If only there was a key. We could just keep going back to Timpson’s, £4.95 a pop until one had been cut for every child. Alright, there’d be a queue but it’d be worth waiting for. ‘George, you go and look around GAME; I’m off to buy you some balance and sense for under a fiver.’ Although, if every child was grounded – as in the more together and balanced variety, not the home-tied one – where would that leave us? Swamped in so much groundedness that we’d all be making vomit impersonations at all the sickly-sweet, emotionally rich conversations wafting around school, and having to retire half of our mentors.
And what of nurture? It feels like it’s become a slightly dirty word, nurture – one carrying lots of baseless baggage: that to nurture someone you must have to be rather weak and overly caring, somewhat lacking in dynamism and – metaphorically speaking at least – cojones. And that to be nurtured, you must be soft and needy; a sort of flaky, naïve, will-o’-the-wisp of a child.
But maybe that’s just me over-dwelling on a soon-to-be-bygone era of unfeeling manliness – and maybe womanliness too; of a time when children were there to be spoken to and not heard; when hitting was tantamount to teaching; when the idea of ‘manning up’ was implicitly linked with being less of a woman. Oh, it still is.
Because, have we not learned since, not just that men are far from all muscles and bravery, but more importantly, that nurture is, in fact, a vital part of teaching. Not just the caring and protecting bit but, even more importantly, the personal development bit: showing a child you are interested in and respect them, that you care for their welfare. In short, developing your relationship to help them grow in as many varied and interesting ways as you can both find.
So we know how to nurture. And that it serves children well. But how do we nurture specifically for groundedness? According to a quick online search, grounded means well balanced and sensible. Notwithstanding the fact that some of our greatest innovators and inventors you’d struggle to describe as balanced and sensible – and that childhood and being sensible aren’t the most natural, or sometimes even desirable, of bedfellows – how do we help shape our young people so that they learn not to have tantrums when things go wrong; not to take frustrations out on innocent others? How do we shape them to be neither too egotistical nor too under-confident? To think on their feet? To eat and sleep in a way that promotes happiness and health?
How we do it, to my mind, is by talking about it – about emotional literacy – with children. But I don’t mean a once-a-week PSHE lesson, or a quick chat, or assembly, or lecture or rebuke. I mean proper talking. And listening. One to one. Once a week. And in doing so, we put groundedness, togetherness, not-being-all-over-the-place-ness, emotional literacy, whatever you want to call it, unequivocally on the school agenda and we start with it on their first day and finish with it on their last.
Why? Because from start to finish, school is the perfect training ground for being more grounded. ‘Actually, why don’t I talk to teachers about my work when I’m stuck?’ ‘Why do I find it difficult to make friends?’ ‘Why have I never joined a club at school? Or revised for a test? Or known how? Why don’t I get enough sleep, or bother with breakfast or get to lessons on time or check work when I’ve finished? Or listen well in class? What is it about me that is causing me not to be able to do stuff that would enable me to get on not just in school, but in life?’
And it’s the answers to these questions – which teachers can help pupils discover through careful asking, listening and discussing, via innovations like the passport* – and the individual actions that follow, that can help young people to develop the type of groundedness that will not just make them a little more balanced and sensible, but will be the platform on which their entire future learning and personal development may be based: an emotional platform from which to launch the creative, sky’s-the-limit-ambitious minds of the future.
Yes, some people get there in the end, regardless of any significant emotional foundations. In fact, you could argue they not only seem to survive but to thrive because of their lack of foundations – the adversity that fuels the drive forwards. But how many can we say that of? Aren’t these the exceptions and not the rule?
Isn’t the more common reality that without a strong emotional foundation on which to base their everyday school lives, many of our young people struggle to get on? To put their hands up and perform well in class; to make friends and handle well their detractors; to get down to classwork and revising and taking opportunities in school? To hand in some homework? Avoid calling out in class?
I feel we’ve always assumed that this stuff is learned because pupils eventually just get it. And sometimes they do. But what about when they don’t? When a young person’s confidence, organisation and well-being are so impaired that school becomes the place that inhibits rather than promotes their growth? If you work in a school, you know it happens – and to a substantial number of pupils.
We also know it happens because even as adults, many of us look back and wonder why we allowed school to so frame and intimidate us, to make us feel small. Yes, that can be an important part of growing up, but what about when it still haunts us as adults, still stops us from speaking up and taking opportunities, from building good relationships? Isn’t that the time to take stock and learn lessons? To learn that it is by handling life with emotional intelligence – at the time it happens – that helps lay a steady platform for the best version of our future selves. At work, in our relationships, in our pursuits.
To my mind, we need to start teaching emotional literacy – personalised for each pupil we claim to be taking forward. If we call ourselves educators, we surely have to educate pupils in self-knowledge, as much as we educate them in knowledge itself.
About the author
Richard Evans is a secondary school teacher with a particular interest in, and passion for, helping pupils who struggle with literacy. A former journalist, he has spent the last decade learning from pupils in lower sets and in nurture and tuition groups – and the passport* is just one of the many fruits of their joint labour.
* Richard’s book Independent Thinking on Emotional Literacy (Independent Thinking Press, 2020) is out now and available here.