Student wellbeing: Emotion coaching in schools

Written by: Licette Gus & Dr Laura Meldrum-Carter | Published:
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Having received the training, I feel that this is something which we older members of staff can ...

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Emotion coaching is a concept that could help secondary schools to better support students’ social, emotional and mental health. Educational psychologists Licette Gus and Dr Laura Meldrum-Carter explain

Many teachers will agree that social emotional and mental health (SEMH) and the wellbeing of pupils and staff have always been an important aspect of education. The importance of SEMH is increasing, with research suggesting a rising number of adolescents with mental health difficulties (Hagell et al 2013).

Over the years there have been a number of social and emotional learning programmes and initiatives aimed at adolescents. These have variously targeted individual pupils, small groups and whole schools e.g. SEAL, TaMHS and Healthy Schools. Evaluations from these programmes have been mixed (Gutman & Schoon 2013) and a unique range of barriers to implementing programmes to address SEMH in secondary schools have been identified, e.g. reduced quality pupil-teacher relationships (Lendrum et al 2012 and Wigelsworth et al 2013).

Despite this fragile background of research and practice evidence, schools have become increasingly accountable for the planning and delivery of SEMH programmes, not just for targeted pupils but for their entire population (DfE 2015).

An approach to consider

Emotion coaching is a whole-school approach to supporting sustainable emotional health and wellbeing (Rose et al 2015) adopted by a number of schools in the UK and is a specific way of adults interacting with all pupils in school.

Emotion coaching has been found to have positive benefits on staff feelings of competency and calmness, pupils’ emotional literacy and regulation and pupil-staff trust. Positive effects are also noted in pupil behaviour, attainment and staff wellbeing (Gus & Kilby 2016). Schools even notice an improvement in family wellbeing and a decrease in parental complaints.

Aspects of emotion coaching address many of the barriers faced by secondary schools when implementing whole-school approaches to SEMH:

  • It is a universal, sustainable provision and can be overlaid on a school’s existing system (Gus et al 2015). There is no curriculum, resources to be purchased, timetabling or staffing implications (aside from initial training).
  • It is a simple approach – with only four key steps.
  • As it is an integrated approach rather than a discrete “programme”, staff need not fear that it will be abandoned or usurped without time to make an impact.
  • Emotion coaching is inclusive as the focus is on the nature of the communication between adult and pupil and doesn’t require a time-slot for the pupil to go and have their individual “session”.
  • It improves the quality of teacher-pupil relationships.
  • It is mindful in that it occurs in the moment. The focus is on the emotion being felt in that instance and emotion coaching adults notice the pupil’s emotion in a non-judgemental manner.
  • It provides a framework for teaching pupils about emotions and how to handle them. It also enables a coherent approach to the development of SEMH which can be implemented over a long period of time.
  • The range of staff a pupil encounters in a secondary school means that some access to emotion coaching is likely even if it is not applied consistently by all staff.

What is emotion coaching?

Emotion coaching encourages all adults in a school to look for indicators of low-level negative emotions (often reflected through a pupil’s behaviour or body language) and to empathise with, label and validate those emotions as they occur. This approach is contrasted with ignoring or minimising the behaviour (and emotions or feelings) or solely applying consequences to the behaviour. The key steps of emotion coaching are:

  1. Empathy.
  2. Labelling and validation.
  3. Limit-setting (if needed).
  4. Support with problem-solving.

We conducted a survey with six primary schools which had implemented emotion coaching. It addressed the specifics of successfully embedding such an approach and elicited key factors for success. The results were supplemented by information collected more informally from secondary schools.

From our survey, several over-arching principles seemed to be important. These included leadership, core values, supporting practice, developing skills, belief in the approach, and maintenance after initial training. Additional benefits were also seen when the wider school community was actively engaged in the process.


Leadership from the senior leadership team was key in implementing and embedding emotion coaching in schools. Leaders needed to organise the practicalities of initial and on-going training and support within the school, prioritise it on the school agenda and also take a direct lead themselves in demonstrating its use.

Leadership is critical because one of the challenges highlighted was that there is little time for staff to be reflective about practice with behaviour management and that staff simply use behavioural techniques that have worked well for them in the past.

Short-term gains

Planning for short-term gains was a key initial step. All secondary schools spoke of setting up an initial pilot in their school. This was instigated and led by member(s) of the pastoral team. The aim of the pilot was to provide evidence to school staff that the approach “worked” in their context.

In one school, a small group of pupils (on the brink of permanent exclusion) were selected and staff teaching these pupils were asked to engage in emotion coaching with them when possible.

Another school focused emotion coaching training and support upon different groups of staff members starting with those who were at the “sharp end” of pupil behaviour – supply teachers, followed by teaching assistants, the SEN department and so on.

Training made available to staff members varied from formal training by outside professionals to being provided with a booklet made by the pastoral team. Pupil progress was tracked with respect to time-outs, internal withdrawals or fixed term exclusions and later presented to the whole staff as part of further engagement.

School ethos

Making explicit links between emotion coaching and the values and ethos of the schools helped promote staff take-up. One secondary school headteacher made this explicit: “We teach pupils not subjects.”

Another head of year commented on the importance of how the school as a whole viewed responsibility for behaviour: “Was the whole school responsible or just the seven people in the pastoral team?”

Equally, highlighting the connection between using emotion coaching and the staff’s beliefs in inclusion, learning readiness and understanding of behaviour supported the emotional engagement required for change.

The challenge of this is not to be underestimated as there will be differing views and understanding in any large staff group. Some staff will feel that pupil behaviour needs to be punished whereas others will feel that sometimes sanctions are not an appropriate response. One school tried to encourage a different understanding of behaviour by emphasising to staff the need to engage in more conversations with their pupils, using the emotion coaching framework to support this.

One secondary school’s use of emotion coaching in internal detentions served as a way of institutionalising the approach within the school. In this way emotion coaching acted as a vehicle for promoting the development of social and emotional skills in pupils through a process similar to restorative justice. The use of emotion coaching within detentions served to balance the tension between those who did and did not recognise that some pupils may need additional support to develop their social and emotional skills before they can manage certain situations.

Enthusiastic staff members

Identifying staff members who were enthusiastic about the approach allowed it to be trialled in the school, gave staff an “internal expert” they could consult, sustained momentum and encouraged persistence. Staff who were interested in trying the approach then knew where they could go to for support. Acceptance of new ways of working was eased by presenting the new approach in relation to more established curricular ideas such as wellbeing and resilience.

Staff skills

It was vital to value staff as an essential resource who set the emotional climate and as a consequence, practical aspects of developing the individual skills needed to be woven into whole-school planning. One of the challenges of emotion coaching is that being a relational approach, traditional hierarchies of expertise within schools may be challenged. The internal professional conflicts this might cause could undermine whole-school adoption and needed to be dealt with sensitively by skilled senior leaders.

Emotion coaching needs to be viewed as a skill that develops over time rather than as a binary “now you’ve got it”. One of the secondary schools engaged in regular group consultations with their educational psychologist about how the approach was going. Another school emphasised the need for follow up sessions and to share stories. This highlights the need for extra time for individuals to go over concepts and how they were using (or thought they were using) emotion coaching.


Emotion coaching is not the only tool in the bag for schools when thinking about how they support SEMH, however, it is an attractive one.

It is simple – a naturally occurring way of communicating – not a programme and it can be implemented as and when appropriate. Emotion coaching also improves teacher-pupil relationships, thereby negating one of the known barriers to implementing SEMH approaches in secondary schools.

Pupils who are known to need additional support will receive empathic responses and support with problem-solving. This will enable pupils to develop trust in staff and be supported in learning to regulate their emotions.

Pupils who may have SEMH needs at times during their secondary schooling will have their occasional needs met. Furthermore, through emotion coaching, staff develop their capacity to act supportively for all their pupils.
Sometimes circumstances mean that emotion coaching is not appropriate and pupils do in fact benefit from adults demonstrating a range of styles when dealing with emotions (Lunkenheimer et at 2011). However, this further emphasises the attractiveness of emotion coaching as part of a secondary school’s overall provision for SEMH.

Implementation advice

When implementing emotion coaching, senior leaders must take the lead and promote a belief in the approach by:

  • Supporting small pilots within school.
  • Modelling and using emotion coaching.
  • Providing supervision to staff (recognising the emotional impact this may have on staff and challenges it may have on professional confidence).
  • Ensuring staff are on board, encouraging mutual support and shared language.
  • Rewarding staff who embrace the approach via public and individual feedback.

Prioritise emotion coaching in school through:

  • Developing a cascading plan for the school.
  • Involving all staff at an equal level.
  • Giving it a regular focus and protected time, e.g. on-going CPD and less formal meetings.
  • Referring to it in school policies, improvement plans and student documentation.
  • Including emotion coaching training/support in the induction of new staff.
  • Using emotion coaching skills as an indicator in performance management.

Acknowledge that skills and expertise may take time to develop. Support this through:

  • Providing scripts and visual reminders around school.
  • Offering refresher sessions.
  • Sharing practice within and between schools.
  • Emphasising that time needs to be spent on the empathy stage.
  • Identifying “experts” in and out of school who can provide reassurance.
  • Being mindful of “reversion” to old ways for some staff who find the approach more challenging.

Manage resistance through:

  • Providing reassurance that behaviour management “consequences” can still apply.
  • Sharing any positive impact on learning data and behavioural successes.
  • Using language that challenges the idea that behaviours are always under a child’s control.
  • Continuing to highlight the neuroscience evidence-base.

Develop an “engaged community” through:

  • Pupil, parent and governor information-sharing.
  • Explicit pupil involvement.

Further information

Having received the training, I feel that this is something which we older members of staff can appreciate, whereas the younger members are still having to think about the teaching. Students will be different people to different members of staff, just because they can. When we are all a listening ear, then we will all be treated as 'the teacher'. Being aware that this is something that is easy to achieve, is a plus point. It comes down to having the forethought that this situation 'could' be out of something you have no idea about. All you need to do is try to have a grown up conversation, at a time where a student is feeling anxious/ stressed/ lonely/ vulnerable/ inadequate/ ...... Easier said than done.
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