curriculum, Lucky Duck Publishing, 1998.
  • Steiner: Achieving Emotional Literacy: A personal program to increase your emotional intelligence, Bloomsbury Publishing, 1999.
  • See also by Sanjo Jeffrey: Student wellbeing: Maslow before you Bloom, SecEd, November 2020: https://bit.ly/3g0MWY1


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