Teaching social and emotional skills

Pupils with behavioural, emotional and social difficulties (BESD) are likely to need support to develop those emotional competencies which are seen as being crucial to social and emotional development. This unit looks at some of the initiatives designed to help with this.

The unit covers the following areas:

  • Emotional development
  • The social and emotional aspects of learning (SEAL) programme
  • Barriers to interventions
  • Improving social and emotional skills

The SEAL programme focused on five key aspects that reflect Daniel Goleman’s emotional competencies. In a more expansive list, the programme’s guidance document (PDF, 1.85MB) also outlined how social, emotional and behavioural skills would benefit pupils’ learning.

Select any key aspect to see related benefits to learning.


Improving emotional health and wellbeing with SEAL

  • Self-awareness

    Children with a strong awareness of their own emotional states and behaviour are better equipped to:

    • Solve problems with others or by themselves.
    • Compete fairly and win or lose with dignity and respect for competitors.
  • Managing feelings

    The benefits for learning listed in the SEAL guidance document included enabling children to:

    • Promote calm and optimistic states that help to advance the achievement of goals.
    • Manage strong feelings such as frustration, anger and anxiety.
  • Motivation

    Good social, emotional and behavioural skills were outlined in the guidance as empowering pupils to:

    • Recover from setbacks and persist in the face of difficulties.
    • Be effective and successful learners.
  • Empathy

    The SEAL guidance describes how strong social awareness skills help pupils to:

    • Understand and value the differences and commonalities between people, respecting the right of others to have beliefs and values different from their own.
    • Recognise and stand up for their rights and the rights of others.
  • Social skills

    The development of healthy relationship skills helps pupils to:

    • Deal with and resolve conflict effectively and fairly.
    • Make and sustain friendships.

The SEAL three-wave model

The SEAL programme applied a three-wave model of intervention. Select any of the waves in the diagram to learn more.

Wave diagram

Evaluating SEAL Wave 2 interventions

The national evaluation of SEAL Wave 2 approaches in primary schools revealed a complicated, though mostly positive, statistical picture of the impact of small group interventions.

“In relation to the question of the impact of primary SEAL small group work, we can say that there is evidence of positive change, but that the amount of change observed is small.”

Primary SEAL: Evaluation of small group work (2008) (PDF, 527KB)

Evaluating SEAL methods in secondary schools

The national evaluation of SEAL in secondary schools observed mixed results in both the implementation and impact of SEAL methods

“There is clear evidence that SEL programmes can impact upon a variety of key outcomes for children and young people. However, as delivered by the schools involved in our evaluation, the SEAL programme did not follow this trend”

SEAL programme in secondary schools: national evaluation (2010) (PDF, 2.25MB)

  • Teaching social and emotional skills through PSHCE

    In this video, Alex Ogden, leader of PSHCE and RE at Westwood Primary School, Leeds, teaches an anti-bullying PSHCE lesson, interspersed with explanations of his teaching techniques. Head teacher Zoe Adams says such creative PSHCE is implicit to the school’s work and the pupils’ education.

    This video clip relates to task 2 in your PDF of unit 10.

    Show transcript


    Westwood is a mainstream primary school in Leeds with 280 pupils, 30% of whom are classed as having special educational needs.

    Zoe Adams: Head Teacher

    I'm Zoe Adams, I’m the Head Teacher here at Westwood Primary School. I feel strongly that we have such an important part to play to make sure that these children with additional needs really get the support they need in whatever area, and our behaviour management is all based on excellent relationships, knowing every child really, really well; having a school that’s set up to deliver personalised education, so every child gets what they need. So if they’re finding it really difficult to access the curriculum, or the school, or even playtime, whatever, we are working with them at an early stage to make sure they can manage that. So, hopefully we never hit those really extreme behaviours that you hear about in some schools, because we know where the children are coming from and what they need, and we are trying to deal with that all the time. The whole ethos about how we deal with children, and respect them and listen to them, and don’t judge them, and try to make the school work for them instead of them working for our school means they succeed.

    PHSCE lesson interaction

    Teacher: Line up in front of your whiteboards.


    It’s implicit in a lot our work, and we have PHSCE taught weekly, in very creative ways. So a lot of it through drama, we use drama a lot in PSHCE, and a lot of that is to teach friendships and relationships.

    Alex Ogden: Leader, PSHCE & RE

    Drama is an extremely powerful tool. It gives every child an opportunity to express themselves in a different way than in the way they would express themselves in a story, with chosen language or in a maths lesson, with the way they might solve a problem. It gives an opportunity to communicate.

    PHSCE interaction

    Alex: Today we are learning. “I can use my body and face to show how I am feeling”. OK…


    Today’s lesson is all to do with anti-bullying, and the nature of bullying, and how children can combat it, and what signs should they look for, how can they solve problems, both in the playground, and in the classroom.

    PHSCE interaction:

    Pupil: Someone could pull a nasty face at you.

    Alex: It could be pulling a face. OK. It could be hit or pulling a face.


    It was very much trying to get the children to explore their own feelings, to put themselves into a situation where they had to, maybe sympathise with others, or empathise, and put themselves in their shoes.

    PHSCE interaction

    Alex: How does that make you feel inside? Wonderful hands, so Abbie?

    Abbie: Sad.

    Alex: Sad. I’m going to put that in our ‘feeling’ words, OK, sad, Teegan, would you feel?

    Teegan: Scared.

    Alex: Scared.


    At the beginning of the lesson it was very much focussing on getting the children to really think about how they might feel in a certain situation. Whether they’d feel sad, angry, upset, or frustrated, or confused. And then we would look to move on to, what do those feelings and emotions look like in a person. What signs are there to look out for, which is when we use the teaching assistant in the lesson to really show the children what it might look like.

    PHSCE interaction

    Alex: So I want you to write down a word that shows how Mrs. Rose is feeling. I’m going to give you 10 seconds.

    Brilliant, you should have a word written on your whiteboard. Next word.

    How is Mrs. Rose feeling now? Write underneath, your next word.


    As a class when it comes to emotional needs and personal needs, they do vary quite a lot. And the two children in particular that before a lesson like that I would identify would be Megan and Aislinn. Socially, sometimes they might find a certain situation awkward, and they might react.

    PHSCE interaction

    Alex: Aislinn, what do you use?

    Aislinn: Scared.

    Alex: Scared for that one, you thought she might look a little bit scared.


    They struggle to put themselves in that other child’s shoes, and empathise with them.

    PHSCE interaction

    Alex: Ok, so when I clap my hands, 10 seconds to find a space in the hall. Off you go!


    For the next part of the lesson, Alex uses a mirroring activity, where the children work in pairs to try and guess what the other person is feeling, from their posture and facial expression.


    Mirroring activity is a very good one, particularly in pairs, because it doesn’t put any one child in an uncomfortable situation - they’re both doing the same thing. If it’s an awkward pose or a face that they might find embarrassing they’ve both got each other’s support on that and they’re both doing it.

    So, Aislinn and Megan were paired up with children who were of a higher ability, have always been able to communicate their thoughts and feelings very well, so they would feel they are contributing to the lesson and to the final outcome.

    PHSCE interaction

    Alex: You can bend down on your knees and take a look at his face if you want.


    I chose specifically some Year Six children to come into the lesson. What I wanted to happen was whereby the children were able to walk around the hall, and look closely at these children who had come in to their lesson acting as role models, and there’s peer support.

    PHSCE interaction

    Aislinn: She’s putting her legs out to the side.

    Alex: OK, legs out to the side, what else?

    Aislinn: She’s putting her hands in her pockets.

    Alex: She’s got her hands in her pockets, and what about her face?

    Aislinn: Sad.

    Alex: Does she look as if she’s trying to tell people to go away?

    Aislinn: No.

    Alex: She doesn’t no, she’s got her hands in her pockets, she’s not trying to fend people off. No Olivia, what did you think Olivia?

    Olivia: Left out.

    Alex: Left out. Good girls, well done. Thank you Year Six’s.


    Alex: Right girls, what might I find interesting about this one? What be a question I might ask now? Megan, what’s the difference between you two?

    Megan: Sitting up crossing her legs.

    Alex: She’s sitting up. And you are where? Where are you? Are you sitting up? Stood up?

    Megan: On the floor.

    Alex: You’re on the floor, that’s right. And how are you feeling right now?

    Megan: Worried.

    Alex: Worried. Good girl. Worried. Why are you so worried? What’s happened to you?

    Megan: Someone pushed me over.

    Alex: Is that why you’re on the floor then? Because someone’s actually pushed you over? Right I see, so the story’s starting to come together.


    We look at the informal ways of assessment as well, how much to contribute to a class discussion, how much they comment on other people’s opinions in the class, how much they respect other people’s opinions.

    PHSCE Interaction

    Alex: Brilliant. OK Serena. Show that expression on your face, really. Good, that’s better, that’s better.


    I thought Megan and Aislinn performed very well. Aislinn is always very, very vocal, but she sometimes struggles to communicate it properly. But I was very impressed with her answers.

    Megan I think worked extremely well with her partner.

    To prepare the children to accept and respect everyone in their class, no matter what their ability, or in what way they are unique or different, I think comes from the whole school ethos here at Westwood I think it’s so important that you get it right at whole school level, then when you come into the classroom, you really see the benefits of that.

    Classroom interaction

    Teacher: Start at the top and you come all the way around.


    The learning of social and emotional skills is as important as learning academic skills because if the children don’t have those skills, it stops them from learning academically, and it stops them from succeeding in life. And at Westwood we’re trying to make sure that all children have got life long learning skills and that they’re able to access the community that they live in, and the world that they’ve grown up in.

    Classroom interaction

    Teacher: Good man! Well done!