Why we need to return to a more emotionally intelligent schools system

Now is the time to change an education system marinated in toxic stress

Psychotherapeutic Counsellor and Supervisor

The impact of Covid-19 has fuelled the need for change in our families, jobs and education. It is time to reflect, after the chaos and unpredictably, what we have learnt about ourselves but no more so than in the education system. 

Haim Ginott, a teacher and a psychologist asked: “What is the goal of education?”

As we look to the future of education we must listen to and act on the voices of educators, trauma-informed professionals, parents and students, who recognise the impact a punitive and stress-laden, results-focused system has on mental health and wellbeing.

An education system marinated in toxic stress

Toxic stress is the result of an overwhelming change or demand made on us that we feel we do not have resources or resilience to manage. The pressure to perform and continually strive for the coveted A* grade, or Ofsted outstanding rating, pushed students and educators to their limit.  This impacted their mental and physical health and compromised pro-social skills, essential in healthy relationships.

As a psychotherapeutic counsellor, I have seen the impact of stress in the high levels of anxiety of children, young people and adults, including teachers. Their rumination of thoughts, and deep-seated beliefs, of not being good enough or achieving enough to gain the approval of their teachers, parents or those in Senior Leadership teams.  Anxiety and depression are linked to self-critical and self-defeating thoughts. For those, already living with shame and lack of self-belief, further criticism from self or other reinforces the self-loathing and results in defensive behaviour to cope with overwhelming feelings. Stress impacts our emotional intelligence; the ability to think with clarity and respond with empathy.

A call for an emotionally intelligent education

A 21st Century education system is value-led, emotionally intelligent, trauma-informed and trauma-responsive. Much of the ethos and curriculum of the present system were formed by ghosts of the industrial revolution, at a time of prejudice, control and coercion. Times have changed.

Emotional intelligence was first popularised in the 1990s by Daniel Goleman, in his best-selling book of the same name, and includes:

  • Self-awareness – being able to recognise and name our feelings and distinguish them from thoughts
  • Self-regulation – being able to recognise and manage the external and internal messages and emotions that drive our feelings 
  • Empathy – being able to understand the feelings and concerns of others
  • Social skills – cooperate with and show respect for others with assertive but respectful conflict resolution. 

As we transition back into schools, these skills need to be embedded into the ethos, culture and curriculum. The capacity to be compassionate and supportive of students and educators will benefit their longer-term mental health.

Why relationships are important to emotional intelligence and mental health

Research into EQ in education reflects that self-awareness and self-regulation positively impact the ability to learn. Children and young people with these abilities can control impulsivity, manage conflict with empathy and show enthusiasm in learning. Educators with emotional intelligence are more able to manage stress in healthier ways,  do not burn out so easily and are adept at managing challenge and change. 

The ability to self-regulate our emotions is learnt explicitly and implicitly with adults in our formative years. It begins in nurturing relationships with parents and is reinforced by our teachers.  Stress-infused and punitive environments are not conducive to this.  An adult with limited resources to regulate their own emotions will not model healthy emotional expression.

When relationships feel harmful we may feel threatened and defensive. The stress chemical cortisol pumps into our brains and bodies, to instigate the fight, flight or freeze survival response. These responses are often seen in the classroom in challenging behavior and conflict.  Trauma-informed training brings clarity to the neuroscience and importance of relationships in the regulation of a nervous system under threat.

Trauma-informed training and supportive, reflective supervision for educators, is more important than ever, due to the obvious, and less obvious, traumas witnessed since the outbreak of Covid-19. Reinforcing punitive behaviour policies is harmful; star-charts and inclusion booths do not regulate a nervous system in survival.

In establishing emotionally healthy schools, less emphasis must be placed on grades and results and more focus on empathic, kind and compassionate relationships in a value-led education system that is trauma-informed and trauma-responsive.

Haim Gimlet envisaged an education system in which “the young grow to be decent human beings.…with compassion, commitment and caring”.  In making choices of how we go forward in education we must aspire to that vision for children and educators alike.

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