…where a world of play and creativity is prioritised; emotional wellbeing comes before
academic achievement; developing empathic skills is valued equal to achieving a task
and the complex language of emotions becomes welcome and acceptable across all
sectors of society.
2020 has been extraordinary in so many ways, and schools have now reopened with
talk of whether OFSTED should be commencing its usual rigorous inspections. I can
understand some teachers’ outrage at the thought of schools being subjected to such a
stressful process during these difficult times, and yet this is what we subject our young
people to every time we place a test in front of them.
I have always struggled with the ethos of educational institutions which place more
value on achieving good grades than the emotional well being of a child. I remember
when I was in nursery being pulled aside as the staff whispered to my mother that they
were concerned that I was behind in my reading. This was a transformative moment for
me. I went from being a happy, playful child at nursery to one who became anxious
about the next reading test. When I had to read to the head mistress in my primary
school I wet myself all over the carpet in her office. The damage had been done when I
was 4 years old and as a result for many years I struggled with reading.
As I say this, I hear many teachers crying, “but I care about the emotional well being of
the child!”. I must stress I am not wanting to criticise the individual here. I have known
and worked with a number of teachers over the years and all of them have been
committed to making themselves emotionally available to their students. I continue to
have the deepest respect for all that teachers do; but if our educational culture is judged
by league tables which focus on academic achievement over and above emotional
wellbeing and social relationships, we will continue to live in a society which is only
valuing half of the human brain.
We have inherited an educational system which was built on colonialism, the idea that
the ‘elite’, the ‘educated have the right to rule over the ‘uneducated’ world. The elite
marking system until after the damage was done? Did the institution not think about orallow themselves to feel the impact their decision might have on less privileged
and the church, but if we begin to really think about how they were educated then we
might begin to have some questions about their ability to lead a country in a mental
health crisis. Joy Schaverien following years of therapeutic work with survivors of
boarding schools wrote an extraordinary book about Boarding School Syndrome, her
observations leads her to speculate: “An outcome of early boarding may be that children
have to learn to cut themselves off from compassion for their own predicament. It may
follow in some cases that empathic understanding may also be lacking.” (Schaverien,
2015, pg 10) To be cut off from compassion and empathy at an early age is tragic and I
would argue the legacy of past educational methods continues to influence education
today. Why did no one spot the obvious inequality of this years; ‘A’ levels or GCSE
marking system until after the damage was done? Did the institution not think about or allow themselves to feel the impact their decision might have on less privileged
There is an argument to say that schools only exist to teach academic skills to our
young people so they have the skills to work and contribute to society and to add on the
responsibility of emotional intelligence is too much to ask. Perhaps the answer is not
about adding extra material into the curriculum but to change about how we teach our
young people. Margot Sunderland founder of Trauma Informed Schools UK states that
half of adults who suffer from Mental Health problems in the UK have their first
symptoms before the age of 14 and she goes on to say ‘I am passionate to spread the
word that so much misery experienced by children and teenagers could be prevented if
far more people were able to offer healing conversations.’ (Sunderland, 2015, pg 3) If
my humiliating reading assessment in nursery had been handled differently, then I may
never have ruined my headmistresses carpet! Wouldn’t it be wonderful if teachers and
parents had the resources to help children connect their emotional experience with their
rational thinking in a balanced way? We need more tools to use in the classroom and at
home to help remind us that feeling and thinking need to go hand in hand.
‘Neuroscientists such as Siegal are convinced that mental health is characterised by
increasing complexity, richer neuronal-pathways and connections, including better links
between the left and right sides of the brain, in the form of a better functioning corpus
callosum.’ (Music, 2011, 91-92). The arts, creativity and emotional intelligence need to
be balanced with logic and rational thinking in order to build more complex neuro
pathways and therefore give an individual more options and control over their lives.
Getting good grades today might not mean that someone has the resilience to cope with
life circumstances ahead. We are learning more about how our brains work and this
learning needs to be integrated into how we educate our young people. Healthy
creativity and play have to be essential to the growth and development of a young
person and therefore an essential part of the educational system. ‘Perhaps play
functions in ways that is complementary to dreaming. Both may help organise
information in the brain in ways that promote higher-order affective responses on future
life events.’ (Panksepp & Biven 2012, 374) I wonder why play only ever happens during
break time when actually it is an incredibly important tool for learning and being
adaptable? Imagine a school where play is part of every lesson and where children are
stopped in the corridor not for wearing the wrong uniform but to check how they are
feeling that day.
capacity for compassion and empathy, perhaps young people need to help adults learn
how to play again. Life needs more fun in it. To change the words of a Welsh proverb:
“Playing every day keeps the Dr away.”
UKCP Integrative Arts Psychotherapist and creator of 20 Dreams
20 Dreams is a playful card game which helps to develop the right, creative and
emotional hemisphere of the brain, so better links can be created with the left
more logical side of the brain, therefore helping to develop ‘whole brained’
(Siegel, Bryson 2020) people!
Music G, 2011: Nurturing Natures, Attachment and Children’s Emotional, Sociocultural
and Brian development. Psychology Press.
Panksepp & Biven, 2012: The Archaeology of mind, Neuroevolutionary Origins of
Human Emotions. Norton.
Schaverien J, 2015: Boarding School Syndrome, the psychological trauma of the
privileged child, Routledge
Siegal, Bryson, 2020: The whole brained child, Audible books.
Sunderland M, 2015: Conversations that matter, talking with children and teenagers in
ways that help. Worth publishing Ltd.