Are you really listening? Using listening and speaking skills to support wellbeing and learning

Written by: Alison Woolf | Published:
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We are living in challenging times and young people are facing many stressors and threats to their wellbeing. Alison Woolf says that employing some simple speaking and listening skills can help our students

“Completely” listening and then speaking in a way that lowers levels of emotional intensity and demonstrates the intention to understand and help can be a powerful communication of our care for pupils.

As educators we understand the value of the teacher-pupil relationship. Relationships are built during both teaching and non-teaching interactions, where teacher qualities foster the learning process and the personal development of pupils.

Teaching is such a fulfilling job, with the sense of purpose that many of us feel being key to that fulfilment. However, the downside of “burn-out” or “compassion fatigue” is often unrecognised or unaddressed.

A lack of training in relational dynamics can also impact teachers’ mental wellbeing: “Without an understanding of the raw emotions involved in teaching, and adequate training in how to look after oneself and the students during moments of intensity, teachers are placed into intensely emotional environments ill-equipped to deal with strong emotions when they inevitably arise.” (Riley, 2011)

More focus on communication skills in initial teacher training could help to prepare us for our relational role in schools. Really listening models respect, leads to understanding, and informs helpful responses. The deliberate choice of language, informed by compassionate listening, is a powerful way to build relationships and support learning.

A VUCA climate

Children and young people’s sense of wellbeing has declined in recent years while their experience of mental health problems has increased (Commission on Young Lives, 2022).

We are all facing many challenges which affect mental health. Adolescents may be particularly vulnerable to these stressors. For example, young people seem to be the most affected by anxiety over the future of the planet due to climate change and loss of bio-diversity (Hickman et al, 2021).

Meanwhile, the media is filled with anxiety-provoking economic news and all our lives are impacted in many ways by the current financial pressures. War in Europe also fuels feelings of uncertainty.

These difficult times are described as VUCA: volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. These are all things we struggle with, as our brains are designed to make sense of the world, find predictability, and seek clarity within environments and relationships.

Listening and speaking skills to support pupils

Classrooms where children do not feel a sense of control, safety or attention can be a scary place not to mention hard work for teaching staff; they are certainly not conducive to teaching or learning.

Pupils who feel safe and understood by their teachers and connected to the school community are more likely to engage in learning tasks and to positively navigate peer relationships.

There are some simple listening and speaking skills we can use to support pupils in these challenging times. We need to achieve three things:

  • Compassion: Our care for pupils and the ways we demonstrate our interest and desire to be helpful.
  • Containment: Practices we use to manage our own and pupils’ feelings and lower levels of emotional overload.
  • Connection: The belief that in school there is someone who can be turned to and trusted.

When we listen to pupils our safeguarding responsibilities are foremost in our minds. When we are sure that the content is not a safeguarding issue, we move into listening to “really understand”, because we care and want to help.

“Active listening” describes how we listen with an open mind, without making assumptions or drifting into memories of similar events in our own lives, while offering encouraging signs such as nodding the head, appropriate facial expressions, and short verbal confirmations.

Containment means hearing pupils’ narratives without being overwhelmed, demonstrating to pupils that their stories are bearable.

Compassionate listening means understanding and caring about the speaker without being impacted by their feelings in a way that makes us less able to help. Listening, understanding and remaining safe in our own head space helps us to be supportive through careful, deliberate and appropriate responses.

Using listening and speaking skills in practice

There may be many potential responses to a pupil, who upon being given a task, questions “what is the point?”. One is to reflect back what you hear: “You can’t see the point of this.”

This response may illicit further clarification from the pupil:

  • “Yeah – what is the point in anything?”
  • “There is no point in school at all.”
  • “I can’t do it and I’m not interested.”

Listening can help us to offer a response that fits the underlying beliefs or needs. The first two pupil responses may prompt a further comment from the teacher, perhaps arranging a time when they can tell us a bit more about these feelings. This might, in turn, lead to referral for more support.

The third response above might illicit further explanation from the teacher and a starter such as: “Let’s have a look at it together and see how we get on.”

When responding to pupils, repeating back what is said, or summarising what we hear, demonstrates that we are listening:

  • “I’m worried about my mum.” – “You’re thinking about how hard things are for your mum right now.”
  • “It’s just wrong – no-one seems to be doing anything about climate change.” – “You feel frustrated when it seems like people are not doing nearly enough.”

Containing strong emotions happens when we accept and acknowledge strong feelings:

  • “I wish they would just stop this war. It feels like it gets worse and worse, I can’t bear it on the news.” – “It is hard to hear the news about war, it feels unbearable, you really wish it was over.”
  • “I can’t stop thinking about what might go wrong next, it is all so scary.” – “Life feels uncertain and when you think about the future it seems so unclear and daunting.”

Using language of context or universality, may make feelings more manageable. While not diminishing the feelings that these challenges evoke, it does set them within a framework which creates some sense of space for change or of collective experience:

  • “I watched that programme about the ice melting everywhere. It’s just too late to do anything.” – “It was a hard watch which made you, and maybe lots of people, feel helpless. You’re worried we’re not doing enough yet.”

When listening to pupils there are some helpful phrases we can incorporate, particularly statements which are possibilities and do not demand an answer:

  • “I’m wondering (about how that might have felt).”
  • “I’m guessing it seemed like (no one else was around, you felt alone with it all).”

Sometimes we realise we have moved into “fixer” mode, advising, teaching or making assumptions. We must demonstrate our intention to truly listen and not to take over, using phrases like:

  • “Sorry – I jumped ahead then, let’s rewind.”
  • “But maybe you have some better ideas about what to do next.”

Acknowledging what you hear does not mean changing the ground rules. It is a way of demonstrating care and understanding while giving the boundaries and instructions of everyday school life.

Acknowledging and reflecting the feelings expressed by a pupil, before restating the instruction or giving a limit is a powerful way to build relationships and avoid raising emotional temperatures.

“I’m tired, it was not great at home again last night” – “You had a difficult time at home last night and you’re starting the day feeling tired which is hard. Let’s get started on the work and we’ll see how you get on.”

Final thoughts

Listening and speaking skills are important in challenging times because they can help to build and maintain relationships, foster a sense of wellbeing, and support learning.

Using well-chosen language can build trust and help to avoid escalation and feelings of isolation.

By listening carefully and responding in a way that demonstrates compassion and our desire to make a connection, we can help to create a supportive and inclusive environment for pupils that promotes wellbeing, safety, and personal development.

  • Alison Woolf is a teacher and play therapist. Her experience includes teaching at all phases. As a school play therapist, she has worked in mainstream and in SEMH provision, as well as working with looked after and adopted children. Alison is a director of Better Play, which offers training for school teams. Her book Better Mental Health in Schools: Four key principles for practice in challenging times is published by Routledge (2023):

Further information & resources

  • Commission on Young Lives: Heads Up: Rethinking mental health services for vulnerable young people, Thematic Report 4, 2022:
  • Hickman et al: Climate anxiety in children and young people and their beliefs about government responses to climate change, Lancet Planetary Health (5,12), 2021.
  • Riley: Attachment Theory and the Teacher-Student Relationship, Routledge. 2011.

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