Developing Emotional Literacy with Teenagers: Building Confidence, Self-Esteem and Self Awareness


Tina Rae

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    List of Downloadable Materials

    The following material is available to download from: emotional literacy. These are all marked with the ‘Photocoiable’ icon throughout the book.

    • Session 1 – Self-esteem
    • Thought-storming activity
    • Quick activity
    • Problem scenario – boys
    • Problem scenario – girls
    • What do they say?
    • Bingo build-up
    • Turn the negatives to positives – girls
    • Turn the negatives to positives – boys
    • Session 2 – Appearance
    • Key words thought-storm – appearance
    • Key words thought-storm – appearance, facilitator's notes
    • Quick activity
    • Problem scenario – boys
    • Problem scenario – girls
    • Cool dude quiz
    • Cool girl quiz
    • Look at me!
    • Session 3 – Peer pressure
    • Thought-storming activity
    • Quick activity
    • Problem scenario – girls
    • Problem scenario – boys
    • Practise being assertive
    • Peer pressure cards
    • Peer pressure cards – girls
    • Peer pressure cards – boys
    • Peer pressure cards – key questions
    • Session 4 – Cyber bullying
    • Thought-storming activity
    • Quick activity
    • Problem scenario – boys
    • Problem scenario – girls
    • What kind of bullying is this? Scenario sheet
    • What kind of bullying is this? Solutions sheet
    • Cyber safety cards
    • Cyber safety cards - advice sheet
    • Session 5 – Friendships and relationships
    • Thought-storming activity
    • Quick activity
    • Problem scenario – boys
    • Problem scenario – girls
    • Friendship quiz
    • Problem pages – girls: focus on relationships (2 sheets)
    • Problem pages – boys: focus on relationships (2 sheets)
    • Mediation process
    • Session 6 – Sex
    • Thought-storming activity
    • Quick activity
    • Problem scenario – boys
    • Problem scenario – girls
    • Positives and negatives
    • Keeping safe
    • Sex quiz
    • HIV/AIDS quiz (3 sheets)
    • HIV/AIDS quiz – answers (2 sheets)
    • Session 7 – Talking about feelings
    • Thought-storming activity
    • Quick activity
    • Problem scenario – boys
    • Problem scenario – girls
    • Talking about feelings
    • Personal profile
    • Cognitive behaviour approach – think, feel, do!
    • Negative automatic thoughts – reframe!
    • Session 8 – Drugs and alcohol
    • Thought-storming activity
    • Quick activity
    • Problem scenario – boys
    • Problem scenario – girls
    • Drugs and alcohol awareness – prompt words
    • What do you think?
    • Drugs awareness
    • Drugs and the law quiz
    • Drugs and the law quiz – answer sheet
    • Keep safe!
    • Session 9 – Gang culture
    • Thought-storming activity
    • Quick activity
    • Problem scenario – boys
    • Problem scenario – girls
    • Gangs in the news
    • Conflict style quiz (2 sheets)
    • Five-step approach for resolving conflict
    • Five-step approach for resolving conflict – recording sheet
    • Stay safe! (2 sheets)
    • Session 10 – Workplace pressures
    • Thought-storming activity
    • Quick activity
    • Problem scenario – boys
    • Problem scenario – girls
    • Stress strips
    • Four basic stress busters
    • Get prioritising!
    • Get organised!
    • Top tips for reducing stress and pressure
    • Top tips poster – how to beat stress and pressure
    • Session 11 – Evaluation and looking forward
    • Thought-storming activity
    • Quick activity
    • Problem scenario – boys
    • Problem scenario – girls
    • My personal future
    • Making changes
    • A personal change script
    • SMART targets
    • Course evaluation (2 sheets)
    • Certificate of achievement

    Introduction and Rationale

    This resource provides professionals who work with young people with a programme specifically designed to develop the emotional literacy of teenagers. In his book Nurturing Emotional Literacy, Peter Sharp defines emotional literacy as the ability to recognise, understand, handle and appropriately express emotions. The use of the word ‘literacy’ as opposed to ‘intelligence’ is of some significance here in that these skills are not something fixed or stable over time – unlike intelligence. This resource is firmly rooted in the premise that these skills can be learnt and developed over time and that all human beings are capable of some level of personal development which supports the maintenance of well-being overall.

    There is a significant body of evidence which shows the link between emotional literacy and mental well-being of children to that of their parents or primary care givers. The study entitled ‘Mental health and adolescents in Great Britain’ (Stationery Office, 2000) involved 10,000 face to face interviews with children aged 5 to 15 years and 4,500 with young people aged between 11 to 15 years. A striking finding from these questionnaires was the relationship between social class and mental health: 14% of children with mental disorders came from social class 5 (unskilled occupation) compared to 5% from social class 1 (professional families). Other factors that were correlated with increased likelihood of childhood mental illness were parental employment, lone parents, parental qualifications and parental mental health. Clearly none of these correlations implied direct causation.

    It is more likely that emotionally literate parents/carers will have emotionally literate children, who will then go on to be emotionally literate parents themselves. There is a cycle here and one which needs to be broken when it maintains the mental ill health of our young people. This is where the professionals working with young people and teenagers both in and out of the home context have a key role to play – both in terms of modelling emotionally literate behaviours and in terms of providing opportunities for these skills to be learnt and fostered over time, within a secure and emotionally literate environment which fosters the well-being of all. Given the range of stressors and difficulties that both adults and young people face within the current economic and political climate, this is an objective that clearly needs to be met and given a genuine priority in all contexts. It is vital that the emotional literacy and overall well-being of teenage boys and girls is fostered in this way. They need to be able to foster and maintain good mental health and emotional (psychological) well-being, developing the abilities to:

    • Develop psychologically, emotionally, intellectually, creatively and spiritually.
    • Use and enjoy solitude.
    • Develop a sense of right and wrong, understanding and valuing the differences between people and respecting the right of others to have beliefs and values different to others.
    • Recognise and manage strong feelings such as frustration, anger and anxiety.
    • Initiate, develop and sustain mutually satisfying personal relationships including friendships.
    • Become aware of others and empathise with them.
    • Play and learn effectively and co-operatively.
    • Solve problems with others and alone, and deal with and resolve conflict effectively and fairly.
    • Face and recover from problems and setbacks and use any psychological distress that results as a developmental process and learn from them in ways that do not impair or hinder further development.

    The promotion of such abilities is possibly the primary focus of this resource, which uses a skills-based approach in order to focus upon the development of emotional literacy and well-being. A key aim is to provide young people with opportunities to develop their skills and strategies that will maintain and foster these in both the short and longer term. The resources have been developed for both teenage boys and teenage girls and aim to provide user-friendly and evidence-based activities within an 11-session skills-based programme. Issues such as self-esteem, appearance, peer pressure, sex, gangs and relationships have evident resonance for both genders. However, the resources are presented in a way which enables the facilitator to focus on either (or both) genders at any given time as appropriate. However, at the outset, it is important to recognise some of the key factors that have influenced (and continue to do so) the development and well-being of both girls and boys in today's current social, educational and political contexts. It is with such differences in mind that this resource has been developed and it is now pertinent to focus upon some of the unique stressors and aspects of both girls’ and boys’ development.

    The Changing Roles of Women

    In today's society, a view prevails that women can ‘have it all’ and it seems that young women and girls are generally hoping to strive for this status. They are continually bombarded by the media with images that communicate the diversity of women's lives, from successful banker to the high-profile newsreader, and the successful singer married to a well-known footballer with the added appendages of a perfect family. It seems that women are, apparently, a success and that they will continue to be able to maintain such a position within society.

    There is no doubt that women's lives have changed from being bound up with traditional expectations within the home context to having greater opportunities outside the home, and this seems to have brought a greater sense of self-belief and self-esteem for some women. The change can also be seen in the greater number of women in the workforce and the decline in the United Kingdom birth rate. Adams (1997) points out that ‘over the past years, we have seen a supposed era of post-feminism’. However, Adams also acknowledges this period with caution in that it would seem that women's and young girls’ lives have achieved their desired goals. Most importantly, the statistics would suggest that the achievement of equality is no longer a consideration when thinking about the direction of women and young girls’ lives.

    One area in which girls appear to have achieved enormous success is in the education system. The Office of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools collaborated with the Equal Opportunities Commission in 1996, compiling a paper entitled ‘The gender divide’ which presented the following information:

    • Girls out-perform boys at ages of 7, 11 and 14 years in National Curriculum assessments in English although achievements in Mathematics and Science are broadly similar.
    • Girls are more successful than boys at every level in GCSE – more achieve at least one Grade G or above; more achieve at least five Grade G or above; more achieve at least one Grade C or above; more achieve at least five Grade C or above; and more achieve Grade A*.
    • Girls are more successful than boys in terms of achieving GCSE Grades A* to C in all major subjects (1996: 6). Educationalists and researchers have continued to acknowledge the academic success of girls during recent years.

    Marks (2001:1) identified that:

    In a few short years girls have overtaken boys in many aspects of their education. Girls are now performing better than boys on many tests of educational attainment throughout their school careers from the age of 7 years upwards and more girls than boys now go on to universities.

    The Role of the Media

    A major influence on girls’ and young women's lives is to be found within the media and specifically within magazines designed for them. The magazines that teenage girls buy communicate the ideas of romance, beauty and lifestyle choices. Many of the magazines are held up to provide answers to questions that girls have and aid them in defining who they are or even who they wish to become. Furthermore, they also define what experience girls should expect to be having. McRobbie (2000) illustrated how girls’ youth culture is intrinsically linked to such magazines. She stated that ‘the messages which these images and stories together produce are limited and ambiguous These are:

    • The girl has to fight to get and keep her man.
    • She can never trust another woman.
    • Romance and being a girl are fun.

    It would seem, therefore, that such a perspective and pressure is directly in opposition to the push for academic success and future success in the workplace. Although women and young girls seem to have become de-traditionalised on some levels and more assertive in preparing for their futures within the context of social culture and economic changes, there still appears to be a huge drive to foster the image of girls as unacademic beings who generally need to maintain a good appearance and be evidently attractive to the opposite sex. This contradiction continues to present girls with a level of stress and dissonance within their lives – just as boys are presented with a narrow definition of masculinity which can, and frequently does, limit their emotional and relational development – a form of mis-education.

    Many psychologists describe how healthy psychological development has been typically marked by progressive acquisition and integration of new skills and qualities. In contrast to this, the traditional male socialisation described by Terence Real (1997) reflects a process of disconnection marked by successive ‘disavowing’ and loss of qualities essential to boys’ emotional and psychological well-being.

    The Emotional Mis-Education of Boys

    It would appear that within our culture there exists a set of unique stressors which continue to propel today's young males down a very troubled path. Daniel Kindlon and Michael Thompson (1999) describe both the emotional illiteracy of boys that develops from a so-called disavowing process and its bearing on both the personal and the social problems that boys experience in schools. The lack of emotional connection is often mixed with a sense of privilege, power and entitlement that also stems from traditional masculine ideals. Therefore, it is not surprising that such factors may influence boys to behave in disrespectful and antisocial ways towards their teachers and their peers.

    For many boys it seems that schools are in a sense ‘anti-boy’. When entering school, boys will find a curriculum which emphasises the acquisition of basic literacy skills, i.e. reading and writing, and this, to some extent, can restrict their activities. Boys are generally far more active and slower to read than girls, and teachers will often discipline boys more harshly than they would the girls within the classroom context. Consequently, sensitivity is not modelled to the boys so I would argue that they do not learn it. Alongside this anti-boy school culture, it would seem that fathers and male carers tend to demand that their sons act tough. Mothers and female carers also tend to expect boys to be strong and protective. Furthermore, their peer group will often enforce the rule that a boy does not cry or show his emotions. Boys are taught not to be ‘sissies’ and at the same time are chastised for being insensitive. It is not surprising that boys become confused when they are hearing such different messages, i.e. to embrace an androgynous sex while not becoming too feminine. Also, for many boys, experiences of losing early friends as they enter into adolescence can cause enormous amounts of stress. For many teenage boys the distrust of other boys replaces intimate same-sex friendships. Boys are also bombarded with images in the media which have, over time, become more hyper-masculine. Emotionless killing machines portrayed by Sylvester Stallone, for example, have supplanted the strong yet milder heroes like Roy Rogers. Boys are presented with scenarios in which they must learn to hide behind a mask of bravado. Boys are also often victims of ruthless jeering, insults and cussing. Many of them find that words do not stop the taunting, but physical violence and aggression do. It seems that anger is the only emotion that earns them respect.

    James Gabarino (1999) describes how the symptoms of boys’ growing dissatisfaction, which had been previously ignored, have been steadily building. Rising numbers of boys are prescribed the drug Ritalin for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), possibly often legitimately. However, in many cases it is over-prescribed to curb acting-out behaviours. It is also evident that boys’ academic performance has declined within the last decade while girls’ achievements have risen. The same pattern is true for attendance within further education, and boys are far more likely than girls to hurt or kill themselves or each other.

    A Man's World or a Woman's World?

    Given these symptoms, it would therefore seem that boys and young men do not have an easier or better time than girls or young women as they face the challenges of growing up.

    Statistics on men's health, happiness and survival clearly show that the old adage ‘It's a man's world’ is simply a lie. Being a boy or a man in the early twenty-first century is clearly not an easy option for the following reasons:

    • Men on average live for six years less than women.
    • Men routinely fail at close relationships: 40% of marriages break down and divorces are initiated by the women in four out of five cases.
    • Of convicted acts of violence, 90% will be carried out by men and 70% of the victims will be male.
    • In school around 90% of children with behavioural problems and 80% of children with learning problems are boys.
    • One in seven boys will experience sexual assault by an adult or older child by the age of 18.
    • Men comprise over 90% of inmates in prison and make up 74% of the unemployed.
    • The leading cause of death among men aged between 12 and 60 is through self-inflicted means. In 1993 Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) figures, suicide accounted for 1 in 38 male deaths overall (Biddulph, 1995).
    Suicide Rates Among Young Men

    Suicide rates among young men in the United Kingdom rose significantly during the 1980s and the early 1990s. This has led to a notable amount of political attention being drawn to this topic and rightly so, given that suicide rates in England and Wales of young men between the ages of 15 and 24 rose by approximately 60% from 1981 to 1999. This led the government to set a goal in 1991 (‘The Health of the Nation’, Jenkins, 1994) to reduce the rates of these suicides by 15% by the end of the century. The rate has been reduced from approximately 16 in 100,000 in 1990 to 12 in 100,000 in 2000.

    In order to further support the government's health strategy in this area, a specific ‘National Suicide Prevention Strategy for England’ was issued in 2002 (Department of Health, 2002). This strategy has six identified objectives, including: reducing risk in key high-risk groups, e.g. men; promoting mental health and well-being in the wider population; and reducing the availability and lethal nature of suicide methods. It is still the case, however, that young men are far more likely to commit suicide than young women. The risk factors have been clearly documented between both primary and secondary factors. Obviously no individual young person would experience all of the factors but they are likely to experience a significant combination. This kind of combination could then lead to an increased risk of suicide. Primary factors include the following:

    • Alcohol and drug abuse
    • A sense of real hopelessness concerning the future
    • Serious depression
    • A previous attempted suicide or some form of psychiatric disorder.

    Secondary risk factors include:

    • Severe dent to self-esteem which may lead to a sense of guilt or shame
    • A recent loss or bereavement
    • A family history of suicide
    • Experiencing a friend or significant adult committing suicide.

    Most significant for us in developing this particular project were the risk factors related to lack of self-esteem leading to a sense of guilt or shame. In our culture boys generally are led to believe that in order to be manly they must stay ‘on top of their feelings’. They consequently live in psychological conflict because they are attempting to control feelings that may be too powerful or too complex to be controlled. As Kindlon and Thompson (1999) state:

    the results can be deadly: combined depression and its shame, emotional illiteracy, and the impulsivity so common among boys: mix in access to weapons and a familiarity with violence, real or through the media – and you have a recipe for suicide.

    Clearly not every boy who confronts emotional hardship will develop severe depression. Whether or not depression is biological or situational in origin, the recovery from it is far more difficult for boys who, according to Kindlon and Thompson, have been ‘trained away from emotional interaction and steered instead towards emotional silence and stoicism’ (1999: 167).

    Combating Emotional Illiteracy

    According to Biddulph (1995) men's difficulties are primarily with isolation. The prisons from which they must escape are:

    • Loneliness
    • Compulsive competition
    • Lifelong emotional timidity.

    Consequently, a significant aim of this programme is to promote boys’ levels of emotional literacy in order to also foster and protect their mental health. The latter is key, given that ‘since the 1940s the number of children experiencing mental ill health has increased to 1 in 5’ (Mental Health Foundation, 1999). This report also stated that:

    mental health problems in children and young people will continue to increase unless there is a coherent and holistic programme implemented to develop the emotional and mental health of our children. … Emotionally literate children are less likely to experience mental health problems and, if they develop them, are less likely to suffer long term. Emotional literacy is derived from a combination of parents, schools and wider social networks.

    Issues of Self-Esteem

    It is perhaps this wider social network of peers and the media (including the one of social networking) that influences the development and well-being of both teenage girls and boys. However, whilst boys suffer the anti-boy nature of schools and the contradictory messages of the media and significant role models, teenage girls tend to report increasingly low levels of self-esteem and self-image.

    Pipher states that ‘most pre-adolescent girls are marvellous company because they are interested in everything: sport, nature, people, music and books’ (1994: 18). However, it also appears that ‘something dramatic happens to girls in early adolescence. Just as planes and ships disappear mysteriously into the Bermuda Triangle, so the selves of girls go down in droves’ (1994: 19). This description of girls’ movement towards adolescence and into adulthood illustrates some of the difficulties that they will encounter in terms of loss of self-esteem and identity. It seems that girls tend to lose their essential essence of who they actually are and seek to find new identities from within the peer group and the wider social context. The pressures are enormous and the vulnerability of girls tends to make them more open to such pressures. It is at this point that issues of relational aggression become more apparent.

    Issues of Relational Aggression

    Girls have always appeared to have cliques and hierarchies and always gossiped, bitched and ostracised but according to some psychologists, there is a new form of non-physical cruelty which is spreading through schools. This kind of cruelty is deemed to be so extreme that it has actually been given a new name: relational aggression. Amelia Hill and Edward Helmore described this new phenomenon in their article in The Observer on 3 March 2002. They described how experts are comparing our knowledge of this kind of psychological warfare now with the attention given to domestic violence 20 years ago:

    Though it's not on the same scale (as domestic violence), we believe that with relational aggression, the trajectory of awareness, common knowledge and demand for change will follow the same track – Holly Nishimura, Assistant Director of the Pennsylvania-based Ophelia project. (Hill and Helmore, 2002)

    This lack of awareness is, according to Rosalind Wiseman (founder of the Washington-based ‘Empower Program’), allowing the warfare to wage unhindered in playgrounds and classrooms where teachers either dismiss girl-on-girl cruelty as being less important than the more obvious and disruptive male aggression, or actually fail to notice it altogether. For Wiseman, relational aggression can have devastating and long-term effects on its victims. She believes that girls’ relationships with each other are really the key to their survival but they can also be the key to their destruction. Therefore, one main aim of this programme is to promote positive peer support in relationships, and to make girls aware of this phenomenon of relational aggression and the ways in which they need to be alert and aware of being pulled into such behaviours and situations.

    Although research in this area is in its infancy, relational aggression seems to develop when children transfer from their small, more intimate primary context to large impersonal secondary schools where anonymity is the order of each day. According to Adrienne Katz (executive director of Young Voice):

    In the midst of such faceless confusion, many children abandon all interest in academia and concentrate entirely on working to be accepted by a social group. It is particularly traumatic for girls, because they traditionally need more emotionally intimate relationships than boys, which take time to develop. (Hill and Helmore, 2002)

    Research by the Department for Education and Skills (referred to in Hill and Helmore, 2002) found that despite government legislation passed in 1999 compelling all state schools to have a bullying charter, over one-third of girls said that they have been too afraid to go to school at some point in their lives.

    The effects of such insidious aggression are traumatic and the long-term effects can also be quite devastating for the individuals involved. Kidscape have investigated this form of bullying (Kidscape Survey, 1999) and found that adults who were bullied as children carry the problems with them into later life, reporting low levels of self-esteem, suicidal thoughts and difficulties in relating to other people.

    It would consequently seem vital for those working with children to understand the consequences of such aggression and seek to combat it via both whole-school and more individualised interventions and programmes of support. It is hoped that Developing Emotional Literacy with Teenagers will go some way to achieving such an objective.

    Emotional Literacy

    Daniel Goleman (1995) defines emotional literacy as ‘the capacity for recognising our own feelings and those of others, for motivating ourselves and for managing emotions within ourselves and in our relationships’. Consequently, this programme attempts to begin to promote boys’ and girls’ emotional literacy and mental health within the educational context while also promoting the notion of emotional learning as an important lifelong goal in every sphere.

    According to Susie Orbach, emotional literacy is achieved by registering emotions, recognising our emotions, querying them for validity and then being able to put them aside after having experienced them (Orbach, 2000). The essential aim of this programme is therefore to ensure that boys and girls have access to experiences which encourage them to develop the skills of emotional literacy within the solution-focused forum (a forum which focuses on the solutions rather than the problem), which rejects the notions of compulsive competition and relational aggression. The programme does not attempt, in any sense, to negate differences but rather to validate students’ own experiences and to encourage them to develop the motivation, resilience and trust with which to become emotionally successful and stable human beings.


    The main objectives of this 11-session programme are therefore to:

    • Encourage students to become more aware of both the importance of supporting each other and the benefits of forming strong and positive links with other students.
    • Develop students’ understanding of emotional literacy and the importance of being aware of their feelings and being able to manage them effectively.
    • Ensure that students understand the importance of self-motivation and positive thinking.
    • Raise students’ self-esteem and levels of confidence.
    • Encourage students to develop the ability to make their own decisions in life.
    • Encourage students to become more aware and questioning of the impact that the media has on the way that they behave and the way in which they see themselves.
    • Enable students to further develop and appreciate the perspectives of others – to empathise.
    • Further develop students’ awareness of gender differences and the way in which stereotypes can be imposed and built in to the way in which we behave towards each other.
    • Develop students’ awareness of what it is to be healthy and the way in which risky behaviours can mitigate against both mental and physical well-being.
    • Encourage students to develop problem-solving skills and a range of positive self-help strategies which emanate from motivational interviewing and cognitive behaviour therapy practice and procedures.
    • Develop students’ tolerance of difference and rejection of stereotypes.
    • Raise awareness of the importance of relationships and the ways in which our behaviour can mitigate against maintaining positive relationships.
    • Further develop the facilitator's awareness and understanding of a range of strategies to effectively manage one's self and one's emotions.
    • Encourage facilitators and support staff to adopt a consistent approach towards developing students’ emotional literacy, social skills and self-esteem.
    • Further encourage facilitators to review the current policy and practice in terms of managing the emotional, social and behavioural needs of students in their care.
    • Further develop healthy initiatives and programmes which promote inclusive practice for those students who present as being most at risk.
    • Encourage facilitators to reflect further upon how the school and curriculum are structured so as to ensure the inclusion of all students, i.e. that the curriculum and adults who teach it model positive images of both sexes and that the curriculum is suitably differentiated to ensure the inclusion of both genders within all subject areas.
    • Further develop and encourage facilitators’ awareness of the need to provide adequate pastoral support for students throughout their school careers.

    The success of this programme will clearly depend upon how closely these objectives are followed and achieved.

    The Structure of the Programme

    The programme is divided into 11 sessions. Each session includes an introduction in which the main aims are recorded and discussed. A similar format is then adhered to which includes: a thought-storming activity, a ‘quick’ activity, circle talk, a problem scenario, a range of activity sheets for students to complete and a final plenary session. The sessions are arranged in the following sequence:

    The Structure of the Sessions

    It is helpful to have the aims of each session written up on the flip-chart prior to the start of the session. These can then be on display in an accessible place in the room as the students come in for the session. At the start of the session the facilitator should talk through each of the recorded aims. These are provided at the start of each session plan and can be adapted in order to suit specific groups as appropriate. The aims explain to the students what they can expect to encounter and learn. This is also an opportunity for the facilitator to field any questions and clarify new concepts or definitions with the students.

    Quick Activity

    A range of quick activities or icebreakers are used to break down barriers and create a comfortable and unthreatening context in which students can begin to form positive relationships and relax in order to subsequently engage in the activities presented to them. The quick activity generally builds upon the thought-storm task.

    Circle Talk

    Circle Time is a structured and creative form of group work in which students and the group facilitator sit together in a circle. These regular group meetings create a safe, trusting and non-blaming context in which individuals can speak, listen, share thoughts, feelings and ideas and support each other in finding solutions to problems. Circle Time provides a means of supporting young people, raising their confidence and levels of self-esteem. A key underpinning notion is that all young people are believed to be of worth and are encouraged to believe this themselves through the process of interacting with the circle. Circle Time has been popular across all key stages in UK schools as it provides a unique and user-friendly approach to developing and explaining communication skills and the emotional, social and behavioural development of young people.

    The circle talk element of the session encourages students to begin to articulate ideas and feelings. A series of questions are presented which relate specifically to the topic being introduced. A Circle Time approach is adopted in which students adhere to rules regarding turn-taking and respect for each other's views. The group rules which are identified and agreed by students in the first session will clearly be reinforced in each of the subsequent circle talk sessions.

    Problem Scenario

    The students are presented with a problem scenario in which a boy or girl is experiencing a difficulty or problem. They are then asked to consider a series of questions which focus on the ways in which the boy/girl might find a solution to the dilemma that he/she is currently facing and how he/she might deal more effectively with the problem.

    Central to this activity is the need to ensure that all students feel able to participate. There is consequently limited recording here. The activity can be entirely verbal. The key aim is clearly to encourage students to articulate thoughts and feelings. Given that they are not being identified as personally experiencing this problem, it is hoped that students will feel more inclined to discuss the feelings that the character in each of the scenarios may be experiencing and to offer solutions, i.e. developing empathy en route.

    Activity Sheets

    The facilitator can then introduce the activity sheets that aim to both clarify and reinforce the specific topic introduced within the session. The sheets are designed to require minimal amounts of recording such as drawing, writing or discussing. They can be stored in individual folders, which the students can make up at the start of the programme; these can be designed individually. I would strongly encourage the facilitators to allow some additional time for this, as good presentation of the work involved will invariably raise the profile of the group and its focus.


    During the final part of each session, students will be able to discuss the session and reflect upon the learning that has taken place. Not only is this an opportunity to summarise the skills and concepts covered, but also it is important to encourage the students to reflect upon the usefulness of the tasks, and begin to identify ways in which they might be able to further develop their own skills. A list of key questions is provided in order to promote thinking and to encourage participation in this part of the session.

    Using the Programme

    The sessions can be used in a variety of ways, either with a small group or with the whole class. Although the programme has been developed within the context of a Pupil Referral Unit and subsequently used with smaller groups of students, it would be feasible to utilise these resources within a larger group and to adapt them as appropriate for specific groups of students.

    When first trialling this programme, it was possible to allocate both the form tutor and the educational psychologist to the target group in order to deliver each of these sessions, and to provide ongoing weekly tutorial support with individual students. However, it does not necessarily follow that similar arrangements should, or could, be made in other contexts. The allocation of such resources, and attempts to work in such a multi-disciplinary way, should be appropriate to each context. It is important to ensure that those delivering this programme have some interest in both emotional literacy and social and behavioural skills themselves, and that they are able to function within an emotionally literate and supportive environment. It is also useful if facilitators have had some experience of managing groups and some understanding of group processes. Making use of the facilitator's checklist may provide a framework in which to consider staff requirements.

    Each session provides the facilitator with explicit notes regarding the delivery of each activity. However, it is strongly recommended that prior to delivering this (or any similar) intervention, staff should make reference to the facilitator's checklist. It is important to be aware of your own views and attitudes and the ways in which these should and shouldn't impact upon delivery and outcomes.

    The Facilitator's Checklist

    Preparation for delivery of this programme must include both practical considerations relating to room use, resources and so on, as well as reflection on your own experience of behaviour change and well-being, your skills as a facilitator and the need to reduce risk and create a learning environment which feels safe for your students.

    This checklist has been developed to help facilitators prepare thoroughly. It may be useful as an exercise to help you establish priorities for discussion or action. It is not definitive and it may be appropriate to add other points that relate more specifically to your situation.

    While it is not essential that you have all the knowledge, skills and experience implied below, it is essential that you are aware of your strengths and weaknesses and that you take the necessary steps to ensure you are well prepared.

    Remember, behaviour change is an ‘emotional topic’ and may arouse strong feelings and reactions. It is important that the facilitator feels able to ‘hold’ a group and is prepared to deal with difficulties that arise. It is important that the learning process itself is ‘emotionally literate’ and that a supportive, empathic and caring ethos is promoted from the outset.

    It is therefore recommended that two facilitators run the programme. This could be a ‘lead facilitator’ (for example, a learning mentor, teacher or visiting professional) supported by a learning support assistant. Having two facilitators means that staff can withdraw individuals if necessary. It also means that one facilitator can take on an observer role if appropriate.

    The lead facilitator should:

    • Have experience or a secure understanding of group processes and basic therapeutic techniques.
    • Have experience of delivering group work and Circle Time.
    • Have a positive approach and proven skills in relation to social inclusion.
    • Be committed to developing their own emotional literacy.
    • Have a reflective approach to their teaching and learning.
    • Understand how emotional literacy promotes mental health and school achievement.

    Before starting this programme, facilitators should discuss any personal experience of behaviour change and the development of social and emotional skills with each other, which may be helpful or unhelpful. Consideration should also be given to ways in which staff will support each other during the programme.

    Check: Whole-School Readiness
    • In your opinion, has the school dealt well with well-being issues amongst staff and students?
    • Does the school have an active policy on behaviour and bullying?
    • Who is the member of staff responsible for SEN, travellers, the homeless, the looked after, adopted children and refugees?
    • Are school exclusions dealt with systematically, fairly and as a last resort?
    • Will you be supported by senior management?
    • How will you deal with colleagues or parents/carers who have a strong negative reaction to this work?
    • How will you explain the work to parents/carers?
    • Is there a whole-school policy on well-being?
    • To whom are you accountable in this role?
    Check: Reducing Risk
    • Think about writing a letter to parents and carers to either secure their consent or inform them of your intentions.
    • Identify potentially vulnerable students prior to starting the group.
    • Do you feel confident to manage the contributions of those at risk of exclusion?
    • Do you feel confident to manage the contributions of those under-achieving?
    • Do you feel confident to manage the contributions of those engaged in youth offending?
    • What self-management strategies will you use to prepare yourself for each session?
    • Can you provide one-to-one time for students who need it? How will you identify those pupils?
    • Will you evaluate each session on the same day as it is held?
    • How will ‘lessons learned’ when running this group be fed into future planning for this work?
    • When planning the programme identify ‘What if …?’ worst-case scenarios. This will help you to anticipate and prevent problems.
    • Who will provide supervision for you? Do you have access to an experienced colleague who could take on this role? How would this support ensure your safety and how will you access and find this support?
    Check: Inclusion
    • Are the classroom and the curriculum accessible to all learners? Will your sessions include everyone?
    • How will you manage the introduction of differentiated tasks for some learners?
    • How will you pay attention to different learning styles?
    • How will you ensure that resources and anecdotes do not portray the world as exclusively young, white, middle-class, able-bodied and heterosexual?
    • Will your displays represent the cultural diversity of our society? Will they challenge stereotypes?
    • Will you challenge discriminatory attitudes and practices of some students constructively?
    • How are the needs of bilingual and ethnic minority learners met?
    • What are your own beliefs about behaviour change and the use of evidence-based interventions to achieve this?
    • What are the dominant cultural values and/or religious beliefs in the school? In what ways will this help or hinder the effective delivery of the programme?
    Check: Group Work and Team-Teaching
    • Do you understand the difference between group work and working in groups?

    Have you and your co-facilitator discussed:

    • How much you will disclose?
    • How and when you will evaluate each session?
    • What happens if one of you is absent?
    • What you will do if a student is absent?
    • The benefits of having one of you taking an observer role for some activities?
    • A draft opening statement for your first session?
    • Suggested group rules?
    • How you will manage any resulting paperwork?
    • Strategies for managing difficult individuals and behaviour in groups?
    • A shared view on how you will manage difficulties?
    • How you would like to give each other feedback?

    (Adapted from Rae and Weymont, 2006.)

    Top Tips with Teenagers

    Alongside experience of managing groups and understanding how these may and may not function effectively, it is also useful for facilitators to specifically consider how they initially approach groups of young men and young women and perhaps agree on both their philosophy and a range of useful strategies and approaches. The latter is particularly important when the individuals being targeted present as disaffected or disengaged with the learning culture. Clearly, the facilitators will be aware of positive behaviour management strategies, but when first approaching a group of less engaged students, the task can appear somewhat daunting. When initially delivering this programme within the Pupil Referral Unit context, a range of strategies were agreed. Many of these may appear obvious to the more experienced professional, but it might be useful to present them as a list of ‘useful tips’ for working with adolescents. It may be useful for facilitators to discuss the list prior to delivering the course, during the course (as a direct result of delivering specific activities) and subsequent to completion of the course. The list was as follows:

    • Always explain ‘why’ a task is being done and what the purpose of the activity really is. For example, we need to become emotionally literate in order to be successful in our relationships and future jobs, etc. There is a reason for doing this work.
    • Ensure that the students are not targeted individually to ‘give their views, thoughts or feelings’ in front of the group when they are clearly not ready to do so – don't push them.
    • Use examples of other girls’ and boys’ experiences rather than asking directly ‘What did you do when ….?’ This can come across as confrontational to a young man who is experiencing low levels of confidence and self-esteem. Focusing on others’ experiences feels ‘safer’ and can encourage the students to relate back to personal experiences at a later stage.
    • Always ask for students’ thoughts and opinions and don't judge them. They need to know that their views are valid (no matter how sexist or inappropriate they may appear).
    • Always model the behaviour you wish to see, and join in the activities. It is really important that embarrassment is always reduced to a minimum. If the facilitator is always first to ‘have a go’ and willing to share his/her own experiences, this can help to deflect difficult emotions and alleviate any stress. However, the facilitator will need to be very clear as to the extent he/she wishes to disclose more personal information and the usefulness or otherwise of adopting such a strategy.
    • Use humour to deflect difficult situations and/or emotions but never use it as a put-down. This is entirely unproductive.
    • Always use praise to reinforce the students’ contributions and appropriate behaviours and ‘catch them’ as frequently as possible ‘doing the right thing’. It is vital to highlight the positives and, as far as possible, ignore the negatives.
    • Move on quickly to the next activity or another point in the structured conversation at the first hint of any embarrassment. Never insist on each student making a contribution but simply praise those who do and thank them every time.
    • Always allow time for talking. This is particularly important. Adolescents need time to think and respond and you may often have to allow them to talk ‘round’ a topic for some time before they feel able to address a specific point or key issue.
    • Ensure that activities are mainly practical and that they are presented so as to incorporate a range of learning styles. Providing visual and kinaesthetic prompts and activities are vital for boys who exhibit more limited concentration spans. Activities should always, to some extent, be specific and time limited.

    Most important is probably the first item in this list: why are we doing this? Why do we need to learn these skills? I would always emphasise not only the need to protect and foster emotional well-being but also the ‘real world’ value and importance of developing the skills of emotional literacy. These are the skills that students will need in the real world if they are to work effectively in teams, solving problems and communicating appropriately with work colleagues. These are the life skills that will ensure they are successful in both work and personal relationships and that can enable them to remain resilient and motivated when they do experience problems and setbacks. Hartley-Brewer's (2001) rationale is probably most apt:

    Students must learn how to be in touch with their own and others’ feelings and perceptions because technological progress and greater global competition are creating jobs that require creative team work, collective problem-solving, constant communication and joint approaches to risk.

    It is hoped that these ‘tips’ are of use, particularly to the facilitator who may have less experience of working with adolescents who may present as somewhat disaffected and unwilling to engage. In order to further support implementation of the programme, ‘tips’ have been included throughout each of the subsequent session plans. These are designed to help the facilitator pre-empt and avoid difficulties and to support a smoother and more confident delivery.

    Looking Forward – A Personal Note

    As with all such programmes, it will be important to ensure that an appropriate level of support is provided for individual students who require it once the sessions have been completed. It may be helpful to continue to provide some weekly tutorial support for targeted individuals should they request it. It will also be helpful to encourage the teenagers to continue with problem-solving group work, providing a support network for each other which can also be further supported by other adults within the school context.

    I would personally hope that, in the longer term, school staff will become more aware of the need to promote the self-esteem and emotional literacy of adolescents, and of the need both to guard against stereotyping boys and girls and to combat their social and emotional isolation, which can lead to the aggressive behaviours and mental ill health that those in the caring professions wish to reduce. Hopefully, maintaining and fostering the kind of empathic and solution-focused problem solving highlighted within these sessions will go some way to achieving such a goal.


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