A passport to emotional literacy

Written by: Richard Evans | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Emotional literacy must be our top priority as we return to school. Richard Evans discusses why and explains how his passport resource approach can be used to support this work


Returning to school is something we have all done a lot of this past year and a half – whether from the usual school breaks and holidays or the less usual lockdowns and quarantines.

Each time it happens, it strikes me that there is a lot of clamour for some seemingly contradictory things: we need to help pupils catch-up with the curriculum; we need to get on with it; we need to ease pupils back in; we need to have longer lessons and school days; we need to be strictly intolerant of bad behaviour; we need to be more lenient and understanding.

And I wonder if these contradictions are a result of a system that isn’t really sure what to do for the best. And even if it were sure, would it know how to successfully do it anyway?

At risk of clamouring for yet another thing, my own feeling is that there is one overarching priority for pupils and teaching staff as we return again – and that is the development of our emotional literacy. In short, our ability to understand why we feel what we feel and how to manage those feelings; our ability to recognise and adapt to the feelings of others.

Because why would a pupil who feels scared putting their hand up in class suddenly start doing so without any deeper understanding about what causes that fear? And what about those who struggle to make friends or are hesitant to ask for help when they are stuck, or who call out – why would they suddenly start getting on top of those things without any coaching on how to start doing so?

Aren’t these some of the dilemmas, worries and habits that are at the heart of being a pupil? Aren’t these the issues that forever and a day have dogged pupil-kind to the extent that when those pupils become us adults, we find ourselves reflecting on the injustices and missed opportunities, like there was some sort of inevitability to their happening and that, well, “that’s just how school was”? Or worse still, “how school is”.

It does not have to be that way. Not if we develop our pupils’ emotional literacy at the same time as developing our own. Because actually, if we don’t understand why our pupils do what they do – why one kicks off in numeracy or another downs tools in music; why one wants constant affirmation or another blends into backgrounds – then we are no closer to understanding the emotional jungle that is school, and no closer to being able to help pupils negotiate their way through it, for the betterment of themselves and their learning.

Just in the same way that if we do not understand why we ourselves might end up shouting at children or are drawn to helping one pupil more than another, then we are equally accepting of the deficiency that is our own lack of emotional literacy: what makes us tick and where lie our blind-spots and unconscious biases.

Don’t forget that there is an unspoken, perhaps undervalued, biological dynamic going on between staff and children that involves brain development. The long and short of this is: adult brains work primarily out of the prefrontal cortex – the part reserved for balanced judgement, planning and acting less on impulse and more on rationale; children’s brains work chiefly out of their amygdalas – the part reserved for fight or flight, for acting on instinct and with emotion.

And by the way, just because you are an adult doesn’t mean you will not be letting your amygdala get the better of your prefrontal cortex every now and again – I mean, who isn’t sometimes susceptible to the daily trappings and provocations of our young learners, not to mention the baggage we have carried forward from our own younger selves?

But if you can sometimes see that what is logical to you is illogical to them; what needs thinking time to you is a split-second decision to them; what seems deliberately rude to you is an instinctive reaction – albeit a rude one – to them, it is because their brains are developing and not yet able to see or compute the world as you do. The good news is that their higher, more emotionally literate brain will, with exercise and good nourishment, learn to tame their lower, more impulsive, threat-attuned brain.

One way in which educators can provide this vital exercise and start to develop both their pupils’ and their own emotional literacy is via a resource I call “the passport” – a double-sided sheet of A3 designed specifically to help staff to help pupils develop the emotional skills required to become more confident and engaged at school.

It can be used in mentoring, intervention and smaller group settings, by teachers or support teachers with hard-to-reach pupils, or by any educator determined to get under the belly of why any one of their pupils is not able to access or make progress in the subject, skill or behaviour they are trying to teach.

As you discuss questions such as: “Do I work well with other pupils?”, “Am I comfortable making mistakes?” and “How well do I behave in class?”, and as you delve deeper into the answers together and come up with more informed ways of tackling them, you will find yourself getting a more complete understanding of the pupil in front of you, as they will of themselves.

Yes, you need time (at least 20 minutes a week for five weeks initially); yes, you need patience (properly hearing a pupil out is a learned art); and yes you need perseverance (ideas will founder, solutions will need to change), and the openness to self-reflect, but if you really want to make a difference in a pupil’s life – one for whom the current system is barely touching the sides – then why not try, as a first step, downloading a copy of the passport (see below).

In my own practice, albeit at secondary level, I have come to realise that to teach pupils who struggle with reading and writing literacy it is paramount also to teach them emotional literacy. Hence the advent of the first of the passports: the literacy passport.

The premise being that if you can help pupils find ways to develop their confidence, skills of organisation and a healthier attitude to their learning, at the same time as their literacy, then you have a better chance of embedding the full stops and capital letters in their writing; of kick-starting a reading habit; of them contributing to class discussion; of your teaching being for the long-term.

Whether you choose to use a tool such as the passport or not, this should ideally begin as soon as pupils start school. If from day one, pupils are being offered a structured diet of emotional literacy, tailored to their own needs and appropriate to their age and development – in addition to the ad hoc opportunities that skilled teachers take to teach such skills – then a more rounded pupil is more likely to emerge.

As a secondary school teacher, I have used questions that I feel pertinent to the age and needs of my pupils; your questions, your system – your use of perhaps simpler vocabulary, pictures, emojis, stickers – can be pertinent to yours.

There are currently four other passports besides the literacy passport (see below). They are simply templates. Questions can be removed or replaced as you wish.

So long as, that is, the ethos remains: that to give a pupil airtime to express the realities of their school and home life, to listen to their truths and perceptions and side, to work out with them how they fit into the dynamic of school – how they can play their part in it, how they can and do belong – is to open up a gateway to a deeper learning: yours about your pupil and theirs about themselves. From there, you both have a platform on which to build the education you have joined this profession to provide.

Richard Evans is a literacy teacher with an interest in helping pupils increase their confidence and engagement through targeted discussion of feelings and needs. A former journalist, he has spent the last decade learning from pupils in lower sets and in nurture and tuition groups. One of the fruits of their joint labour – the passport – is explained in his book, Independent Thinking on Emotional Literacy (Independent Thinking Press, 2020).


Pupil Mental Health Conference

Richard Evans will be presenting more about his passport approach at the sixth national Pupil Mental Health Conference hosted online by SecEd and Headteacher Update on September 29 and 30. His session takes place at 3pm on September 29 and is entitled Teaching emotional literacy in your school. For full details, visit www.schoolsmentalhealth.co.uk/programme

The passports

  • A PDF sample copy of the literacy passport is available via www.crownhouse.co.uk/featured-it-emo-lit-sample
  • Editable versions of this and other passports, including the reading passport, the RE passport, the detention passport and the parents’ evening passport, are available when you buy the book Independent Thinking on Emotional Literacy (2020): https://bit.ly/3jMhuim


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