“The idea is to motivate children and engage them in understanding their emotions better. It’s a mixture of feelings and other difficulties we’re dealing with – anxiety, low self-esteem, sadness, angry feelings or non-compliance and friendship problems,” says Vanessa Biles, an emotional literacy support assistant (ELSA) who works at St Mark’s Primary School in Bournemouth.
ELSA work is a specialism that requires ongoing training and supervision, but it’s also rewarding, promotes children’s wellbeing and improves their ability to participate in everyday classroom activities. Provided by teaching assistants, this important work is bolstered by the ELSA Network, which was set up in 2011 by educational psychologist Sheila Burton, who is its chair.
She explains: “ELSAs are mostly employed in schools as teaching assistants and usually have general support roles alongside their ELSA work. They are expected to have proven, recognised skills in building relationships with pupils that can be hard to reach, either because of their challenging behaviour or being withdrawn. They need to have the capacity to work independently because they plan their own support programmes (their support for this coming from the group supervision process led by educational psychologists).”
Schools and services that offer ELSA work register with the network and participate in a closed forum, exchanging information, ideas, and support material. More than 170 organisations across the UK are part of it.
According to Burton, Covid-19 has led to an increase in demand for more ELSAs to be trained, and services are grappling with the challenge of how to deliver it.
She claims: “It is recognised that if children’s social and emotional needs are not met, they have less capacity to engage fully in the educational opportunities offered at schools. ELSAs are trained to listen actively to children and facilitate reflective conversations that develop the children’s capacity to make informed choices and resolve their own difficulties. In other words, their role is not to solve the problems for them or to tell them what to do, but to help them build up emotional resilience.”
Developing strategies and overcoming difficulties
For Biles, who supports children aged six to 11, the work is a two-way experience based on fun. She uses a range of strategies – puppets, storybooks, social stories, even Play-Doh: “A lot of my time is taken up with arts and crafts, but that has a connection to a feeling – for example, we might make fireworks when we’re discussing angry feelings.”
Carolyn Lee, carries out ELSA work with four- to 11-year-olds at Walton-on-Trent Primary and Nursery School in Derbyshire. She explains: “I undertake an emotions check in every session, followed by a specific activity linked to the target set. We finish the session with a relaxation activity. I then plan and review for the next session based on what I have observed. The activities could be ‘being a good friend’, dealing with worries or anger issues, mindfulness or reading stories – the list is endless!” The sessions equip the child with coping strategies, enabling them to interact positively in social settings.
However, there can be obstacles. Biles explains: “Sometimes you put in all the good work, and it’s sadly being undermined at home. If a parent or carer isn’t on board, it can be an uphill struggle. But once you’ve overcome that, it’s about getting the child to understand that their behaviour isn’t OK, although it is OK to feel angry and upset – it’s about finding new ways of dealing with those feelings.”
Building a supportive school
Sarah Rowe, head teacher at the Derbyshire school, discusses what made her decide to provide the support: “We were trying to become more supportive as a school, so we sent our TA on the training. Carolyn has grown in confidence and is able to help other TAs if they’re having difficulties. She very quickly picks up the children who are struggling.”
The children feel supported because they receive ‘special time’ and are listened to. They are able to talk to someone about their difficulties and develop self-awareness.
What makes a good ELSA?
“The qualities of a good ELSA are in my opinion empathy, kindness and being approachable. Showing you care is so important, however trivial it seems to an adult, it is massive to a child. I often check in with the children I work with long after the ELSA sessions have finished,” says Lee.
For Biles, the key is to have a trusting relationship, to be consistent and to listen: “Making space for the child to be able to speak is important. So are facial expressions – giving the child eye contact, showing them you’re interested. They know when you’re faking it.”
Adapting in the face of Covid-19
Those key skills and attributes have been tested during the pandemic, changing the way ELSA work is undertaken. Last year, Lee was working with children across the whole school. This year, the work is taking place in ‘bubbles’. Rowe says: “She started with a Year 2 group. She’s now moved to a Year 1 and 2 class, where children had previous trauma or had been struggling with the lockdown. Working one-to-one or one-to-two, you can see the impact on their learning. They’re starting to settle more in the classroom.”
Covid-19 has taken its toll on Biles’s work too: “For a period of time during lockdown, my work was over the phone. It was hard – parents or carers were at home, so the children weren’t going to say what they really wanted to say. We lost three or four months of work, and we’re catching up now.” With schools reopening, social distancing is a new problem. She explains: “Little ones – six- and seven-year-olds – want to hold your hand. But they act responsibly. They are much more on board with the rules than some adults.”
The positive side of the work is seeing the child become secure, stable and confident. Biles states: “When they’ve flown your nest, and they wave to you from the playground, you know you’ve helped that child move on in their journey.”