Pastoral support: Emotion coaching

Written by: Licette Gus & Dr Laura Meldrum-Carter | Published:
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Well done Licette- Great article - Sarah

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Emotion coaching is a concept that could help schools to better support students’ social, emotional and mental health. Educational psychologists Licette Gus and Dr Laura Meldrum-Carter explain

Ask any teacher, social, emotional and mental health (SEMH) and the wellbeing of pupils and staff has always been an important aspect of education.

Over the years there have been a number of programmes to promote this area for pupils, such as SEAL, TaMHS and Healthy Schools. These initiatives have demonstrated positive impact (Weare 2015), however implementing an approach in schools which is sustainable over the long-term can be more problematic.

From an SEMH perspective, whole-school approaches can appear to be too vague (Lendrum et al 2013). From an organisational change perspective, sustainable change can be threatened by difficulties with policies, competing agendas, individual attitudes, resources and time (Spillane 2010).

Schools have become increasingly accountable for the planning and delivery of SEMH input, not just for targeted pupils but for their entire population (Department for Education 2015). Current thinking about SEMH promotion suggests that whole-school approaches are effective ways of creating change and improving outcomes for pupils and staff (Banerjee et al 2014). Kotter’s (1996) well-established model for change suggests that there are eight factors which promote successful change in organisations:

  1. Establishing a sense of urgency.
  2. Forming a powerful guiding coalition.
  3. Creating a vision.
  4. Communicating the vision.
  5. Empowering others to act on the vision.
  6. Planning for and creating short-term wins.
  7. Institutionalising new approaches.
  8. Consolidating improvement.

In this article, we share the results of a survey about successful embedding of an approach which promotes SEMH and wellbeing in pupils and staff in schools – emotion coaching.

Emotion coaching is a whole-school approach to supporting sustainable emotional health and wellbeing (Rose et al, 2015). Positive effects are noted in pupil behaviour, emotional awareness and attainment, pupil-staff relationships and staff wellbeing. Schools even notice an improvement in family wellbeing and a decrease in parental complaints!

A number of schools around the UK have adopted emotion coaching as a universal approach. A survey of some of these schools was conducted to ascertain the key factors in implementing this approach successfully across the school.

Why emotion coaching?

One of the main benefits of introducing emotion coaching to support SEMH is that it is a universal, sustainable provision and can be overlaid over a school’s existing system (Gus et al, 2015). In addition:

  • There is no curriculum, resources to be purchased, timetabling or staffing implications (aside from initial training).
  • As emotion coaching is an integrated approach rather than a discrete “programme” staff need not fear that it will be abandoned or usurped without time to achieve impact.
  • Emotion coaching is inclusive as the focus is upon the nature of the communication between adult and pupil and doesn’t require a time-slot for the pupil to go and have their individual “emotion coaching session”.
  • Emotion coaching is mindful in that it occurs in the moment – the focus is upon the emotion being felt in that instance – and that emotion coaching adults have noticed the pupil’s emotion in a non-judgemental manner.
  • Emotion coaching provides a framework for teaching pupils about emotions and how to handle them. It also enables a coherent approach to the development of SEMH which can be implemented over a long period of time.

What is emotion coaching?

Emotion coaching is a specific way of adults interacting with all pupils in school. Pupils’ ability to regulate their emotions continues to develop as they mature. A range of feelings is inevitable, but being able to manage them is not a given. Often pupils need support to be able to understand what they are feeling and how to manage it.

As part of emotion coaching, all adults in a school are encouraged to look for indicators of low-level negative emotions (often reflected through a pupil’s behaviour or body language) and to empathise with, label and validate those emotions as they occur. This approach is contrasted with ignoring or minimising the behaviour (and emotions or feeling) or solely applying consequences to the behaviour. The key steps of emotion coaching are:

  1. Empathy.
  2. Labelling and validation,
  3. Limit-setting (if needed).
  4. Support with problem-solving.

As mentioned earlier, emotion coaching has been found to have positive benefits on staff feelings of competency and calmness, pupils’ emotional literacy and regulation and pupil-staff trust. As a result, pupils become more emotionally able to take on the challenges of learning.

The survey

We surveyed six schools across the East and West Midlands and the South West of England. When the results were analysed, not surprisingly, leadership from the senior leadership team was key in embedding emotion coaching in schools. Leaders needed to organise the practicalities of initial and on-going training and support within the school, prioritise it on the school agenda and also take a direct lead themselves in demonstrating its use.

Making explicit links between emotion coaching and the values and ethos of the schools helped promote staff take-up. Equally, highlighting the connection between using emotion coaching and the staff’s beliefs in inclusion, learning readiness and understanding of behaviour supported the emotional engagement required for change.

Identifying staff members who were enthusiastic about the approach both sustained momentum and encouraged persistence. Acceptance of new ways of working was eased by presenting the new approach in relation to more established curricular ideas such as wellbeing and resilience.

It was vital to value staff as an essential resource who set the emotional climate and as a consequence, practical aspects of developing individual skills needed to be woven into whole-school planning. One of the challenges of emotion coaching is that being a relational approach, dependent on interpersonal skills, traditional hierarchies of expertise within schools may be challenged. The internal professional conflicts this might cause could undermine whole-school adoption and needed to be dealt with sensitively by the senior leadership team.

Emotion coaching also needed to be viewed as a skill that developed over time rather than as a binary “now you’ve got it”. As such, formal practice and refresher sessions needed to be built in to the school calendar as well as informal support sessions between staff. This enabled vital consistency across staff to develop.

A whole-school approach

Research about implementation of change in schools consistently highlights that there is no one model that fits all; context is all important (Wanna et al, 2010). From our survey, several over-arching principles relating to change management seemed to be important. These were:

  • Leadership.
  • Core values.
  • Supporting practice.
  • Developing skills.
  • Belief in the approach.
  • Maintenance after initial training.

Additional benefits were also seen when the wider school community was actively engaged in the process. From these principles, specific contextual adaptations could be made.

Emotion coaching training contains a high degree of theory including recent evidence from neuroscience. Evaluations from emotion coaching training sessions highlight that the theory provides a foundation for transformational learning at both psychological (understanding of self) and convictional (revision of belief system) levels. This means that the theory effectively acts as a vehicle, encouraging any shift of beliefs about behaviour and emotions that might be needed by some adults before being able to successfully engage in emotion coaching.


Results from this survey into how emotion coaching can be embedded as a whole-school provision suggest both systemic and personal factors needed to be addressed for effective implementation.

Schools that took part in the survey clearly demonstrated Kotter’s eight steps required for change in organisations. In doing so they created a climate for change that engaged and enabled the whole school. Sustainability was encouraged by paying attention to individual acceptance and take-up of the new approach and being aware of resistance to change. In keeping with an emotion coaching model, resistance was successfully overcome by acknowledging staff’s feelings as well as just presenting them with the positives outcomes.

Implementation advice

Senior leaders can take the lead and promote a belief in emotion coaching by:

  • Modelling and using emotion coaching.
  • Providing supervision to staff (recognising the emotional impact this may have on staff and challenges it may have on professional confidence).
  • Ensuring all staff are on board, encouraging mutual support and shared language.
  • Rewarding staff who embrace the approach via public and individual feedback.

Prioritise emotion coaching in school through:

  • Involving all staff at an equal level.
  • Giving it a regular focus and protected time, such as on-going CPD and less formal meetings.
  • Referring to it in school policies, improvement plans and student documentation.
  • Including emotion coaching training/support in induction of new staff.
  • Using emotion coaching skills as an indicator in performance management.

Acknowledge that skills and expertise may take time to develop. Support this through:

  • Providing scripts and visual reminders around school.
  • Offering refresher sessions.
  • Sharing practice within and between schools.
  • Emphasising that time needs to be spent on the empathy stage.
  • Identifying “experts” within and out of school who can provide reassurance.
  • Be mindful of reversion to old ways for some staff who find the approach more challenging.

Manage resistance through:

  • Providing reassurance that behaviour management “consequences” can still apply.
  • Sharing any positive impact on learning data and behavioural successes.
  • Using language that challenges the idea that behaviours are always under a child’s control.
  • Continuing to highlight the neuroscience evidence base.
  • Offering supervision not line management.

Develop an “engaged community” through:

  • Pupil, parent and governor information-sharing.
  • Explicit pupil involvement.
  • Licette Gus is an educational psychologist and co-founder of Emotion Coaching UK ( and Dr Laura Meldrum-Carter is an educational psychologist ( The authors would like to thank the following for their support with the research referenced in this article: Lindsay Armstrong (Blurton Primary, Stoke-on-Trent), Ryan Kilby (Meadow View Farm School, Leicestershire), Lynne Paino (Crocketts Community Primary, Sandwell), Ciaran Redmond (Sutherland Primary, Stoke-on-Trent), Lisa Simpson (Oakhill Primary, Stoke-on-Trent), Helen Taylor (St Joseph’s Catholic Primary, Bridgwater, Somerset).

Further information

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Well done Licette- Great article - Sarah
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