Research School Network: Supporting young children’s emotional learning behaviours David Windle discusses putting the SEL Guidance into practice in nursery-aged children


Supporting young children’s emotional learning behaviours

David Windle discusses putting the SEL Guidance into practice in nursery-aged children

by London South Research School
on the

Learning behaviour can be emotional…

Behaviour and emotions are interwoven. Of course, they are. How could they not be? To separate behaviour from emotions is to create a robot. While robots are useful – knowing R2D2, for example, would be handy if you happen to be trying to restart an X Wing – you wouldn’t want to end up sitting next to one at a wedding. They lack chat.

Thankfully, humans are not robots. We have feelings and, as such, aren’t always efficient or practical but can often be relied upon for connection and conversation. Our emotional state informs and drives our behaviour. Emotions and their corresponding behaviours are often used to describe people, either positively or negatively.

We talk negatively about people being over-emotional in certain situations, for example, when dealing with challenging behaviour at school. The implication is that emotions have got in the way. We talk positively about people such as fighter pilots or surgeons being able to cut off or super-regulate their emotions to perform great and terrifying feats. In sports, we say that teams bottle it’ or choke’ at those pressure moments, or, conversely, great players have ice in their veins’ and remain cool to score the vital point.

Acting like a robot can be a good thing.

Of course, in schools, we aren’t trying to create robots, but we are trying to help children effectively understand and manage their feelings and behaviour so that they can learn. There are various elements which contribute to the building of effective learning behaviour, as outlined in this blog by Kirsten Mould. Along with the social and cognitive parts of the picture, there is the emotional, which is defined as a child being able to:

- name emotions and express them with increasingly accurate vocabulary
- manage impulses of personal behaviour
- show pride in successes

As well as this definition, Elis and Tod’s systematic review of 2004sets out three relationships for learning: relationship with self, relationship with others and relationship with the curriculum.’

The emotional relationship to the self plays a crucial role in successful behaviour for learning. We’ve all witnessed children becoming angry, stressed or despondent and, as a result, failing to learn.

In the EEF’s guidance report on improving behaviour in primary schools, recommendation one is to teach SEL skills explicitly, broken down further into:

- Use a range of strategies to teach key skills, both in dedicated time and in everyday teaching
- Self-awareness: expand children’s emotional vocabulary and support them to express emotions
- Self-regulation: teach children to use self-calming strategies and positive self-talk to help deal with intense emotions

As educators, our challenge is to put all of these ideas into practice, for which we need a curriculum and a system. At Charles Dickens Primary School, home to the London South Research School, over the last 8 years, we have developed an emotional literacy programme for years 16. We call it our Wellbeing Curriculum. The programme is built on a sequenced vocabulary list, which grows a child’s emotional lexicon year after year. Each emotion is explored and discussed. Alongside this, the children generate a bank of regulation strategies. We have seen the positive impact of this curriculum over time. Many of our children display high levels of emotional understanding and improved self-regulation, which has led to a reduction in serious behaviour incidents, classroom disruption and CAMHS referrals.

As part of the EEF’s current range of early pipeline projects, we are now creating a similar programme for 2 to 4‑year-olds, to be used by childminders and early years educators in nurseries. Again, the basis will be a combination of exploring emotional vocabulary while developing self-awareness and regulation strategies.

The major challenge is to create a scheme which can be used by a teacher in a nursery with a group of six 4‑year-olds and also by a childminder who may have one 2‑year-old, a 3‑year-old and a pair of 4‑year-old twins. The Early Emotions programme needs to be structured in content but flexible in delivery to cater for the vast range of needs within a preschool setting.

Despite the challenges, the work is exciting. We know the direction the evidence points us in, our job is to transform this guidance into a practical programme which will enhance the learning behaviours of the youngest children. We hope that if we can teach children emotional understanding at the start of their educational journeys, then by the time they arrive at GCSEs, A Levels and beyond, they’ll be able to channel their inner robot to repair an X Wing or chat entertainingly to a stranger at a wedding.

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