Molly Potter - teaching emotional literacy

Molly Potter is a bestselling author of books that aim to help children navigate life’s tricky bits.

Molly taught for 11 years in middle schools as a class teacher, science and PSHE co-ordinator. She then worked for several years as an SRE (Sex and Relationships Education) Development Manager, delivering teacher training and supporting primary schools in the development of their SRE programme and policy and many other aspects of PSHE. Molly now works as a teacher in a short-stay school with children that have been or are at risk from being excluded from mainstream schools - putting much of her PSHE expertise into practice. She thoroughly enjoys writing teacher materials and prides herself on being able to spice up any learning objective however boring it might appear at first!

  • Can you explain ‘emotional literacy’ and is this part of the curriculum? 

Emotional literacy is a passion of mine. Although its definition is easy - the ability to recognise emotions in yourself and others, their cause and respond resourcefully to them - the actual practice is not so easy to grasp. From a young age we are taught to either repress ‘ugly’ emotions or to express emotions inappropriately because the way we expressed them got us what we wanted. Pure and healthy emotions arrive, we acknowledge and process them and then they subside. However, so many of our emotions have extra baggage attached to them to either make us deny them or respond inappropriately such as becoming defensive or aggressive. We might feel guilty for feeling jealous, we be loaded with shameful feelings when we become angry, we might embarrassed to be upset or shout at someone because we feel vulnerable. Experiencing some emotions can be an affront to our very self-worth because we have come to associate them with being naughty or vile in some way. 

My books start children on the journey of recognising their emotions and considering how to express them as after all we cannot choose what we feel but we can decide how we behave when we are experiencing any particular emotion. This works to prevent repression and damaging expression of emotions.

Several years ago the government rolled out the SEAL (social and emotional aspects of learning) curriculum to all schools. This put emotional literacy very much on primary education’s agenda. A child with good emotional literacy ultimately has a beneficial impact upon their ability to learn, be motivated, form healthy relationships, manage conflict and take on new challenges. This was recognised by the SEAL curriculum but I would add, good emotional literacy generally makes life easier to manage!

  • Dealing with issues and emotions such as death, anger and sadness, your books provide children with methods of understanding difficult feelings. Was it your time as a teacher that inspired you to write this type of book?

When I was a mainstream primary teacher, I always found the subject I absolutely loved teaching was personal, social and health education (PSHE) – especially the aspects about identity, emotional literacy, relationships and self- awareness. Out of personal interest, I read a lot about these topics and jumped at any training on offer in this field. For me these issues are very key to life fulfilment, happiness and healthy relationships and in many ways can have more impact on how ‘effective’ a person is in life than many of the academic subjects. 

I also spent seven years working with primary schools in an advisory capacity in PSHE. In this role I could not only further my understanding of these topics, I could also help teachers to feel more confident delivering lessons on them or having conversations with children about sensitive issues. I would say my interest in helping children navigate life’s tricky bits was developed and inspired during my time as a teacher and working to support PSHE.

  • You have a wealth of experience in children’s wellbeing and training teachers in how to manage difficult behaviour in the classroom. Do you believe that mainstream schools are able to offer the support that some children need whilst getting them through the curriculum, or do you think that teachers are weighed down by ‘ticking boxes’ so much that inevitably supporting children’s needs becomes far more challenging?

If I were to have it my way, the curriculum would be overhauled, especially at the primary stage, with an aim to providing children with self-awareness, relationship skills, creative and critical thinking, problem solving, learning how to learn, understanding and developing their strengths and interests and other significant practical and life skills alongside basic numeracy and literacy of course. I would leave the real academic acceleration to secondary school – which is sort of where it happens anyway. I feel quite sad that our curriculum has just been tweaked and tweaked from its Victorian origins rather than someone asking what children of the 21st century will really need to thrive as adults. Such a curriculum would mean support was an integral part of the system!

  • You are obviously very prolific and proactive in your work, with so many elements to what you do. Is there a part of your work that you enjoy the most?

I work part time as a teacher in a Pupil Referral Unit, I deliver training in the field of PSHE topics and wellbeing and I write books and other materials for a variety of organisations. Within each of these roles there are aspects I thoroughly enjoy. 

I absolutely love designing and delivering training; working out how to most effectively deliver the main learning. I make my training days interactive and (hopefully) engaging. I especially love training adults in the areas of emotional literacy and behaviour management. Although the aim is to help these adults to help the children they work or live with, it’s very difficult to share understanding without people relating it to themselves and undergoing a degree of self-discovery. I love it when people have ‘penny drop’ moments that will be really helpful to them.

In writing books I relish the process of distilling down my adult understanding of a topic into something that children will be able to grasp. I find this process very satisfying as I really have to condense my understanding. 

With my work in the PRU I enjoy making the children feel valued, loved and respected. There is no magic wand for changing their behaviour or addressing their needs overnight; it is always a steady process with small steps in the right direction that is mostly reliant on me developing a solid and trusted relationship with them.

  • With so many influences on children that as parents it’s hard to control – ie gaming / social media / playground bullying - do you have any top tips for parents struggling with challenging behaviour or children with low confidence?

I get asked a lot to give advice about individual children’s behaviour and obviously although I can give general advice, it’s much easier to address issues when I know the child and can see the issues. However, there are general bits of advice that most people can find helpful. 

One useful piece that works for many is about giving positive attention to your child when they are doing what you want them to do. This could simply be sitting at the table sensibly, or going to bed as soon as they have been asked. All too often our children get our attention when they are being naughty and of course if that’s the only way they get attention, that’s what they will do, as negative attention is better than none for most children. So catch them doing something right – however small – and praise them with gusto!

The best way to make a child feel valued and improve their self-esteem is to spend some quality time with them, play with them and enjoy their company. This makes them feel ‘validated’ more than anything and can cause marked improvements in behaviour. When a child feels seen and heard and ‘significant’– they are far more likely to be settled and less demanding for attention in challenging ways. A little time investment can cause huge improvements in behaviour. 

For good self -worth, I also think that helping your child to understand that they cannot be great at everything, is crucial.  A child needs to know that it’s OK to be less than brilliant at any activity alongside celebrating those things they do excel in. I also think the general understanding in the scope of ‘success’ is just too narrow. Not every child will shine in academia. 

Communication is a big thing for me too. I like to talk openly with children about the effect of negative aspects in life. I think it is better to equip children to deal with things on their own - through applying their own discernment - than to constantly try to protect them by keeping them away from any risk or potentially negative influences.  

The children I work with nearly all have quite extreme emotional and behavioural difficulties. I see their behaviour as communication for the difficulties they are having. It is obvious to see that a lot of their aggressive and disruptive behaviours are caused by their inability to manage their emotions – especially fear. They generally express aggression when inside they are feeling vulnerable, insecure or anxious. Helping children to become more emotionally literate and learn better ways of expressing their needs can eventually reduce negative behaviours.

It is really important I never back down from any requests I have made, when they respond with tantrums or aggression. I have to repeat my requests calmly and state, ‘when you’re ready’ until they carry out my request, otherwise they have learnt that their disruptive behaviour reaped the reward they were after: not having to do what they have been asked. This can help some parents think about their approaches to their children; are they inadvertently rewarding some behaviours?

  • We hear how hard it is for teachers with so many children to teach in mainstream schools, with 30 or more children and one teacher how easy is it for them to give support to those that need it most?

Academically support is usually given to those that need more help via teaching assistants and work is always differentiated so that each child is challenged the right amount. But in terms of holistic support, teachers are probably spread a little too thin. Some schools have a great pastoral support system to alleviate this responsibility for teachers so they can concentrate on teaching and learning but nobody goes into teaching just for the academia. To be a good teacher I feel strongly that you have to like kids and you have to care about them! Any significant pastoral support a teacher gives is often above and beyond their duties and in their own time.

I would argue all schools need at least one member of staff looking after wellbeing of the children – and possibly the staff as well. This could easily be a full-time job in any school!

  • Often difficulties and hardship - whether social, economic or personal run in a cyclical way within families. Do you teach parents how to cope with difficult emotions as well?

As a ‘trainer’, I have run sessions for parents supporting them to support their children with emotional literacy and behaviour but unfortunately the term, ‘preaching to the converted’ comes to mind. The parents/carers who attend such sessions are usually striving to be effective parents and considering their parenting choices quite carefully already. Those who could really benefit are often harder to reach.

 

In my job in the PRU, I personally have little face to face contact with the children’s parents as many pupils are taxied in from long distances. The organisation I work within is very key in offering the right support to families in need but unfortunately, this support is not always taken. Schools cannot do all the social care jobs but they are good at facilitating joined up thinking between agencies that is needed to support vulnerable families. 

Molly Potter's books are available to order on Amazon and Bloomsbury 

photo of Molly (top) credited to Nick Stone 

 

 

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