Literate and emotionally intelligent

Jon Sutton reports from the Annual Conference of the British Psychological Society's West Midlands Branch, at Coventry's Wellcome Centre.

What do we mean by literacy? Opening the British Psychological Society’s West Midlands Branch Annual Conference, Professor Clare Wood (Coventry University) described how, the night before, her three-and-a-half year old daughter had displayed her multimodal skills by re-enacting X-Factor (including its various ‘scripts’) in front of the TV. We think of literacy in the educational sense but it refers to anything we use in society to convey meaning – cultural symbols which create communities. ‘Young people aren’t dumb acquirers of multimedia’, Professor Wood argued: ‘the digital saturation of childhood means that literacy itself is in transition, and that’s in conflict with how it is constructed and assessed.’

Professor Wood draws on Janet Maybin’s framework to argue that a failure to incorporate how children apply these skills ‘silences children’s voices, restricts their creativity and does not allow enough time to stimulate their imagination. Literature is reduced to a resource for teaching the linguistic and textual features of the written genre, ignoring the fact that digital texts are very different, visually and orthographically.

Much of Wood’s recent research has been on ‘textisms’, and whether their use by young people is leading – as some commentators have warned – to the crumbling of civilisation. Her ‘texting intervention study’ giving phones to 9-10 year-old children found that use of textisms (shortenings, g-clippings, missing apostrophes etc) in messages sent and received was actually associated with growth in spelling development. Wood concluded that text speak ‘confuses us, but it doesn’t seem to confuse the young’: they use it knowingly and successfully as a safe creative space to play with the conventions of language. If young people slip into using textisms in submitted school work, it tends to be a deliberate attempt to provoke a teacher!

Compared with other countries, Wood concluded, we are too worried about creating mini adults. We choose to demonise certain things, but texting slang creates opportunities. The problem is us – we have difficulty code switching.

Wood’s colleagues from Coventry filled the remainder of the morning session. Amy Grubb spoke on hostage and crisis negotiation, highlighting the importance of an evidence-based understanding of the whole process from start to finish, rather than just the negotiation stage. Gavin Sullivan considered collective emotions, ecstatic nationalism and mega-sporting events, including how national feeling in Germany was transformed after they hosted the 2006 World Cup – ‘life returned to normal, but there was the idea that you could have “party patriotism” going forward – that being proudly German wasn’t going to make something bad happen.’ Simon Goodman analysed TV debates following the controversial ‘poverty porn’ programme Benefits Street. Thomas Rhys Evans questioned why psychologists don’t have the same critical eye for theory as they do for methodology (more of this later). And Anna Ashworth outlined her research into sleep-dependent learning in children with Down syndrome and Williams syndrome.

After lunch, Sarah Hennelly (Oxford Brookes University) won pun of the day with her mindfulness during pregnancy intervention: ‘mind the bump’. Interestingly she found the intervention increased alcohol intervention: as Hennelly said, either she had created a way of encouraging pregnant mothers to drink, or the results were down to an increase in honest reporting.

Sam Murrell (Coventry) then took a social rank perspective on the benefits of an activity-based mental health recovery group, highlighting the importance of ‘entrapment’ in its relationships with depression and anxiety.

Riya Patel (Coventry) described a church-based ‘intuitive eating’ programme (freedom from dietary restriction, learn to eat in response to physiological cues rather than emotional issues). There was an inverse association between spiritual well-being and emotional eating, and even among those who are not religious there is a receptiveness to incorporating a spiritual element into weight programmes.

Providing a thought-provoking take on the workplace, Matthew Slater (Staffordshire University) put the creation of a shared social identity right at the heart of successful leadership. ‘Successful leaders don’t think “I”. They think “team”. They understand their job is to make the team function.’

The closing keynote was from Professor Karen Rodham (Staffordshire University), on how health psychology can help people to live and cope with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome – when people experience vastly exaggerated reactions to normal stimuli (e.g. the touch of clothes, a light breeze), real physiological temperature changes in affected areas, changes in hair growth, altered body perception etc. The cause is unknown, and speedy intervention is not easy when you are trying to exclude other explanations. Professor Rodham showed how all four pillars of treatment in the gold standard guidelines include psychological aspects – not just in the psychological interventions themselves, but in pain relief, physical rehabilitation and patient education. Interestingly, Rodham explained how simply participating in a programme with her at Bath had been a turning point for many sufferers: they learnt from experts, and felt validated that they ‘had a real condition’. Friends and relatives could then see this too.

Rodham went on to describe how health psychologists can help patients meet their support needs through the innovative use of Wiki technology, or even just through getting people to draw ‘portraits’ of their pain and name it. One patient named her pain ‘Tarquin’ as it was a ‘middle class oik she hated’, but as the interventions took hold she could rename it to ‘Colin’: ‘she could handle a Colin any day’.

Following the close of this fascinating conference, many retired to the ‘Psychology in the Pub’ event with Thomas Rhys Evans. His ambitious aim was to take the concept of emotional intelligence and restore integrity to it through theoretical clarification. It’s an inkblot concept, he argued, open to a multitude of interpretations, and you can approach it from an ability, competence or trait perspective. Despite the setting, nobody was getting legless, but we were getting Legolas: the elf from the Lord of the Rings providing Evans with his examples of how to be emotionally intelligent in these different ways. The evening, and a hugely successful and interesting day, concluded with a description of the first theoretically grounded emotional intelligence intervention in higher education – coming soon to a university near you? 

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