VISIT TO AN EMOTION COACHING SECONDARY SCHOOL
Updated: Sep 24, 2021
Acle Academy (part of the Wensum Trust) is a secondary school for 11–16-year-olds, located in the heart of the Norfolk Broads and serving 500 children and their families.
Dr Sarah Modi, Lead Practitioner Trainer from Emotion Coaching UK, has been supporting Acle Academy (and other schools within the trust) over the past academic year. Initial training in Emotion Coaching (EC) has been delivered along with follow-up sessions which have encouraged staff to reflect on their use of EC in practice. Following this work, the Senior Leadership Team (SLT) has been working with staff to consider ways of implementing Emotion Coaching as a whole school approach. They invited Sarah to spend two days at the school to provide support.
Sarah offers a review following this visit below:
I think it is interesting to reflect on how we feel when entering a school building, thinking about the physical environment, as well as how you are greeted initially. I received a warm welcome when arriving at Acle Academy. I was greeted by friendly staff in Reception and offered a welcome cup of tea and biscuits prior to meeting the Principal Helen Watts and Assistant Principal Nic Bliss. Helen, Nic and I moved quickly to discuss the existing behaviour policy and thoughts about moving forward, for example, replacing detentions with restorative conversations.
It was great to hear how motivated Helen and Nic are in promoting the implementation of Emotion Coaching, and the associated plans to develop the school environment so it has a consistent focus on co-regulation and trusting relationships, and co-regulation to develop self-regulation and positive behaviour in pupils. Well-being spaces - named ‘Reflection’ and ‘Engage’ - have been created in the school.
Helen shared a lovely idea about creating an emotions mural in the Reflection Room being supported by the students, as well as displaying motivating quotes around the school. While Helen and Nic shared ideas about how to use the spaces, I encouraged Nic and Helen to think about the links with Polyvagal Theory - considering whether the child was hyper- or hypo- aroused, and considering the ways adults can aid emotional co-regulation when in each state. For example:
HYPER AROUSED (e.g. FIGHT response - observing increased energy levels - lots of movement)
Colder items such as ice packs, cold bottles of water, ice poles etc.
Soothing scents such as lavender and jasmine
Chewy cereal bars and cuppa soups
Rocking chair following the breath
Exercise equipment, rowing machine etc and HIIT workout
Drumming e.g. using bongos
Mindful colouring, lip balm, hand cream, silk scarves, aromatherapy roller scents
Twister, passing balloons back and forth
HYPO AROUSED (e.g. FLIGHT response - observing a decrease in energy levels - less movement)
Warmer items such as blankets, wheat bags, hot chocolate etc.
Scents which are energising and uplifting such as citrus
Crunch snacks such as celery, apple or bread sticks
Hand breathing, 7/11 etc
Yoga, HIIT workout (planks) etc
Listening to uplifting music
Mindful colouring, lip balm, hand cream, silk scarves, aromatherapy roller scents
Thumb wars, bubble popping
On the guided tour by Assistant Principal Nic Bliss, I observed a sense of calm within the school environment as the pupils transitioned between lessons, with them often wanting to chat and check-in with Nic. I was shown the mobile classrooms where two rooms have been dedicated to support the development of student emotional self-regulation. The Reflection Room is used to support Restorative Justice (RJ) conversations, while the Engage Room is used to help to regulate students. Each room is managed by a member of staff. It was great to see how these rooms were being used for different purposes and, even at this early stage in their development, it was pleasing to see a range of exercise equipment, instructions for breathing exercises, and yoga mats available for the students. I reflected on how staff were taking the idea of the inextricable link between emotions and behaviour on board, and were helping to regulate students’ minds and bodies!
Students are encouraged to take some time to check-in and reflect on how they are feeling when spending time in the Engage Room. A document has been developed for students to complete when using the room, encouraging students to reflect on possible emotions they are feeling, as well as how they may recognise the emotion being felt within their bodies.
I was later invited to observe a Restorative Justice conversation. The student engaged in the discussion with the support member of staff and the teacher (who had been involved in the incident). The RJ structure helped guide the conversation, ensuring the pupil’s and teacher's voice were being shared, along with agreeing some possible ways forward. I wondered about how this structure might be used more fluidly when staff become more confident in this approach and considered the possibility of adults having personal targets to work on to be better able to support the student. Both students and staff are clearly on an ongoing journey developing their interpersonal, communication and emotional regulation skills. For example, the following adaptations to the current student RJ reflection form may be considered (focussing on step 4 of EC):
Help the student to feel comfortable when entering the room and check-in with them and what else has been happening for them prior to this discussion.
e.g. “Thanks for being willing to come to talk today. Before we start, I just wanted to check in with you to see how your day has been going so far?”
2. What happened?
“There may be differences in views and perspectives but let’s rewind a little so we can think about what has happened. Could you talk me through what happened from your perspective (for each person)?”
3. What were you thinking at the time?
“Can you think about what thoughts were going through your head at the time?”
“Ahh … I see, so you were thinking Miss didn’t care about you because she wasn’t getting you? and Miss was feeling that you weren’t listening to her, so there was a misunderstanding. Have I got that right?”
4. How were you feeling at the time?
Adults can incorporate their EC skills here and may need to help to label the students feelings.
e.g., “Ah I see, so when you thought Miss wasn’t listening to you, it made you feel angry and when Miss felt you were ignoring her, she felt frustrated”.
5. What do you think about it now?
6. Who has been affected?
7. What needs to happen next?
“Ok, so I was wondering what we might be able to do to help to make sure this doesn’t happen again. How can we help you?”
“Thank you for being willing to talk today, it’s not always easy having these conversations but hopefully we can now move forward together. Have a good rest of the day 😊”
After lunch in the sunshine, overlooking the beautiful views of the land surrounding the school, Nic and I reflected on further ways of developing the current provision being offered, using the resources they have access to. I was particularly impressed with Nic’s creativity and determination to make a success of implementing EC.
During the afternoon, further training and discussion regarding Emotion Coaching and responses to behaviour in school took place with eight members of staff from different areas of the school. Staff were generally positive when considering their general views about Emotion Coaching, however, there were some concerns regarding forced consequences and expectations which sometimes caused conflict for staff when considering how to respond to moments of misbehaviour. This led to discussions regarding the importance of considering what staff are trying to teach the young person. This discussion was supported by making reference to three questions that adults might consider before responding to student behaviour. These questions are taken from the book ‘No-Drama Discipline’ by Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson.
Why did the child act this way? In our anger we may think “Because he is trying to push my buttons!” but when we approach this with curiosity instead of assumptions, looking deeper at what is going on behind a particular misbehaviour, we can often understand that the child was trying to express or attempt something but simply did not handle it appropriately. If we understand this, we ourselves can respond more effectively and compassionately.
What lesson do I want to teach in this moment? Again, the goal of discipline is not to give a consequence or punish the student. We want to teach a lesson – whether it is about self-control, the importance of sharing, acting responsibly, or anything else.
How can I best teach this lesson? Considering a child’s age and developmental stage, along with the context of the situation, how can we effectively communicate what we want to get across? Often, we respond to misbehaviour as if consequences were the goal of discipline. Sometimes natural consequences result from a child’s decision and the lesson is taught without needing to do too much. But there are usually more effective and helpful ways to help children to understand what we are trying to communicate than to immediately hand out one-size-fits-all consequences.
Further conversations contained reflections on possible staff resistance, including consideration being given to staff meta-emotion philosophy i.e. their individual views about emotions and behaviour as well as many other factors, including their own emotional capacity at a given time and how they feel in response to the student’s behaviour.
● Discussions about further training in consideration of steps 3 & 4 of Emotion Coaching – setting limits and problem solving incorporating Restorative Approaches.
● Possible tweaks to the current RJ form and delivery.
● Perhaps thinking about the order of how students access the support in the different zones in the school. For example, considering helping them to regulate their bodies and minds first - going to ‘Engage’ to regulate physically - before or while speaking to a member of staff about how they are feeling (co-regulation) and then when the student is calm again, setting limits and problem-solving in the ‘Reflection’ room including the RJ discussion.
“Why would you get told off for having emotions, Miss?”
(Yr 7 pupil during the EC Student Ambassador Workshop)
I was invited to present an Emotion Coaching workshop to a group of nine pre-selected Student Ambassadors called ‘Emotion Coaching Champions’ at Acle Academy. Miss Bostock, a teacher from the school, and Mr Bliss joined the training. They want to take this area of work seriously and professionally, hence the reason for investing in further training and badges for the students in school. The workshop lasted for 2.5 hours and during this time a range of topics were discussed, including: discussions about emotions, the hand-brain model, empathy, the EC steps and also discussing confidentiality/boundaries. The workshop was developed using some materials from Emotion Coaching UK and the helpful material shared by Kirklees.
I have to say, I was blown away by the students’ engagement and kindness that I observed! Students shared their reasons for wanting to engage in this role in school, which ranged from wanting to give something back to the community, genuinely wanting to help others, including their friends and family, whilst also sharing personal stories related to their own relatives’ experiences of mental health challenges.
Students completed a number of activities during the workshop, including discussions using a ‘feelings wheel’, and creating their own comic strips depicting the ‘fight, flight and freeze response’. The students started to think about what ‘self-regulation’ and ‘co-regulation’ meant; a quickly grasped concept. They were able to think about a range of things that may help them to self-regulate, including:
Doing something productive
Sitting outside in the sunshine
Whilst discussing breathing, I shared the idea of ‘hot chocolate breathing’. I immediately regretted not suggesting the students could have a hot chocolate! However, with thanks to Mrs Bostock, as if by magic, mugs of hot chocolate quickly arrived…including optional marshmallows!
Takeaway messages shared by the students:
“You can help to understand people’s feelings even if you don’t know them.”
“You can set boundaries and talk to adults (as a peer mentor).”
“Listening and labelling emotions helps.”
“How you phrase something and say it can have an impact.”
“The 4 steps and the structure will help us.”
Further discussions took place during the day with Nic and Helen, related to what collectively we had learned from the last two days together and discussed possible next steps. Overall, Nic and Helen feel they have the right structures and systems in place and are on the ‘right track’. I reflected on the importance of having the support from senior leaders (including from the Trust) and how this was really evident and positive for Acle Academy. The task of supporting others to ‘get on the EC bus’ was discussed, including the challenges of implementing new systems, reflecting on individuals’ meta-emotional philosophy as well as responding to adults’ emotions, including prioritising staff well-being.
I am aware there is a desire to remove detentions and significantly reduce exclusions which have already started to reduce in number. I discussed the importance of needing to be clear about how these systems would be replaced. For example, a detention in 4 weeks’ time for an incident that happened several weeks ago, might be replaced with the opportunity for the student to have a 5-minute restorative conversation.
We discussed replacing forced consequences, with natural consequences, giving all students opportunities to engage in acts of kindness and focussing on repairing relationships as soon as possible when there has been a rupture.
I imagine for some members of staff these ideas will be welcomed, but for others there could be a fear of the student ‘getting away with it’. We discussed the value of using the theoretical underpinnings of EC and Polyvagal Theory alongside Attachment Theory and Restorative approaches to support staff to understand why they are implementing this approach. For example, it will likely be much more difficult yet more meaningful, for a student to engage in this type of conversation rather than sitting in silence during a 10-minute detention sitting in silence. However, this does require adults to re-wire their brain and learn new approaches which will, of course, take time and understanding from senior leaders.
I personally feel privileged to have been invited to the school to support staff on this journey. I am looking forward to being able to share some of these ideas with other secondary schools. In terms of whole school implementation, I am aware that the school is at the early stages on this journey, however, the dedication of staff who are willing to be open-minded to the implementation of EC as a whole school approach was just so inspirational! I will look forward to hearing how the school continues to progress and remind them that progress is rarely linear! I would like to thank school staff for their hospitality and making me feel so welcome in the school, truly modelling the EC model!
● Staff will need to think about how the EC Student Ambassadors will access some form of supervision, possibly in a group? They will also need adults to regularly check-in with them, and know when and how they can contact an adult for support at any given time.
● Students will also need a set of EC scripts and a summary of some key points to remind them during their individual sessions with students. We discussed the possibility of maybe considering a self-referral process alongside a ‘drop in’ within the new student area when this has been further developed. They may also need further training at some point and possible short Continuing Professional Development (CPD) sessions once a term could be offered.
● The school are due to further reflect on their behaviour policy and senior leaders may wish to consider using a PATH model (as we used before) when thinking about their ‘great dream’, potential challenges, as well as next steps.