Education Quandary: 'Our daughter's teacher has criticised her for not being willing to share her feelings at circle time'

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The Independent Online

Hilary's advice

This little girl was upset about her cat dying. Her teacher wanted to help and invited her to tell her classmates about it. When the girl refused, the teacher was worried and talked to the mother.

But this teacher's actions were deeply insensitive. She should have recognised that some feelings are simply too raw and new to be shared.

In principle, I am all in favour of schools helping children to recognise their feelings and to understand how these feelings make them think and behave. It's a great tool for later life, and can work miracles in situations like nurture groups where troubled youngsters are helped to control their anger and become aware of others.

But lately I've seen some teaching that has made me cringe at its crassness and have started to fear that a lot of work on emotional literacy is turning out to have all the depth and subtlety of computer emoticons.

A psychoanalyst, Darian Leader, writes in his new book, The New Black: Mourning, Melancholia and Depression, that teaching emotional literacy "is sadly tantamount to brainwashing, in the sense that it imposes a language on the individual and coerces them to use it in place of their own unique ways of expressing themselves".

And, alas, he has a point. Because if children only learn to label themselves with feelings like "happy" or "sad", without also coming to understand that they are complex individuals, they will have been given a very limited idea of who they really are. Leader's prescription is more exposure to literature, drama and art, which present the human experience in rich and varied ways.

Readers' advice

Children at schools these days are brainwashed into worshipping the great self-obsessed god of American-style therapy rather than being taught properly about the world they live in or actually learning things – such as, for example, how to cope with life's challenges and develop resilience. Ask your child's teacher whether she has sought any help for the bad case of emotional diarrhoea she is clearly suffering with...
Edwin Webb, Swansea

Tell this teacher it is none of her business. Give your daughter lots of cuddles. Tell her you are sad too, and that you are both sad because you loved the cat so much.
Henrietta Dagley, London SW1

Young children usually talk about the loss of a pet with someone very close and might need time before being ready to talk. It may be helpful to think about "zones of communication". The "intimate zone" is when you are one to one in very close proximity; the "personal zone" is still close and one to one; a small group, sitting in a circle, is the "social zone" where you discuss everyday things but not emotional matters; a larger group is the "public zone" where there is very little communication. Aged seven she'd be more likely to talk to her mother about her sadness and it sounds as if she is doing that.
Susan Monson, Wiltshire

Next Week's Quandary

Dear Hilary, What books should children be studying for GCSE and A-level English? I read that one of the exam boards is now going to choose texts inspired by Richard and Judy's book club, but I can already see from what my children are doing that classic texts are being squeezed out by modern fiction. This seems like yet more dumbing down.

Send your replies, or any quandaries you would like to have addressed, to Please include your postal address on your message. Readers whose replies are printed will receive a Collins Paperback English Dictionary Fifth Edition. Previous quandaries can be found on, where they can be searched by topic.