ELSAs - Emotional Literacy Support Assistants - Guest Post

July is almost over folks and some of you in the US are going back to school already, while most teachers in the UK just finished last week!  I can hardly believe the summer is flying by so quickly.  I have been making lots of plans, one of which was to get back to blogging on a weekly basis - so far so good!  If I can persuade people (lol!), I would like to keep one spot free every month for a guest blogger, especially in areas of interest that are dear to my heart!  There are so many interesting and inspiring people out there with so much to share - much better than a post from me!

So...let's meet July's guest!

Debbie Palphreyman runs a UK based website called ELSA Support.  She lives in the beautiful county of Cumbria in the North West of England.  She is married with two grown-up daughters, one a costume designer and the other, an author.


Debbie very kindly agreed to talk to me about her 'job' - in an area that I had little awareness of.  I hope you will find her story as fascinating as I did!

Over to you, Debbie!

My background is in ICT where I worked for 12 years for the multinational company NESTLE on their Help Desk.  My role was supporting users who were having problems with their computers throughout the company and across the country (UK). From hardware to software problems, every day was different and every day a challenge.

Whilst taking a break from ‘working’ to have my children I set up a small company offering computer services to members of the public. Invoicing, dissertations, CVs, medical reports, translations were just a few of the things that were tackled. It started to become a bit more than just a small job to do during nap times, so I decided to stop and concentrate on my children. That is when my interest in education was ignited. My daughter’s school asked for volunteers to help in the classroom. I worked for a year in a Reception class (4 and 5 year olds) and loved it so much I wanted more. I completed a TA Teaching Assistant Level 3/4 qualification and was supported by a very inspirational Year 2 teacher. I then applied for a job in a school, where I am pleased to say I was successful. During my 13 years working in schools I completed my HLTA (High Level Teaching Assistant) assessment and ELSA training along with many other courses, to enhance the role.

So where did my interest in social, emotional and behaviour learning come from? The school I worked in for 13 years had a large percentage of children with social, emotional and behavioural problems. Every day was a challenge, behaviour was poor, there was a huge lack of self-esteem, many children with attachment disorder, anger problems and high anxiety. It was a wonder these children ever learnt anything. I did my best, as did many other TAs and teachers, but with limited resources and lack of knowledge, it was a losing battle. 

A new Deputy Head teacher joined the school, one with a vision of nurture and pastoral care and really making a difference to these children. He had the view that children learn better when they are supported and happy. He obviously saw something in me and asked me to set up a group to support vulnerable children for one afternoon a week.  Busy Bees was born and it was for that, that I wrote my very first resource for Social and Emotional support: 12 weeks of social and emotional planning.

This is still on my website and is still purchased. When I started I just couldn’t find much out there to support these children. So, I sat down with a pen and paper and thought about all the things those children might need. After researching, editing and re-editing the first Busy Bees Intervention was born. It consists of the following:
  • ‘Emotional check in’ where children can discuss how they feel and why. An Emotion fan or   Emotion wheel was used for this. 
  • ‘A warm up game’ where children could feel more at ease. Lots of the games incorporated team work so children were working together. 
  • ‘Main activity’ This is where I set learning objectives for my group of children and we worked to that objective, often including a craft or game to make it much more fun. 
  • ‘Relaxation time’ where we looked at progressive relaxation, touched on mindfulness, listened to relaxing music and generally learnt to relax. 
  • ‘Snack time’ We always ended our sessions with a snack time. So many social skills are involved here - from handing out drinks and biscuits, clearing the table and washing up, to saying please and thank you and discussing things as a group around the table. The main topic would be ‘What did we learn today?’ 
To say this was a success was an understatement. Unfortunately, due to safeguarding I cannot go into too much detail on individual children and their successes but there were many. We did pre- and post-assessments, which noted significant improvements with every child.  I continued this for 2 years. During that time, I did my ELSA training and we then trained 3 more ELSAs. I was the Lead ELSA and timetabled all the other ELSAs to work with as many children as possible.  Behaviour improved, self-esteem improved, behaviour for learning improved. The school became a pinnacle for ELSA in the York area (I have since moved). We had many visitors and I did many talks on how we implemented ELSA in our school, as well as speaking at ELSA training courses run by educational psychologists in the area.

In our Busy Bees groups, we always gave children a ‘MEMORY’ book which was very much like a learning journey.  Children did have some free time after snack where they could choose for 10 minutes. Often, they would choose to write in their books. They were so proud of their books which would contain photographs, work they had done, and comments by us. Below you will find some examples of independent work completed by children in the group.

This intervention was the first of many. My latest group intervention is a  MINDSET intervention to help children develop that all important ‘GROWTH MINDSET’. It consists of a lesson for each of the letters of MINDSET. M = MISTAKES, I=INSPIRED, N= NOT YET, D=DETERMINED, S=SUCCESS, E=EVERYONE and T=THINK.

I have interventions on just about every area, such as ‘FRIENDSHIP’ and ‘ANXIETY’. I have also written many resources for working one to one with a child. For example, this ‘Master your Monsters’ anxiety booklet is my latest one to one resource. It includes a workbook which takes a child through ‘What anxiety is’, ‘Physical effects of anxiety – adrenaline response’, ‘ANTS -automatic negative thoughts’, ‘Changing those thoughts’, ‘Calming strategies’ and a ‘diary’ to take away.

I have written several ‘whole school’ interventions to support children from 4 to 11 years of age. (These are usually by request from schools).  I also provide resources for Emotional Literacy/ELSA conferences.

There are so many comments on the website but I think this sums it up for me and makes all the hard work worthwhile.
‘I just wanted to say a great big thank you. when I started doing ELSA nearly 4 years ago now, I was at the start of a somewhat unguided journey. Myself, and I know many other ELSA’S were all looking for resources to help our children. I have watched your website grow over the years. I know many ELSA’S have helped contributed to your ideas, but the amount of work effort and professional resources you have made is truly unbelievable! I feel that if ever I need inspiration for new ideas or revisit old ideas, your ELSA resource page is my first port of call. I have helped so many children using your resources and they have loved them. I have been able to tailor to the individual child with a different theme or new concept. You always seem to be reinventing old resources and adding something new every day. You truly are one Inspirational woman. Thank you, Debbie’.

The ELSA initiative was founded in Hampshire, UK by an Educational Psychologist called Sheila Burton.  It has now spread across the country, with many ELSAs being trained to support those more vulnerable children in schools.

The work of an ELSA consists of ‘supporting’ children. It isn’t about 'fixing' children, it isn’t about solving their problems.  Rather it is a way to guide them towards effective strategies to use when confronted with a problem.  There are basic counselling skills taught on the course such as ‘active listening’ and ‘solution focused questioning’ that support children in finding their own solutions. 

ELSAs are trained in:
·        Emotional literacy
·        Bereavement and loss
·        Therapeutic story writing
·        Social story writing
·        Anger management or as I like to call it – managing strong feelings
·        Self-esteem
·        Social skills
·        Autism
·        Solution focused questioning and Active listening.

ELSAs work in two ways:
·        Proactively teaching skills and knowledge to children to enable them to cope better with whatever life throws at them. So, a child might need an ‘ANGER’ course or as I like to call it ‘MANAGING STRONG FEELINGS’. Giving children those skills to regulate their own anger. They may need a boost with self-esteem and there are several lapbooks on the website, one of which is on ‘self-esteem’ and also an  ‘all about me’ lapbook. They may need some ‘Friendship’ work and I always found working in a group was the best way to develop friendships as well as teaching those important social skills for Friendship. One of the most popular interventions on the site is a ‘FRIENDS’ intervention.
·        The other way an ELSA works is re-actively. When something happens to a child then an ELSA can be there to support them. An example could be a child who comes into school whose pet has just died or a child whose parents have just divorced or split up. Having that one to one support is crucial for mental health and for a child to feels supported in school. A teacher cannot always do that with so many other little ones to be responsible for.

One of the ways I monitored emotional well-being was by having an emotional register in each classroom where the child could put their name on the emotion they were feeling that day. It was very simple and linked to the weather - Happy like a sunny day, Sad like a rainy day and Angry like a stormy day. This can still be downloaded from the website as a free resource. Of course I have many emotional registers now on the website, including interactive powerpoints, along with emotion fans and cards in a variety of designs.

Most of my resources are proactive resources, but I do have some for working re-actively. An example would be these ‘Craft books’. I always found working on a crafty activity would calm an anxious/upset child. It focuses the mind on something exciting and creative.  I think we all know that children talk more when busy creating.

So why did I set up the ELSA Support website? I had finished my training and had a huge timetable of children to work with but I didn’t have the necessary resources. What on earth could I do with all these children to help them feel supported and help them solve their problems? I had written the 12 week intervention and I started making some more resources. I decided it was important to share. I set up the website. Initially I asked for donations to cover the costs involved in running the website. ‘Hosting’ costs can mount up. After a while it became impossible to cover costs so I started charging a small amount for a download. From there it just gained momentum.  I still do keep a high percentage of free resources - for me it is about getting my resources out there and helping as many children as I can.

The other wonderful thing is that although the website was set up to support ELSAs there are many more people benefitting from it, such as teachers, counsellors, educational psychologists, GPs, emotion coaches, teaching assistants.  I also wrote some very pre-scripted interventions for people without training and parents, for example ‘Self- esteem whole school intervention’. I get many emails from parents parents asking for advice on how they can best support their children. This really delights me because home life and what happens at home is a huge part of a child’s well being. If a child is supported at home and at school and both are talking to each other it can have a significant impact on the child.

I am very active on Facebook, having an ELSA Support Page and a Teaching Assistant Support and Chat group - if you wish to find out more, I am there to support you!

I hope you found Debbie's journey to her passion in life as fascinating as I did!  I would be interested to know if schools in other countries have similar initiatives.  My own knowledge and experience in this area were very poor until I met Debbie - she has spent many years raising awareness and developing resources to support schools and training - very inspirational!  Thanks so much to Debbie for agreeing to write about ELSA Support in the UK.

Debbie can also be contacted at any of the places below, should you wish to find out more:


No comments

All messages are heartily welcomed!

Back to Top