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Saudade. Or why it’s good to name your feelings. With help from Aliki, Cristina Branco, Ana Moura and a compassionate school inspector!

Date posted: Friday 25th April 2014


Botticelli’s Primavera: looking and feeling very sad

Saudade: not the same feeling

I shall never forget teaching my class of eight and nine-year-olds, and particularly Sofia, who saved me single-handedly from being judged ‘unsatisfactory’ by an Ofsted school inspector.

In our school, each class was named after a tree, and mine was ‘Hazel Class’. I loved the children in this class. True, there were some characters (children with challenging behaviour), and little pickles (children who were troubled because they came from complex or dysfunctional families), but in general we were a happy group and could have lots of fun together without worrying too much about behaviour issues. It was the kind of class who if you asked them what they would like to do, would pipe up, ‘Can you read us a story, or tell us something funny about when you were a boy our age?’ The children’s favourite book was my favourite too: Feelings by Aliki.

This children’s picture book is a deceptively simple exploration of emotions that helps children and adults get behind words like shy, angry and sad. The children’s favourite page was about the death of Whiskers the mouse, and an exploration of the stages of grief that the children who owned him went through as they came to terms with their loss (denial, extreme sadness, anger and finally acceptance and being able to look back on a life of happiness and fun shared with Whiskers).


Feelings by Aliki: helping children name and explore their feelings

It was high summer and we were on the last day of an inspection of our school. Before my art lesson I was feeling confident and relaxed and ready for an inspector to drop in at any moment to observe the children having fun painting and learning about how the Ancient Greeks decorated vases with orange and black paint. An inspector came in the room, and I felt a little annoyed when Daniel (a child who was both a character and a pickle) shouted out, ‘Welcome to Hazel Class. We are all nuts in here!’ The inspector didn’t laugh, but he sat in the corner and observed chaos unfold as I discovered to my horror that one of my colleagues had borrowed 15 of my paintbrushes during the break, leaving me with no option but to tell the children to share brushes. The words ‘recipe’ and ‘disaster’ sprang into my mind, and I was horrified to discover at lunchtime from our head teacher that my lesson had been judged to be ‘unsatisfactory’.

How did I feel? No page of Aliki’s book accurately described any of my emotions. Is there a word that describes total loss of confidence, humiliation and shame, all rolled into one? It was the last morning of the inspectors’ visits to classes and there was no way I was going to escape from being slammed for being badly prepared.

After lunch the class could sense that Mr. Jones wasn’t his usual self. Jamie tried a joke. ‘Mr. Jones, you look like you have just eaten a pillow. Is that why you are a bit down in the mouth?’ Normally Mr. Jones loved jokes, but this afternoon he looked sad. Had his mouse died? ‘It’s alright children’, said Mr Jones, and gave a big sigh, ‘It’s time for literacy, so let’s get ready to listen to Sofia give her talk.’ Each child had been set the task of preparing a short talk about their favourite subject to share with the class. We had heard about snakes, volcanoes, Chelsea Football Club, horses and ‘how to cook potato chips without setting the house on fire’ (from a girl whose big sister had almost set the house on fire when cooking potato chips). Usually I spent a lot of time coaching the children for their talks, but what with the inspection and everything, I hadn’t had time to get Sofia ready, and had my fingers crossed that everything would be fine for her. It’s true, I hadn’t planned this lesson at all, but none of us were prepared for what happened next.

First I need to describe Sofia. Her family are from Portugal. Mum was a consultant cardiologist and dad was an oceanographer, who was away from home a lot, studying oceans. Sofia and her little sister Rafaela were fluent in Portuguese, and though they were fluent in English, they had strong accents and you could clearly tell that they were not native English speakers. Sofia was the kind of child who was loved by everyone. She was very bright and funny, always laughing and very sensitive to other children’s needs. She loved singing and performing, but was terrible at handwriting and was always falling over and hurting herself. Her grandmother, who the children called ‘Vovo’ and who spoke not a word of English, had been staying with the family for three months, but had recently returned to her village outside Lisbon. Myself and my Teaching Assistant Sue Watson (there to support Daniel and all of the other pickles and characters in the class) were very sorry to see the last of Sofia’s Vovo, because every Friday Vovo would bring in those delicious Portuguese egg tarts for Sue and I to have with our coffee. Sofia was not just sad that Vovo had gone. It was almost as if a lot of the sparkle had gone out of her life. All the children noticed that Sofia wasn’t laughing as much as usual, which made them feel quite worried about her.

Sofia had asked me to provide a video recorder for her talk, and brought along a video tape for us to watch, so the children were all very excited and keen to find out what their favourite friend was going to talk about. Suddenly there was a knock at the door and the inspector asked if he could observe the lesson. I tried to hide my feelings of revulsion, anxiety and trepidation, but they must have been plain for all to see.

“I want to talk about my feelings,” Sofia began. “When our lovely Vovo went back to her home we were all very sad and we all cried when we said goodbye to her at the airport. She is very old and I heard Papa say to Mama that maybe one day we would never see Vovo again. Then me and Rafaela wake up every morning and we pretend that Vovo was still in our house and Rafaela she pretend to make Vovo a cup of tea and take it to her empty bedroom. One day Rafaela said she was cross with Vovo for leaving us, and she didn’t care if she never came back. Then me and Rafaela shouted at each other and I made her cry. Mama said we are all very sad, but that we all have to live our lives like normal. Now we like to look at photos of Vovo and talk about the fun times she had with us. You know, we can still speak with Vovo on the phone, and one day we will go to her house in her village. So our feelings is just like in the Whiskers story.

“Sometimes Mama sits and looks out of the window for a long time. And I ask to her, ‘Mama, are you sad?’ She tells to me, ‘No, Mama is not sad, but she feels Saudade.’

“Now I want to speak to you about Saudade. We feel Saudade for Papa when he is on the sea and we don’t see him for a long time. Mama feels Saudade for Vovo. Mama says everyone feels Saudade sometimes, but only us peoples from Portugal have a word that tells it. So you feels sad, but as well you feel what Mama says is longing for someone who you loves, or maybe who you did love once but now they is gone and will never come back. Mama says to read to you what she think about Saudade and what it mean. ‘Saudade brings sad and happy feelings all together – sadness for the loss, and happiness for having experienced the feeling.’

“And now I want to show to everyone a video of people singing Fado songs about being Saudade in Vovo’s village. Fado is our best music.”

Cristina Branco singing in her living room before she became a Portuguese Fado superstar

What Sofia showed us was a bit like the wonderful Christina Branco clip, with coffee cups and wine glasses everywhere, and toddlers wandering around. Then Daniel shouted out, ‘Mr. Jones, have you got any tissues, because Mrs. Watson is crying over here!’ At which point the inspector leapt up and passed Sue a tissue. I couldn’t help noticing that he helped himself to one, blew his nose loudly and muttered something about the high pollen count.

After the inspectors had gone, all the staff had a meeting with the Head and he told us that our inspection had gone very well. As everyone was leaving, the Head called me into his office, to explain why the inspector had gone back to see me. Apparently he could see that the art lesson in the morning had been a disaster, and our Head convinced him to go back to see me lead a successful lesson (hopefully). The inspector described what he witnessed as being ‘a highly memorable experience. It’s rare to see children of this age able to express their emotions so powerfully, in an atmosphere of calm and acceptance. This is an example of the very best practice in supporting children to become emotionally literate.’

These events, children and powerful emotions came flooding back to me recently when I was invited to visit a nursery school in Luton, to see for myself how very young children are encouraged to name and explore their feelings. Sue Thomas and Katja O’Neill have developed an approach that combines selected signs from British Sign Language (BSL) and speaking, to give children the vocabulary they need to express how they feel. Adults talking with children often use the word sad to represent all sorts of feelings; e.g. ‘Becky is feeling sad because someone else is wearing the princess dress today’, or ‘You are making me sad because you keep interrupting me telling the story.’ Neither of these uses of the word sad accurately reflect how the child or adult feels, but I suppose we use this simple word in the belief that young children won’t be able to use or understand vocabulary that is more sophisticated.

However, Katja and Sue have shown that children as young as two years can understand and describe others’ feelings and express their own emotions by using words such as unhappy, disappointed, disastrous and even frustrated. Using puppet characters called Max and Milly and a series of stories especially written for young children, adults introduce key words and signs from BSL. They use these signs as they talk with children throughout the day, and particularly in situations when feelings run high (which can be quite often when you have groups of children!) There is a danger that we only concentrate on highlighting feelings that are negative, giving the impression that only ‘difficult’ emotions are worth talking about, so adults and children are encouraged to identify, talk about and learn the signs for positive feelings like excited, which is not the same as feeling happy. There are also phrases and signs that help children reach a common understanding of how to behave in nursery, including understanding and using ‘behaviour management’ words and signs like calm down, share and take turns. I was amazed when I asked a little boy how Max the puppet might be feeling (I had made Max look a bit sad-looking). ‘Upset and miserable’ was his reply, with appropriate signs. ‘Bloody hell!’ would have been my response, but luckily I restrained myself as I didn’t know the associated signs.


Click on the logo to find out more about this fascinating project

The project has really taken off across the UK and internationally. Next time I see Sue and Katja I’m going to ask them if they are working on a Portuguese version that will help people in that country articulate ‘the feeling of loss – a permanent, irreparable loss and its consequent lifelong damage’ as described by Wikipedia in their definition for Saudade.

Here’s Ana Moura haunting us all with a modern Fado song. I’ve no idea what the words mean, but Ana manages to induce a sense of Saudade in me whenever I hear her.

Ana Moura: Amor Afoito. Is this stunning song about the Saudade of every man’s longing to be in Ana’s backing band?

Take care out there


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4 responses to “Saudade. Or why it’s good to name your feelings. With help from Aliki, Cristina Branco, Ana Moura and a compassionate school inspector!”

  1. Selma says:

    Lovely post.

  2. Sally Ann says:

    Hi Michael,
    I read your post with great interest and could relate to so much of what you were saying. I have spent many years trying to help children develop a language of feelings in order to use their words rather than ‘tricky’ behaviours to communicate with adults and other children how they are feeling and what they need. I particularly remember the 4 year old who was able to say his head felt all ‘scribbly’ when he was starting to feel restless sitting on the carpet in a large group and the young lady who built a soft den and surrounded herself with her favourite books and toys to show us what ‘safe’ felt like to her. Currently I love using Sometimes I feel Sunny by Gillian Shields & Georgie Birkett with very young children. In my experience they are so good at learning lots of ‘feeling’ words and quickly move away from the ‘mad’, ‘sad’, ‘bad’ and ‘glad’.
    Thanks again for sharing your post – I feel really hopeful when I hear about people who also believe in emotional literacy and helping children, from as early an age as possible, know what safe feels like. Because when people feel safe and know how to recreate this feeling, they are free to learn.
    PS Will be adding ‘Saudade’ to my emotional vocabulary and sharing it people regardless of age.

    • Michael Jones says:

      Hello Sally Ann,
      Thank you for replying. Your reply is quite fascinating!
      You may want to find out about the work of my friends and colleagues Sue Thomas and Katja O’Neill, who have developed a scheme for helping children as young as two express their feelings through using words and key signs from British Sign language (BSL). It’s very exciting to see children as young as two being able to explain that they feel FRUSTRATED!!!!! instead of just talking about being SAD (which as we adults are aware, are two entirely different things!)
      Please visit for more info
      Thanks again and best wishes
      PS Listening to Ana Maura is the best way of instantly identifying what SAUDADE means!

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