A Unique Child

Emotional wellbeing – How to embed systems that lead to better access to learning

  • Emotional wellbeing – How to embed systems that lead to better access to learning

Emotions are sometimes seen to be the ‘bull in the china shop’ of well-organised thinking and well-ordered classrooms and settings; a chaotic and unpredictable barrier to academic development.

What happens, though, if we fundamentally shift that paradigm? It’s actually more useful – and indeed, more accurate – to imagine those emotions as the shelves in that china shop, on which our most treasured porcelain sits. 

Advances in neuroscience have demonstrated that the link between emotion and cognition is profound across attention, memory, learning, decision-making, and social functioning. Therefore, secure, stable ‘emotional shelves’ facilitate not only effective learning, but also how that learning is applied.

Recent years have seen our children’s emotional health decline. Additional pressure caused by the COVID-19 crisis has impacted the world, with particular consequences on young people.

In fact, in a recent survey of EY professionals, 53% of providers agreed that personal, social and emotional development has declined during the time of the pandemic. And worryingly, it is highly likely that the so-called ‘cost of living crisis’ will further impact teachers’, parents’, and of course, children’s, emotional health.

Upstairs, downstairs

So, what can education providers do to improve matters? Well, our brains have something to teach us in this regard; we need to embed systems!

At birth, we are gifted with embedded, neurobiologically and neurochemically distinct, affective systems. They have been identified and named by psychologist and neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, and include Care, Seeking and Play (our social engagement systems), and Rage, Fear and Panic/Grief (our social defence systems).

These systems live in the ‘downstairs’, subcortical part of the brain - the bit that does responding, not thinking. For example, that kick, bite or cuddle is not coming from the thinking part of the brain - it’s coming from an innate drive and stimuli, followed by a bodily response.

The cerebral cortex is the part of the brain responsible for cognition and learning. Over time, and through relationships and the environment, literally billions of connections form, wiring up our ‘downstairs’, emotional systems to the ‘upstairs’, cerebral part of the brain.

This part plays a key role in perception, awareness, thought, memory, language, and consciousness. The upstairs brain, through the development of executive and social functioning (Stress, Thinking and Concentration, Confidence and Self Esteem, Interpersonal Skills, and Emotional Literacy), is also what allows us to put a gap between stimuli and response.

It’s important to note that, when activated, our social defence systems (Rage, Fear and Panic/Grief) disconnect our upstairs brain.

In short, our brains have interconnected ‘upstairs’ and ‘downstairs’ systems. I would argue that our schools and settings now need the same, ‘wired-up’ approach.

Getting started

First, every setting needs a core, well-developed, embedded system that measures and supports our pupils’ emotional needs with interventions that:

1. support CARE, SEEKING (curiosity) and PLAY, enhancing positive upstairs connection
2. mitigate the impact of RAGE, FEAR and PANIC/GRIEF to ensure access to learning
3. develop executive function and social skills

The insight, data and information that this system provides should be monitored across individuals, groups, years, key stages and cohorts in exactly the same way that we monitor academic outcomes. We can consider these the school’s ‘downstairs’ systems.

Just as in our brains, though, we also need our school’s ‘upstairs’ to be developed. With something like one in four children in the UK needing support around their emotional and mental wellbeing, our organisational executive systems require an overhaul.

No longer is it (and arguably nor was it ever) appropriate for SENDCos or ALNCos to be managing emotional health needs on their own. Emotional wellbeing is part of the safeguarding agenda, and we all know this is (or should be) everyone’s business.

The evidence is clear: whole-school approaches work. Distributing responsibility for emotional health across the workforce is paramount. This does not happen by accident. It requires leadership, management, resources and a systemic, systematic, and measured approach.

The literature regarding leadership is broad, but there is strong consensus on the components of an effective approach. It can be useful to frame these using the ‘3i’s’ of:

Intent: Reflect on the following two questions: ‘What vision do we have for the emotional health of our children?’ and ‘What values do we hold as an organisation?’. The answers should be co-produced, with all stakeholders owning the vision and identifying the values

Implementation: Effective implementation takes your vision and values and adds action: a series of steps formulated into a strategy - a plan that makes a difference. This plan needs to integrate into and inform the whole school improvement plan. It should set long-term and short-term objectives, have allocated resources, and be discussed, defined and agreed upon

Impact: Next, you need to create alignment between this strategy, and the people and activities of your organisation. This means that every employee at every level understands the strategy and their role in making it work

Crucially - just like in the brain - this ‘upstairs’ executive system needs connections to the ‘downstairs’ - the data and information coming from your understanding of your children’s emotional health, informing your plan.

The literature suggests that those metrics should give you the ability to ‘zoom-in’ and respond to both need and change as well as ‘zoom-out’ to ensure you are holding to both your vision and values.

This enables a flexible approach and provides the capacity to demonstrate the impact of your approach, celebrate your success and apply effective resource where necessary.

How emotionally healthy is your setting?

Use this checklist to see where immediate improvements could be made. When it comes to emotional wellbeing, can you and your team:


● describe your organisational vision?

● communicate your organisational values?


● demonstrate your commitment to emotional wellbeing in your Development Plan?

● recognise your vision and values in your behaviour/relationship policies?

● recognise your vision and values in your daily work?

● access advice, guidance and activity to support positive emotional health?


● use a systematic and systemic approach to develop strategy and recognise organisational strengths and weaknesses?

● identify those most in need?

● identify those changing most (positively and negatively)?

● see trends across cohorts, year groups and gender?

● celebrate success?

● reflect on areas for improvement and self-improvement?

Rich Head is director at Motional, and a fellow of the Chartered Management Institute. Motional takes the principles outlined here and uses them to provide a range of easy-to-use tools that measure, impact and report on emotional health and wellbeing across the whole school or nursery setting. Find out more at motional.io