Journalist and Writer
Hilary Wilce specialising in all aspects of education
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The Quandary - 13 Mar 2008

Our daughter’s teacher has criticised her for not being willing to share her feelings at circle time.

Hillary's Advice

This little girl was upset about her cat dying. Her teacher wanted to help and invited her to tell her classmates about it. When the girl refused, the teacher was worried and talked to the mother.

But this teacher’s actions were deeply insensitive. She should have recognised that some feelings are simply too raw and new to be shared, and kept the girl out of the emotional spotlight.

In principle I am all in favour of schools helping children to recognise their feelings and to understand how these feelings make them think and behave. I think it’s a great tool for later life, and can work miracles in situations like nurture groups where troubled youngsters are helped to control their anger and become aware of others.

But lately I’ve seen some classroom teaching that has made me cringe at its crassness and have started to fear that a lot of work on emotional literacy is turning out to have all the depth and subtlety of computer emoticons. A psychoanalyst, Darian Leader, writes in his new book, The New Black: mourning, melancholia and depression, that teaching emotional literacy “is sadly tantamount to brain-washing, in the sense that it imposes a language on the individual and coerces them to use it place of their own unique ways of expressing themselves.”

And, alas, he has a point. Because if children only learn to label themselves with feelings like ‘happy’ or ‘sad’, without also coming to understand that they are complex individuals, they will have been given a very limited idea of who they really are. Leader’s prescription is more exposure to literature, drama and art, which present the human experience in rich and varied ways.