Feelings displays, bubble breath and role-play: a little support goes a long way in bolstering children’s resilience
As the nation steels itself for a second national lockdown, Dr Freyja Fischer looks at how schools can support children to deal with their emotions.
All our lives have been turned upside down this year, and the impact of the lockdown on children’s mental health is becoming increasingly clear. Even now, more than halfway through the new academic term, it's understandable if parents are concerned about how their children will adapt to the different school environment.
On the upside, most children can learn to cope with the ‘new normal’ with adult support. They can learn to identify how they are feeling, why they are feeling this way, and what to do about it. It's also good that almost all primary schools (380 out of 400) we surveyed last year told us that social and emotional learning (SEL) was a priority for them. We know also that most parents support schools’ increased focus on pupils’ mental health and wellbeing.
This is good, because when the right things are done well, a focus on emotional wellbeing improves academic outcomes and is a protective factor for mental health. There’s a lot of material that can be found online, but not everything that’s out there is good quality. Therefore, we have recently published a summary of evidence-based practices all teachers can use in their daily interactions with students to help them develop social-emotional skills. These practices have been rigorously tested and proven to achieve positive outcomes for children and young people. This article highlights some of the evidence-based strategies teachers can use.
To be able to deal with emotions, children first need to understand what they are feeling. This requires vocabulary and interaction with an adult. To support children’s vocabulary, you could create a feelings display for the classroom, in the form of a feelings tree, wheel, or an emoji board. Weave the feelings display into your daily routine: for example, children can place their name or photo on the feelings display when they arrive in the morning or when the afternoon starts.
Sometimes it’s hard for children to tell what is happening to them, and they need adult support to understand what is going on. Encourage children to talk about their emotions: for example, you could say, ‘It looks like you might be feeling worried, can you tell me why?’ If children tell you why they are feeling this way and you think another emotion word might fit better, it’s good to mention that to them as well in order to help them identify the feeling the next time. This can also be done by talking about your own feelings, in a child-appropriate way. Be honest and only share what you are comfortable sharing. You and your children can use ‘I’ messages to articulate how they are feeling and why: ‘I am angry because Emily took my pen.’
A key message is that there is no such thing as a bad emotion. All emotions are normal and natural, although they can be uncomfortable – the message here is to control behaviour, not feelings.
Feelings are natural indicators for what we should do, but unfortunately, some things we just cannot change. If a child is sad because they feel excluded, it makes sense to work on building social connections. But if they are worried or anxious about Covid, it’s good to tackle that on a physiological level. For example, you could do bubble breathing with them: imagine you are outside blowing bubbles, hold your tub of bubbles, dip your bubble stick in, take a deep breath and blow as many bubbles as you can. It’s good to practice this with children when they aren’t particularly emotional, so they can fall back on it or ask for a strategy when they are under emotional stress.
Now that children are back at school, they have ample opportunity to interact with their peers again. Support good communication skills by making time for talking and listening to each other, for example in circle time. Draft a class contract together with children so they know what behaviour is expected of them – listening when others are speaking, taking turns, respecting others opinions and maybe other behaviours that are particularly important to your school’s culture and values. Model these behaviours for children. When you are assigning group work to children, remind them about the communication skills you have agreed on and praise them when they are using them.
Conflicts will arise anyway; the aim is not to avoid them completely but to help children to learn how to deal with them. It is easier to talk about conflict resolution skills when there is no ‘hot’ conflict – this way everyone is feeling calmer and children can come up with possible solutions. You could pick a conflict you have observed and ask children who were not involved to roleplay the conflict, or you could demonstrate some poor communication skills yourself. Then the whole class can brainstorm solutions to the conflict or what you could have done better. You could capture these on solution cards and have teams of children practice them. If the first solution does not work out, they can try another one. You could keep these cards at the ready so if a conflict arises children can draw on them.
Social-emotional skills can be taught by all teachers. Effects on academic performance are stronger when they are taught by teachers (as opposed to external practitioners, researchers or community members). They can be effective on their own, but some children with a higher level of need might require more targeted support.
By prioritising SEL and the emotional needs of children and families, school leadership teams and teachers can create nurturing environments and cultivate the empathy, resilience and connection that will help children to recover and thrive – now and in the future.