Views & Opinion

Emotion coaching – could it work in your school?

Comment by DR ASHA PATEL, CEO of education not-for-profit Innovating Minds

are taught strategies that can help them to manage intense and unpleasant feelings and learn when they need to seek help from someone they trust. There is a four stage process in dealing with incidents but not all steps will be needed or appropriate every time.

• Step 1: Recognise the child’s feeling and empathise with them • Step 2: Validate and Label the emotion • Step 3: Setting Limits • Step 4: Problem Solving

Emotion coaching in the classroom A teacher told Mia off for not paying attention. She stormed out, slamming the door and was found in the corridor by the head of year who asked what was going on. Mia struggles to concentrate in class when there are distractions. She had been trying really hard all morning, so she felt it was unjust. The head of year started by acknowledging her feelings 'I can see that

you are angry' and her attempts to stay focused, 'you were upset because you had been trying to stay on task.' Mia soon started to calm down, her fists unclenched, and she stopped

Early years teaching often talks about kind words, kind hands and good listening but some days children just cannot live up to this ideal. Maybe they are tired, upset about something that happened in the playground, have been told off at home or are just in a bad mood. Move forward to secondary school. With noise, jostling and bustle in

the corridors, frequent changes of subject, stress levels rise. Factor in zero tolerance policies and you can see that pupils and teachers might be on a collision course. Emotional coaching is increasingly being adopted by schools but the

ideas behind it may be misunderstood. Sometimes you hear mutterings of 'soft option', 'touchy feely stuff', and 'letting them get away with it'. It is not about condoning inappropriate behaviours but about working with the child to engage in solution focused strategies.

What is emotion coaching? Emotion coaching was originally a parenting strategy developed by John Gottman (1997). He found that children who were parented through emotion coaching could control their impulses, delay gratification, self- soothe and also performed better academically. It starts from a premise that behaviour is a form of communication, so

it is important that adults look past the behaviour that is being displayed and try to understand the hidden message that is being communicated by the child. Emotions are experienced in our brain and our bodies. Children need to

become aware of their bodies and identify their feelings. Sometimes the physical impact of emotions such as shaking, adrenaline rush, inability to speak can be quite frightening to a child and add to their stress. The fight or flight impulse can be extreme, so children lash out and then be terrified when they see what they have done. Children may block out those physical feelings and after a while they

are not aware of the warning symptoms. They become emotionally dysregulated, maybe they close down and block things out or develop increasingly extreme responses. This is why emotion coaching matters. Children learn how the brain and body work together and how emotions manifest themselves. They


crying. He took her of to talk about what had happened and moved the conversation on to discuss the fact that she had left the classroom without permission and why this was not acceptable behaviour. Together they agreed that she would catch up on work missed in class and that in future if she started to feel angry, she would pass the red card in her organiser and ask permission to leave the room. What is hard for teachers is to separate the emotions from behaviour. If

a child is distressed and crying, we may be more empathetic than if they shout, become aggressive, throw a chair or risk the safety of other children. At moments like these, it is hard to remember that behaviour is a means of communicating emotion and that all emotions are valid. Kat was sceptical about emotion coaching in schools. She felt that

behaviour was a key factor in making classrooms calm spaces where children could learn and had spotted signs that suggested that some of her pupils were copying behaviour, they had seen on reality TV or social media videos. However, the school adopted a whole school approach to training and

spending time reflecting on behaviour and emotions made her change her mind. She came to realise that at times she made situations worse because she did not take the time or have the patience to listen properly to pupils. She made the effort to use emotion coaching every day for a week and

was surprised at how effective it was at de-escalating incidents. She also found that there were knock on effects. Because she had a strategy, she felt less panicked when incidents occurred. This meant she was more in control of her own emotions. 'In the past it really got to me if children were misbehaving, being

defiant or using threatening behaviour,' she said. 'I wanted to make them stop and do what I wanted them to do, to do as they were told. It was a battle of wills. Now my priority is to help calm them down so we can talk about what has happened. Then we can decide what to do next. It is a lot less confrontational and an added benefit is that I am not nearly so tired at the end of the school day.'

For more information on this and other mental health topics, go to

July/August 2020

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