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Schools & Academies Show: “It’s essential to understand emotional health and wellbeing in order to support access to learning”

November 21, 2022, 9:11 GMT+1
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Schools & Academies Show: “It’s essential to understand emotional health and wellbeing in order to support access to learning”
  • Helen Mulley speaks to Rich Head, director of Motional and Fellow of the Chartered Management Institute, about how neuroscience can help schools become happier and more successful places...
Schools & Academies Show: “It’s essential to understand emotional health and wellbeing in order to support access to learning”

HM: What exactly is Motional, and why should schools be interested in it?

RH: Motional is a tool – or set of tools – for measuring emotional health and wellbeing. It does this across three domains, for individual pupils as well as for groups.

When we save group information, we’re also saving that back to the individual child; so we’re always building pupil profiles of emotional health and wellbeing, and from that we can see the need across the school, the need across key stages, year groups, cohorts and of course, the need of individuals. In addition to this we can also identify change.

What’s the research underpinning this?

The three domains Motional looks at are emotional systems linked to social engagement (CARE, SEEKING, PLAY); social defence (RAGE, FEAR, PANIC/GRIEF); and executive functioning (stress, thinking and concentration, confidence and self-esteem, interpersonal skills and emotional literacy).

Now, the first two domains – social engagement and social defence – are in the subcortical (limbic) part of the brain, that does responding, not thinking (you can find out more by looking at the work of the neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, who did 40 years’ worth of research on how emotions are managed in the brain). They are responding to internal and external stimuli; in other words, what’s happening in the world around us, and our body and brain.

But thinking is the business of schools, isn’t it?

Absolutely! So, these underpinning systems are essentially the scaffolding on which our emotional health is built.

Very often, we think about our emotions like the proverbial bull in a china shop – they charge in and disrupt our thinking. But actually, a much more accurate way to describe them would be the shelves on which our thinking is built. And when those shelves collapse, the thinking aspects of our brain can’t function effectively.

If you think about the things that you remember most powerfully, they will always be tied to emotional experiences; emotions play a critical role in underpinning learning, memory and decision making.

So, you’re saying that an awareness of how healthy these systems are isn’t just a ‘nice to have’ for schools?

That’s right. It’s essential to understand emotional health and wellbeing in order to support access to learning.

The third domain that Motional looks at is Executive Functioning – and that’s in the thinking part of the brain. But if the defence part of the brain is triggered, the thinking part of the brain is disconnected and can’t function properly. And that’s important; we know that it’s not just threats that trigger our defence systems but rather our body not being able to sense safety.

That’s a huge message for schools: that lowering rage, fear, panic and grief ensures access to learning. And we do that by providing physical and psychological safety.

OK, so we’re not talking about acute, crisis intervention here?

Exactly. Motional is about supporting the positive emotional health and wellbeing of all children. Yes, it can be used in more extreme cases – it can identify and highlight those individuals who need more support. But it can also see change, which is really important.

Schools are really good at spotting need; teachers will know the children who have the highest need within hours of them coming into the classroom. But spotting change is much more difficult. As a society, as communities, we need to get better at identifying change in the emotional health of our young people.

Does Motional require a significant investment of teachers’ time and effort?

We know that schools don’t have enough money; and more than that, they don’t have enough time. So Motional is designed to be as affordable as possible, and very time efficient.

To do a group snapshot for a class, giving you three data points through the year that you can measure against, is going to take an hour a term, on average, for a teacher. And that will give you whole-school data that will enable you to spot need and change by year group, key stage, cohort – numerous tags such as Pupil Premium or Free School Meals.

It’s a very simple, straightforward questionnaire about observed behaviour. From that we provide programmes of intervention, including advice, guidance and activities for individuals and also for groups.

Are many schools using Motional already?

We are just four years or so into the journey, and just through word of mouth, we’ve already got over 1,400 settings using Motional – including MATs, primaries, secondaries, nurseries and LAs (we’re delighted to be working with the whole of Pembrokeshire, for example) as well as specialist provision.

These schools are seeing impact, telling others about the impact, and that’s how we’re growing. And they are also saving time, because they’re applying this routine approach, giving them a time-efficient way of identifying need, spotting change and providing data.

And of course, we know that schools are already spending a lot of time dealing with the fallout from issues that haven’t been picked up early…

Yes, so this is early intervention; the support of positive emotional health and wellbeing, the timely identification of when things are starting to change for a child and spotting those children with higher levels of need.

It’s important to be clear that Motional is not a clinical tool – but it can definitely highlight children where we would want to ensure that support is put around them.

We know that the most effective thing in terms of emotional health and wellbeing is the emotional availability of adults – and for our most vulnerable children, that may not be their parents; that’s someone in school. So, we can identify those children, we can give them emotional availability, and we can put support around them.

The evidence is clear that improved emotional health supports academic attainment, improves attendance and reduces lateness. Critically, systemic approaches also reduce the pressure on staff – a conversation for another day!

Finally, if you had to encapsulate your message for visitors to the show today, briefly, what would it be?

Academic success is based on access to learning. Access to learning is based on the positive emotional health and the wellbeing of young people. And it’s critical. We should be looking at that before we look at anything else.

Explore Motional’s suite of tools to measure, positively impact, and report on emotional health across a whole school or setting, at