Supporting joy in the Autumn Term-Tips for Social and Emotional Learning in a Primary School

Author: Pam Carpenter

The ‘Joy’ of the Autumn Term.

Autumn Term is a term of resilience and enjoyment; that getting to know every child with their unique personalities, nuances, hooks and triggers whilst ‘setting the stall’ for expectations. By October half term, children are feeling safe and steady with that firm focus on rules and routines promoting learning-readiness in the classroom. And then the inevitability of the Autumnal school calendar with its festivals, celebrations, special assemblies and events…all times of real fun and enjoyment and almost certainly a time of year which requires much stamina and resilience for children and staff alike. Those calm and steady ‘bottles of pop’ are gently stirred…tapped…wobbled…shaken…the buzz of the Autumn term in a Primary school takes hold creating classes full of ‘fizzy’, excitable children. The predictability in routine that has been established to create those signs of safety and promote a positive learning climate is now in jeopardy.

So, what do you notice about your ‘bottles of pop’ at this time? For me it would range from falling out, over-excitement, over-reactions, difficulties calming and self-regulating, tears. Why? Joy. A core emotion alongside anger, fear and sadness. The accumulative impact of the release of ‘feel-good’ chemicals and adrenaline through joyful experiences into our children’s brains and bodies, manifesting itself in behaviours of children. Some children can navigate these highs of joyful moments with ease. They have developed those skills to self-regulate and can re-engage with learning. For others, this may not be the case. Instead, they can continue to build up that fizz. Inevitably, that necessary release of pressure will arrive as dysregulation – that instinctual fight, flight or freeze response, which Dan Siegel refers to as ‘flipping the lid’. No longer having access to that rational thinking part of the brain; instead wired for survival and not learning. Many may be accustomed to this notion in association with anger or fear and yet the same survival response is true for joy. I am sure I am not alone in hearing it said that some children ‘can’t handle’ exciting learning events. Rather than supporting to experience joy and learn how to make sense of these big feelings, the offer can be minimised or withdrawn to contain the potential tipping out, missing a valuable opportunity for vital social and emotional learning.

So how can we best support our children? How can we maximise opportunities to learn about joy and embed strategies through effective social and emotional teaching?

In the EEF’s Improving Social and Emotional Learning in Primary Schools, Recommendation 1 highlights to ‘Teach SEL skills explicitly’. Ideas could include:

  • Self-awareness: Explore body sensations experienced in joyful moments. Use body mapping to plot what sensations are and where they are felt.
  • Self-awareness: Expand emotional vocabulary to express the range of joy (ie. content, exhilarated, excited) Support in using these words alongside sensation words to express their emotions.
  • Self-awareness: Build in opportunities to ‘check-in’ and notice sensation and support to wrap language around the associated emotion. Use the safety of the metaphor ‘If you were a type of weather, what would you be?’’ Show me what it feels like with your Play Doh’. If a child cannot say in words how they feel, they will show you in their behaviour. Behaviour is a form of communication.
  • Self-regulation: Teach children to use self-calming strategies to physiologically regulate and wire up brains for learning. For eg. breathing exercises, grounding, meditation and mindful practices. Timetable dedicated time to follow moments of potential over-excitement and dysregulation.

As adults, we recognise and value the importance of joy in our lives and its many forms: whether the excitement of a game or the contentment from a walk in the outdoors. The cocktail of feel-good chemicals released when experiencing joy provide a subtle goading to repeat experiences again and is therefore highly conducive to effective learning. And most significantly, joy has a profound effect on our mental wellbeing as children and on into adulthood.

Written by Pam Carpenter, CPD Programme Manager (Gateway Alliance) and Evidence Lead in Education for Social and Emotional Learning (Staffordshire Research School)