Emotional Literacy Is Hard To Measure, But It Should Still Be A Key Focus For Every School

Behavioural problems stem from an emotional stance, so we need to understand the underlying cause of pupils’ behaviour in order to tackle it.

Janice Cahill
by Janice Cahill
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There is still an awful lot of stigma around mental health in our country, and people are very quick to pass derogatory comments. Children just want to be normal, but if they have behavioural problems, they can become labelled very quickly.

At The Pendlebury Centre, a Pupil Referral Unit (PRU) in Stockport, where I am head, we look after children with social, emotional and mental health needs, providing a therapeutic provision that balances academic and emotional literacy.

We have a lot of young children who are very able, but they have to cope with personal circumstances that have affected their learning. As their previous schools had been unable to meet their emotional needs, many have substantial gaps in their education.

We focus on building up their self-esteem, self-confidence, their self-worth, self-acceptance, and get them to love themselves again. We can’t turn back the clocks, but as soon as they walk through our doors, we can help them get to where they want to be.

What is an emotionally literate school?

An emotionally proficient school understands that no child is born bad. They place emotional wellbeing and a multi-agency approach at the forefront of their ethos. Mental health and wellbeing isn’t just the responsibility of the school nurse or the pastoral head, it is everyone’s responsibility, and needs to be embedded in the culture of the whole school.

Every school should have an emotional wellbeing lead, and a developed and accredited mental health programme. In addition, all future teachers should have a thorough understanding of child pedagogy and mental health. Research suggests that if you have an emotionally literate school, then behavioural issues and attendance issues improve dramatically.

Schools need to be appropriately positioned to deal with the needs of every pupil. This is where a multi-agency approach is crucial, especially forming an alliance with the local PRU, so that they are not outside the education system, but can work with children and give them the help if, and when, they need it.

At present, children often arrive in secondary schools unprepared and undiagnosed, because their idiosyncrasies have not been picked up on at primary school.

This means that their emotional needs have not been understood and supported, and, as a result, they have not achieved the progress of which they are capable.

Schools should be given the tools and knowledge to be more effective at supporting children before they get into crisis, and be proactive rather than reactive. It is about making sure the right support can be put in place quickly. If a child is feeling healthy, safe and secure, then their academic performance improves quite noticeably.

The Pendlebury Approach

We have a very in-depth assessment profile here at Pendlebury, so when children come to us, we perform academic and emotional assessments; if we have a better understanding of a student’s emotional wellbeing, then we can put into place school interventions that help.

As part of our provision, we do a lot of continuing professional development (CPD) with our staff, and outreach work with schools. We have an accredited CPD programme called ‘The Pendlebury Centre approach to mental health in schools’ that can be bought by any school across the country. It doesn’t make people experts, but it empowers schools and teachers by addressing how to deal with mental health.

When you’re looking at emotional and mental wellbeing, you can’t always measure progress over a Key Stage or defined measurement of time of progress, so having a trusted method of assessment is crucial. Often for us, if we have kept children out of social care, mental health services, or the youth offending system and we’ve given them the tools and education needed to function independently and effectively, then we’ve been successful.

To find out more about emotional literacy and wellbeing, visit nasen.org.uk, and to find free advice and guidance, visit sendgateway.org.uk. Janice Cahill is head of the Pendlebury Centre, a Pupil Referral Unit (PRU) in Stockport that has achieved ‘outstanding’ in every one of its Ofsted inspections. Janice spoke this year at nasen Live!, the leading event for special educational needs.

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