The link between our experiences, brain development, and emotions is well documented - how we behave and our ability to learn follow on from this. Emotionally available adults are ordinary people behaving in certain ways. Much of it is the natural expression of compassion, coupled with good interpersonal skills, which schools can explicitly encourage and facilitate.

What we know from research is that having access to an emotionally available adult before the age of 18 can buffer against the risks of childhood adversity and prevent a whole range of negative mental and physical health problems, learning difficulties and challenging behaviour.

In this blog, we cover…

  • What is an ‘emotionally available adult’?
  • How can a school identify pupils who may be more at risk of or experiencing difficulties?
  • Should every child have an emotionally available adult?
  • How do you achieve ‘emotionally available staff’ in a busy school?

(None of these points are about making adults ‘experts’ in this.)

What is an ‘Emotionally Available Adult’?

Most of us can think of teachers we loved or hated. Of those we loved, we often felt they were rooting for us in some way, perhaps without fully understanding how or why. We trusted them. And some had a life-changing impact! (Check out t his infamous YouTube clip of Ian Wright reuniting with his teacher and this Radio 4 clip of him discussing the impact. Have the tissues ready.)

Adults can’t always be available to pupils, whatever their roles. Being emotionally available means attuning to a pupil when you are focused on them. Observe body language, use eye contact and a calm tone of voice. Respond with compassion and empathy, reflect their words back to them so they know you have heard, help them work through things, develop strategies to try, and check back on progress so they know you are still holding them in mind.

How can a school identify pupils who may be more at risk of experiencing difficulties?

Good adult-pupil relationships should be encouraged throughout school, but some pupils may need a ‘step-up’. Knowing who is more likely to struggle with aspects of school life will help identify earlier those who would benefit from more check-ins, gentle encouragement to share, time out to talk and other interventions.

Motional provides a system that uses staff insight and observation to measure and support a pupil’s emotional needs periodically. Individual and group snapshots will flag areas for concern across the domains of Social Engagement, Social Defence and Executive Functioning. In addition, the act of routinely thinking about pupils in this way, even for an hour a term, will develop staff awareness and strengthen pupil relationships.

Should every child have an Emotionally Available Adult?

When we are struggling, we feel most supported by those who listen, those who emotionally walk by our side. How can you ensure every child in school who needs it has access to an adult like this?

We can’t always know what relationships outside school are like for a child, but there’s no such thing as too many emotionally available adults! Motional data gathering can help identify pupils with higher risk and lower levels of resilience. Once identified, an adult can ‘step up’. Ideally, the pupil should choose their adult, and it may not be a class teacher. Some schools utilise PE or admin staff in formal and informal mentor roles for example, and Lunchtime Supervisors and caretakers are sometimes identified by children as helping them to feel safer or cared about. But the most vulnerable pupils need to know who is specifically available for them (and the boundaries).

More generally, senior staff can also model and reward the emotionally available interpersonal behaviours expected from adults in school. This will promote and strengthen a calm, wellbeing-orientated culture that supports learning.

How do you achieve ‘emotionally available adults’ in a busy school?

Staffing structures. The bigger the school, particularly in KS4&5, the more the supportive relationships outside of teaching need to be formalised. Think of it as ensuring all your vulnerable pupils have an identified personal lifeboat. For example, teaching assistants, Heads of Year, or morning tutors can have a role description which includes checking in with pupils, showing kindness, care and concern, and looking out for change over time, as well as formally being named as an available adult to a few of the more vulnerable pupils.

Model emotional availability yourself. Children tend to know who is available and who is going through the motions. Hence, it’s important that staff are supported to ask – do I have the capacity to make myself emotionally available to pupils? If the answer is no, then they may need support to explore why and how the school can help. Sometimes, personal issues are a barrier, or the staff member may experience barriers in school. Encourage staff to be brave in giving feedback, especially on behalf of the children who may experience similar issues but don’t know how to speak out.

Staff training. Motional training fits neatly under the umbrella of the mental health and wellbeing training taking place in most schools. Wider than that, staff may want to understand the signs of mental distress or the impact of exposure to trauma, and it’s equally important that they have space to reflect on what the material might trigger or the anxiety they may feel around it. Training should be accompanied by plenty of staff access to further support and practical ‘what to do if…’ options.

Activities and strategies. Once the Motional system has identified needs either individually or at group level, it can suggest exercises, group activities, and approaches to take in response. For example, how to build a sense of safety, develop play, or mitigate overwhelming feelings of rage or panic. Sometimes, a few ideas or a little advice is enough to move things on.

Make it policy. You’re aiming for a school culture that lets everyone know that building positive relationships is the ‘norm’ around here. Enshrine this in policy at every opportunity, including a Relationship Policy outlining the expected behaviours from staff, the training and support they can expect, and how relationships will be monitored and reported. Motional provides a whole school Organisational Snapshot, which can be carried out with all the staff, including Governors, and from which you can generate your school’s Emotional Wellbeing Development Plan. This is a good start – it will gauge perspectives on a range of themes while making the desired culture clear to everyone.