Why Emotional Agility Matters Now More Than Ever

At St Benedict’s Junior Preparatory School (part of St Benedict’s College) in Bedfordview in Johannesburg, Gauteng, one of the many phenomena truly testing us at the moment, is our ability to deal with the emotional turmoil brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.

We have seen the impact on our school leadership teams, staff, pupils, and parents. It has become more important than ever to find ways to be effective with our response to these emotions, while staying true to the unique values that define our school. If there is a time to become more emotionally agile, it is now, while the ground is shifting under our feet, and establishing clear principles has become more critical.

The term ‘emotional agility’ was first coined by Susan David and Christina Congleton in a Harvard Business Review, and has been defined as

Approaching one’s inner experiences mindfully and productively.

According to Susan David, in her book, Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life, the way we navigate our inner world – our everyday thoughts and emotions – is the single most important determinant of our life successes, because this is what drives our actions and relationships.

We must learn about these drivers and be flexible with our thoughts and feelings so that we can respond optimally to unexpected situations. Instead of allowing our emotions to control us, the idea is that we acknowledge them and process them as data. By creating a pause, we can step back and take a view from above. This broadens our perspective, so that we can use the data to make choices in line with our values, rather than let our emotions derail us.

A powerful strategy

Because this approach is grounded in connecting with our values, it is a powerful strategy to incorporate into our schools. School leaders are called upon to enrich the well-being of their community and make decisions that align with its ethos, so staying true to our values is critical for navigating through stressful situations. This is particularly important at this time when teachers, parents and pupils are being confronted with a spectrum of emotions; with their sense of fear and anxiety being heightened with the spread of the virus and stories on social media.

David offers the following steps to cultivate emotional agility:

  1. ‘Showing up to your emotions’ requires us to face our thoughts and feelings. Instead of pushing them aside or allowing them to control us, we accept them and see them as data, creating a space between the emotion and ourselves.
  2. ‘Stepping out’, means detaching ourselves from the emotion. We need to label the emotion accurately and be curious about it. Only then can we ask ourselves why we feel that way and what the emotion is telling us. This leads to acceptance. which is a prerequisite for taking concrete steps to change.
  3. ‘Walking your why’ is about living by our own personal set of values. These are the beliefs that give our life meaning. We need to ask ourselves if what we are doing, reflects who we want to be in the world. Our emotions are signposts to act.

The last step is cultivating the habits through small deliberate tweaks that align with our values.

In the school environment, emotional agility has the potential to fortify teamwork and creativity, as a healthy workplace is one that creates a safe place for ideas to be shared and is open to a full range of emotions. COVID-19 has brought about changes in leadership because schools that demonstrated emotional agility during the crisis, are the ones where teachers were empowered to realise the vision of the school, and to bring about innovation and adaptability.

We have seen this at St Benedict’s, where teachers took ownership and extended themselves in exceptional ways. There was a high level of motivation as the educational landscape changed and innovative new strategies were developed that have now been incorporated into our practice. This culture of trust and linking actions to values is one of the spinoffs of emotional agility, benefiting both the school and individuals.

Emotional agility at St Benedict’s

For teachers who demonstrated emotional agility, this unique period was a time of accelerated professional growth, but it became apparent that for many pupils, the shift to remote learning and the stresses of the pandemic, resulted in them experiencing emotional setbacks. We realised that we needed to explore ways of building emotional agility in children, and supporting their well-being needed to be prioritised above academics. This led to the term ‘Maslow before Blooms’. There is evidence to show that where schools tend to the socio-emotional wellness of pupils during the pandemic, better outcomes are achieved.

As a faith-based school, St Benedict’s teaches Gospel values such as honesty, respect, and compassion. These principles align with emotional agility, as they all call on us to identify and act on our core values, as these become our moral compass. Religious celebrations have continued throughout the pandemic at our school, with Mass and daily reflections providing a space for individuals to connect with their emotions and find spiritual enrichment.

Through the collaborative efforts of our teachers, numerous tweaks were incorporated into our remote academic programme to support pupils’ emotional well-being during hard lockdown. Many of these remain part of our back-to-school programme.

Reaching out

It became important to make frequent connections with pupils through small group video calls where the focus was not immediately on academics. Pupils needed time to share their stories, introduce their pets, play games and through guided conversations make sense of their unsettled world. Our teachers also needed to be particularly cognisant of the quieter children who were not connecting with their peers and would schedule one on one sessions to reach them.

We incorporated ‘read-alouds’ into each day, with a range of topics from fantasy and adventure, to stories around developing with coping skills. We asked students to complete regular diary entries, so that they could discover the value of journaling and expressing thoughts in a variety of creative ways.

We are fortunate to have a Wellness Department, and surveys were sent to parents and students to gauge their concerns and offer counselling or support according to their needs. We also arranged talks for parents covering pertinent topics such as dealing with anxiety.

To maintain a sense of belonging, we used digital platforms on which pupils could share photos and some of these were compiled into mini-videos set to music. Our sport coaches posted regular ‘bootcamp’ videos, and encouraged pupils to create their own videos incorporating the techniques learnt. These were shared with the class. We also realised the value of creative expression during stressful times, and interactive music, art and dance sessions were offered to families online.

Additionally, regular theme days were scheduled where pupils could dress up and take on a character and create and share a video about that character. Pupils told us that they particularly looked forward to personalised bitmojis from their teachers, acknowledging their achievements and the opportunity to respond conversationally.

One of my favorite initiatives was the Rainbow Project and the delightful rainbows that were created became a message to our pupils that they were uniting with children around the world.

The pandemic has thrown us unexpected curved balls that can knock us, but emotional agility is a skillset that can be learnt and is fundamental to our well-being and the success of our schools. The ultimate goal of emotional agility is cultivating the mindset that aligns with our values and is critical for meaningful growth.