Five ways to harness emotional contagion when schools reopen. (A reflection inspired by Chapter 7 of Boy who was Raised as a Dog)

Our book club arrived at Chapter 7 and with that a fascinating discussion about emotional contagion last week. This is clearly a topic of particular relevance in the context of Covid-19, with families confined to their homes and the impact of this on children largely dictated by the adults’ capacity to regulate their own emotional states. Some will be spreading their reassuring calm whilst the anxiety felt by others (remembering that disasters always impact the most disadvantaged families disproportionately) will be enormously detrimental to children’s wellbeing.

When schools reopen, emotional contagion will occur there too – and it will facilitate recovery or impede it, depending on the measures put in place and the extent to which these are enacted with authenticity and commitment by the whole school community. Clarity around the evidence-base for emotional contagion will be critical in this because culturally, it is way too easy for ‘Brits’ to dismiss important, psychologically informed practice as touchy-feely mumbo-jumbo. Our most vulnerable pupils in particular rely on us opening up to somewhat more enlightened thinking.

Suggested below, beneath a very brief summary of Chapter 7, are five components of what we might call an emotional contagion management strategy, but there will be many more. The underpinning principles relating to the primacy of connection and wellbeing are much more important than the nuts and bolts of the approaches suggested. First, though, a very brief glance at chapter 7.

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Chapter Summary 

I’m not going to attempt to tell the story of this chapter because it comprises multiple individual narratives and, as one of our book club members suggested, more than enough material for an entire Netflix series. Suffice to say, Dr. Perry describes the impact of very negative emotional contagion within a Texan community where it was believed that children were being ritually abused as victims of a Satanic cult. Testimony from them was coerced and many were removed from their families as a result. A judge eventually dropped all of the indictments, but many in Gilmer remained convinced, despite the lack of any evidence, that Satan worshippers had gathered there to abuse and kill children. Such is the danger of groupthink, a side effect of emotional contagion.

Defining emotional contagion

Emotional contagion is the phenomenon that individuals tend to express and feel emotions that are similar to those of others. If a friend tells us with a beaming smile that they passed an important test, we smile as well. If, on the other hand, we hear about a bereavement, we are saddened. Emotional contagion is the basis of empathy – where we ‘catch feelings’ from people around us, and its positive impact is to connect people. It is a form of social influence and, as such, a phenomenon of major relevance to school leaders; both a risk and an opportunity.

1. Prioritise staff well-being over performance tables

Literature on teacher contagion highlights the impact of increasing stress on teachers and the passing of this stress, or other emotions, onto pupils. Oberle and Schonert-Reichl (2016) measured salivary cortisol levels of pupils to assess the relationship between their stress and teacher burnout levels. Consistent with what we know about emotional contagion, pupils’ morning levels of cortisol were significantly higher if their teachers reported a higher level of burnout.

This underlines the importance of pacing the recovery phase of school reopening such that it is not experienced by teachers, and in turn their pupils, as stressful. Covid catch-up sessions, twilights, extra GCSE work  – all of these convey the message that children have fallen behind when in truth they are not behind anyone. They are all in the same place and anyway school is not supposed to be a race. The community will need to be reassured on this point, explicitly, as it is likely that some negative contagion around this thinking will already have set in.

Emotional contagion is transmitted through the links between individuals, nodes and ties, in the literature. Research shows that when the relationship is stronger, so is the contagion. It follows then that if teachers are given licence to work on their ties with pupils (or nodes), then they will be in a better position to generate positive emotional contagion; to share their calm, optimism, and hope. In so doing, they will help mitigate the stress that lockdown will have increased within some pupils and, in particular, the already disadvantaged.

There is an obvious link here with the key concept of social buffering. However, the bottom line is, adults can only provide this if their own wellbeing is protected. As Dr. Karen Treisman regularly observes, ‘Wellbeing leads to well-doing.’ Leaders will need to evaluate every element of their recovery planning in terms of its potential impact on staff wellbeing.

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2. Introduce a check-in strategy for staff

We learned from one member of our book club about a strategy their school introduced to facilitate virtual check-ins during lockdown. A simple wellbeing scale was recently added as part of this process which in turn identified a colleague who was really struggling. A sense of isolation the problem (a highly social species, we struggle on our own) he is now benefiting from additional relational support and a refreshed sense of belonging.

According to research from The Centre for Talent Innovation, employees are 3.5 times more likely to contribute to their fullest potential when they feel a sense of belonging. It makes every sense to actively promote this when schools reopen, therefore. We know that we must reach out to our most vulnerable learners so that they benefit from a sense of belonging as a protective factor, but again, the same principle applies to staff. Their wellbeing, and subsequently the emotional contagion that they transmit to pupils, will be enhanced if they feel a sense of the workplace as a second home.

This Harvard study suggests that the most powerful strategy to support staff wellbeing through a focus on belonging is simple and light-touch. Researchers found that the greatest sense of belonging was experienced by employees when their colleagues simply checked in with them, both personally and professionally. This was true across genders and age groups.

By reaching out and acknowledging their employees on a personal level, school leaders can significantly enhance the wellbeing of staff by making them feel valued and connected. Many, the best, already do this – but the process needs to be deliberate and strategic. In his YouTube series on trauma and Covid, Dr. Bruce Perry describes a relational tree whereby the leader routinely checks in with three ‘direct reports’ who do the same for three more each and so on.

Of course, the success of such a strategy will depend entirely upon the way it is implemented – a check-in doesn’t need to be long but it absolutely must be authentic. It would be worth sharing the evidence base with staff and then collaborating with volunteers on design and delivery, rather than imposing a poorly or only partially understood model for checking-in.

3. Introduce trauma-informed peer mentoring

Much of the research on emotional contagion within schools focuses on its negative manifestation in the form of detrimental peer influence. Studies of peer influence have identified a variety of negative adolescent behaviours, including smoking, drinking, and substance misuse (for a full review, see Brechwald & Prinstein, 2011). However, peer influence can be harnessed to spread positive behaviour and perhaps its potential in this regard is under-utilised. Research on peer mentoring (where peer leaders volunteer their time to help fellow pupils) demonstrates that structured peer interaction can have a huge impact on both sides of a peer partnership programme. (Tredinnick, Menzies, & Van Ryt, 2015).

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We are developing in Lincolnshire a specifically trauma-informed approach to this so that pupils learn through their training something about the brain and the way that it responds to prolonged, unpredictable or extreme stress; why emotional regulation is more difficult for some than others; the importance of safe relationships for recovery; grounding and regulating strategies; empathic listening and so on. All of this information is too important not to share with pupils, whether they are in need of regulating emotional support or providing it. And of course, if teachers are to act as role models for this important work, then they too must be trauma-informed and regulated.

4. Implement robust transition plans for the most vulnerable

“Growing up, I couldn’t have peace unless my mother was at peace,” writes Ariel Leve in ‘An Abbreviated Life’. “So, her peace was paramount.”

I had no choice but to exist in the sea that she swam in. It was a fragile ecosystem where the temperature changed without warning. My natural shape was dissolved and I became shapeless.

When somebody’s mood can shift quickly, you’re always on your toes and you’re always on guard, which means you can never really relax. And as a consequence, as an adult, I find that I absorb the mood and energy of other people very intensely, so I need a lot of time alone to decompress.

There will be children returning to school who will have been marinating in this kind of toxicity for months, without the respite normally provided by school and during a period of increased dysregulation and volatility at home. Their vulnerabilities will have been significantly increased through over-exposure to emotional contagion in its most destructive form. They will be highly sensitised, hyper-vigilant and settling to learn in anything but the safest classroom will be a huge ask; quite possibly not possible at all until safe, trusting relationships are re-established.

For children undergoing transitions, this will be harder still because the relationship will need to be built from scratch. Thought needs to be given to establishing these before schools reopen, as part of transition planning. The power of human connection over distance should never be under-estimated, as Lisa Barrett, Prof of Psychology, explains:

Humans are social animals. We are constantly regulating each other’s nervous systems. I can text someone halfway around the world. They don’t have to see my face or hear my voice, and I can affect their breathing, their heart rate, and the amount that they sweat. I can affect the functioning of their entire nervous system  and immune systems, for better or for worse, with a few words.

If we are able to reach out virtually to our most vulnerable children such that they feel  there are safe and open hands ready to greet them and hold them through transition, then they will be much more likely to navigate the challenge of new class or new school in a regulated way.  At least some of the negative emotional contagion experienced outside of school will be mitigated through access to a  consistent adult – or peer mentor – with this progress accelerated if the experience of school proper is therapeutic – that is, characterised by warm, unconditional and consistent relationships.

5. Understand that leaders are emotional contagion super-carriers

Because employees pay great attention to their leaders’ emotions, leaders can strongly influence the mood and thus performance of their staff through emotional contagion.

In this piece from Wharton Work, a case-study from Southwest Airlines is cited. Part of the company’s strategy was to attract positive people through ads such as ‘When we feel good, it’s contagious’ and by creating a culture of caring and compassion for employees. The business has seen profitable growth as a result, despite challenges facing the industry as a whole.

Leaders need to articulate the culture they seek to create and maintain as one in which positive emotions are not only allowed but encouraged. Making it clear that destructive negative emotions and the behaviors that come with them — such as bullying, back-stabbing, and incivility — will not be tolerated can help create an environment in which they are less likely to occur, take root, and spread. As school communities reassemble, there is a real opportunity to reassert the importance of these values and behaviours.

The Wharton piece serves as a useful reminder about the imortance of non-verbal behaviour, which leaders should heed:

As most emotional communication occurs through body language, facial expression, and tone (with less than 10% communicated through words), pay attention to your body language as you communicate your emotions. For example, you may be crossing your arms because you are cold, but the people observing you will likely believe you are defensive or angry, automatically mimic your arm crossing, and begin to feel that way.

This is also important information for teachers, every one of whom is of course a leader of children. Noting what has already been observed in relation to vulnerability and hyper-vigilance, there will be children in every classroom who are hyper-sensitised to non-verbal clues and who respond to tone of voice and body language before they hear verbal content.

For leaders at every level within the school community, the power of the meet and greet, the kind word or gesture, the regular check-in cannot be over-emphasised. Through such small acts, the ripple effect of positive emotional contagion will allow school communities to repair, in some cases stronger and more inclusive than they were before.

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Published by Mary Meredith

Working in schools for over 20 years, I've been a Head of English, a SENCO and a deputy headteacher. I'm currently Head of Inclusion at Lincolnshire County Council. I am a sucker for the underdog. Always have been, always will be.

One thought on “Five ways to harness emotional contagion when schools reopen. (A reflection inspired by Chapter 7 of Boy who was Raised as a Dog)

  1. Hello Mary, thank you for taking the time to share these worthwhile thoughts and reflections which I will share with colleagues in Somerset.

    I agree with you that there’s a great deal we could and should do both to recognise what many of our students likely are, and have been, experiencing during lockdown – and that we could, and should, take care that we’re creating ‘virtuous circles’ of positive rather than negative emotional contagion.

    I also wonder whether there’s another aspect to how we can support and encourage our young people. My personal commitment to mindfulness practice is helping me to see and understand that “I am not my thoughts”, “I am not my emotions” etc, and to recognise the extent to which I can deal with distressing circumstances by dropping own into an awareness of breath, body sensations etc… so, yes, colleagues and I can seek to create a work culture in which positive emotional contagion happens, *and* I can also learn to take increased ownership of my own process in order to be more responsive/ empathetic and less reactive in the face of others’ emotional states.

    My commitment to mindfulness practice – which has included completing an 8-week MBSR course – is a personal journey first and foremost, but I’ve also found that what I’ve learned has been useful in my work both as a counsellor and in a pastoral role at a Pupil Referral Unit; I’ve been able to share some of what I’ve learned with others, both colleagues and students. There’s also a lot to be said for the ‘Emotion Coaching’ approach taught through the ‘Tuning Into Kids’ and ‘Tuning Into Teens’ parenting programmes (and by organisations such as EHCAP/ Alpiri locally), where parents learn to recognise and *attend to* their children’s emotional states as a sort of precondition of seeking (where needed) to influence them behaviourally.

    Thank you again; I think I will become a regular follower of your blog! – David.


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