Emotional Literacy is our ability to recognise, understand, handle and appropriately express our emotions.
Weare defines emotional literacy as “the ability to understand ourselves and other people, and in particular to be aware of, understand and use information about emotional states of ourselves and others with skill and competence.
It includes the ability to understand, express and manage our own emotions and respond to the emotions of others in ways that are helpful to ourselves and others.” Antidote provides another similar definition in saying that emotional literacy is the practice of interacting with others in a way that builds understanding of our own emotions, then using this understanding to shape our actions.
Emotions are an integral part of human nature. Through emotions, we respond to life in many different ways — with anger, happiness, fear, love and loneliness. Emotions influence our thoughts and actions; they inspire our needs; they affect our bodies and impact on our relationships.
Many of the problems in modern society are due, at least in part, to people being unable to understand and appropriately express emotion. Emotional literacy is a preventive tool, which properly understood, can help solve many social ills — violence, illness, drug abuse, dysfunctional relationships, and global societal conflicts.
On the other hand, people who deal with emotions in a positive way find tremendous benefit. Emotional literacy can contribute to health, to positive relationships, to success, and to quality of life.
Understanding emotional literacy is key to helping young people develop self-esteem, self-control and become socially and educationally successful.
Claude Steiner defines the distinction between emotional intelligence and emotional literacy: emotional literacy is emotional intelligence with a heart.
Goleman states that emotional intelligence “can matter as much as IQ” in determining a person’s well-being and effectiveness in life. In 1994, he wrote about the current state of emotional literacy in the U.S.:
“…in navigating our lives, it is our fears and envies, our rages and depressions, our worries and anxieties, that steer us day to day. Even the most academically brilliant among us are vulnerable to being undone by unruly emotions. The price we pay for emotional literacy is in failed marriages and troubled families, in stunted social and work lives, in deteriorating physical health and mental anguish and, as a society, in tragedies such as killings…”
The impact of emotional literacy on learning.
Our emotions impact our readiness and ability to learn; feeling safe is vital within the school environment. A child who does not feel emotionally safe, valued or listened to may enter the classroom feeling frustrated, angry, distracted or withdrawn, particularly when he is attempting to learn a new concept.
Equally, a child who has too much on his mind (perhaps he is worried about the argument he saw his Mum and Dad have that morning, or he fell out with a friend yesterday and is anxious he may not have anyone to play with at playtime), may be unable to learn.
If this is the case, then the student is in danger of not reaching his academic potential.
When running circle times in schools internationally, I am regularly aware of children’s reluctance to put their hand up and answer questions, particularly after the age of eight. Many have learnt that the classroom is a dangerous and unsafe place and that if they were to risk answering a question they might open themselves to sniggers , putdowns and laughter and perhaps jibes later from their peers or even sarcasm from the teacher, if the answer was wrong.
Why do we need a programme of emotional literacy in our homes and schools?
Mental health statistics point to a need for greater investment in child and adult emotional literacy programmes.
According to the Mental Health Foundation, studies suggest that one in five children are likely to experience some kind of significant mental health problem before they reach adolescence.
We also know that:
- 19 million people take anti depressants (UK)
- 40,000 children take anti depressants (UK)
- 50,000 children take Ritalin (UK)
- 170,000 attend hospital with self harm injuries (UK)
- There is increasing concern about binge drinking
- Mental Health is a global problem. WHO predict by 2020 depression will have become the second highest cause of death and disability in the world
With an emotional literacy curriculum, children become resilient and optimistic learners who are able to recognise how their emotions impact themselves and others.
The benefits of emotional literacy and of creating an emotionally safe environment
”With an emotional literacy curriculum, children become resilient and optimistic learners who are able to recognise how their emotions impact themselves and others. This leads to the development of Goleman’s five “domains” of EQ: 1. Knowing your emotions. 2. Managing your own emotions. 3. Motivating yourself. 4. Recognizing and understanding other people’s emotions. 5. Managing relationships, ie., managing the emotions of others.
The following quotation from Bluestein by a student clearly describes some of the factors that contribute to emotional safety.
“Emotional safety means seeing a smile on my teacher’s face the first day of school instead of a list of rules that is taller than my arm is long. It means being able to use the word “Neanderthal” instead of “caveman” and not be made fun of because my vocabulary is too big. It means being able to go through the lunch line without fear of somebody grabbing my money or my cupcake. It means having a teacher who hands back papers privately instead of reading grades out loud as I pick up my test. Emotional safety is unconditional acceptance of me. Emotional safety, first and foremost, allows me to wear my natural face instead of a fake one ……”
A safe learning environment is thus crucial to students achieving their full potential. Taking risks in their learning, asking questions even if they think they might be silly ones, going to see a teacher if they are unsure of something or want to change subjects or classes, having someone to listen to their worries, fears and concerns is all essential to a student’s success.
Circle Time and one-on-one listening programmes enable children to develop their emotional literacy skills and to have an outlet to talk about their big feelings.
We all need help to reflect on our intense feelings, otherwise we are left to discharge or defend them.