Students will struggle in and out of school unless they feel emotionally safe and have the skills and language to manage their emotions. A key researcher explains how schools can help in that effort.
By Rafael Heller
KAPPAN: What’s the mission of your organization, the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence?
BRACKETT: In the broadest sense, our goal is to use the power of emotional intelligence to create a healthier and more equitable, compassionate, and productive society. More specifically, we study the development, measurement, and real-world significance of emotional intelligence. We also do a lot of training and program development, taking the science of emotional intelligence and making it accessible to everybody from preschoolers to educators to CEOs.
The majority of our work focuses on school systems. The approach we’ve developed is called RULER, which stands for the five skills of emotional intelligence: Recognizing, Understanding, Labeling, Expressing, and Regulating emotions. But it’s important to note that RULER isn’t a program, exactly, or a one-size-fits-all intervention. We prefer to describe it as an approach for infusing emotions into the DNA of a school. It includes various tools and resources, but the heart of it is the training we provide to school administrators, teachers, staff, students, and families, helping them to understand and apply key lessons from the research.
KAPPAN: How does RULER fit into the larger movement to promote social and emotional learning (SEL)?
BRACKETT: We’re an evidence-based approach to SEL, recognized by the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL). We come at things from a slightly different angle from many of the other SEL models in that we put emotional skills development of adults at the core of building students’ social and emotional capacities.
Everything we do is based on years of research into the important roles that emotions play in education. The evidence points to five roles in particular: First is the way that emotion affects human attention, memory, and learning; it’s critical that educators and students understand that how they feel when they’re in (and out of) school informs the way they think, their ability to pay attention, and their ability to retain information. Second is the role that emotion plays in decision making; how we feel influences the choices that we make. Third is the role of emotion in driving our social relationships; what we feel and how we interpret other’s feelings tells us whether to approach or avoid, for example. Fourth is that emotions are the driver of much of our health; strong feelings, especially unpleasant ones, can lead to anxiety and depression so, if we don’t have strategies to manage intense emotional experiences, our mental and physical health tends to decline. And the fifth has to do with creativity, effectiveness, and performance; in other words, in order to achieve big goals or even to complete a class project, we have to be able to manage the disappointment we feel when our plans don’t work out, the anger we feel when we get negative feedback, and so on. Unless we have the emotional skills to manage the emotions we feel when we’re trying to accomplish something and there are obstacles, we’re liable to give up.
KAPPAN: Do you find that K-12 educators are hungry for information about the emotional side of learning, or are they reluctant to discuss it since it could mean adding yet another big responsibility to their plates?
BRACKETT: I’m seeing more and more interest in our work and SEL more broadly from all kinds of educators, and I suspect that’s because the recent research findings have been so powerful, both in highlighting the challenges we face and in pointing toward effective solutions.
Last year, for example, we conducted a survey of 22,000 high school students across the country. We found that, on average, they’re experiencing negative emotions 75% of the time they’re in school — 75% of their time, they’re feeling tired, bored, and stressed. If you work in education, you have to wonder: What does this mean for teaching and learning? If students are tired, bored, and stressed out so much of the time, then how’s their mental health? What does this mean for their relationships? How much attention are they paying to their school work? What kinds of decisions are they making? How effective can they be in completing projects and working toward goals? Once you see these kinds of research findings, it becomes impossible to sweep them under the rug.
But at the same time, research is also showing that schools can respond in effective ways, and that also gets educators interested in our work. When schools adopt RULER or other evidence-based practices and implement them with fidelity, they tend to see positive outcomes. Academic performance goes up, social-emotional skills become enhanced, school climate improves. . . Emotion science is still fairly new since it didn’t really take off until the 1990s, but already it has produced a lot of findings that support the infusion of this work into the schools.
KAPPAN: So does this mean that RULER is catching on and reaching scale? What kind of reception have you been getting?
BRACKETT: It’s been overwhelming, honestly. Right now, we have hundreds of public, private, and charter schools asking for training each year, and a number of big school districts are putting together plans to introduce the work systemwide.
But keep in mind that people don’t get as excited about RULER as they do when, say, a new Star Wars movie comes out. After all, it’s work to implement the approach. We require a lot from people. We’re not asking educators to hang a chart on a wall or do a little check-in every week. Rather, we’re asking them to make emotional intelligence part of the immune system of the school and to look at teaching, leading, and learning through an additional lens.
Strategies and tools
KAPPAN: RULER seems different from many other SEL programs in that you start by focusing on the adults in the school rather than working directly with students. For you, professional development comes first, right?
BRACKETT: Right. That’s a big deal in our work. We want emotional intelligence to be central to teaching, leading, and parenting.
KAPPAN: When it comes to emotional intelligence, do K-12 educators stand out in any way? Do they tend to be any more or less emotionally intelligent than members of other professions?
BRACKETT: I’ve found teachers to be like everybody else, with a normal variation in their emotional intelligence. But I do think that teachers have unique stressors and challenges, especially when it comes to regulating their emotions. I mean, it’s hard for teachers to walk around all day with a smile when they might be feeling frustrated or stressed. They’re frequently engaged in what’s technically called “emotional labor.” Often, they make themselves appear to be in a pleasant place in order to be the role models they should be. “I’m really disappointed or angry,” they might say to themselves, “but I have to be careful how much of that I show to my students.” But that can take a toll on them. Unless they have effective coping strategies to manage their own emotions and strategies to help students manage emotions, it’s easy to burn out.
KAPPAN: To what extent does RULER focus on developing the emotional skills of individual educators and students, and to what extent does it focus on improving the climate of the school?
BRACKETT: We aim for both. Our theory of change asserts that for real improvement to occur in a school you have to do two things: You have to build the skills of each stakeholder, and you have to build a positive emotional climate. So it happens simultaneously. You want to give people language and strategies they can use to manage their emotional lives, but you also want to make sure there is a common language and that the environment allows for people to talk about feelings.
That’s where the Mood Meter has been really helpful. It’s a tool and an app that we developed that lets individual students and teachers keep track of their own emotions over time while also suggesting words they can use to describe their feelings precisely (making, for example, nuanced distinctions between feeling calm and feeling serene or between frustration and anxiety). Over time, that gives everyone a common vocabulary, which makes for richer teaching and discussions about emotional life. We want to make sure that we’re giving people language to articulate the entire range of emotional experiences they can have: from contentment, tranquility, and peacefulness to ecstasy, joy, and excitement to boredom, sadness, and despair.
KAPPAN: Other than the Mood Meter, what other tools have you developed?
BRACKETT: When educators begin to implement RULER in schools and classrooms, the first step is to build what we call an emotional intelligence charter, which is like the classroom contracts that you see in a lot of schools. What’s different about the charter is that we ask people to consider how they want to feel each day, to agree on how they want to be treated or what sort of emotional climate they want to create, and what kinds of behaviors will be useful to manage conflict. We do this with everybody from preschool through high school and even in corporations. The charter is a foundational tool, describing the norms that people have agreed to follow.
Then we teach people how to use the Mood Meter, which is high tech but really is just a simple tool to help people keep track of and describe how they’re feeling and learn strategies to manage the full range of emotions. We also introduce a technique called the Meta-Moment, which is a way of dealing with emotional triggers (for example, those times when you’re tired and cranky, and somebody starts whining at you) by stepping back and considering how to respond through the lens of your “best self.” And we have a Blueprint tool, which is a conflict management protocol that helps people develop better perspective-taking skills, empathy, and problem solving.
So RULER includes these four main, research-based tools. And then we offer advanced training for all grades. The Feeling Words curriculum provides teachers from preschool to middle school creative ways to incorporate language and concepts from emotion science into their existing lesson plans in language arts, social studies, and other subjects. Of course, we adapt everything to fit the given context — for example, the elementary materials don’t look anything like the high school materials. The underlying concepts may be similar, but the conversations and activities get more advanced over time. In kindergarten, for example, we‘ll ask questions like, “What can you say to yourself to help you feel less angry or sad?” Then in the middle grades, we might ask, “What strategies could you use to help your friends feel less alienated or sad?” Our advanced high school approach is discussion based and designed to enhance emotional intelligence, creative problem-solving ability, and critical thinking in the service of helping students achieve their goals.
KAPPAN: Can you give us a couple of examples of ways people use these tools in their daily lives?
BRACKETT: Sure. What keeps me going are the stories I hear from teachers about how RULER has helped them and their students. For example, a teacher was just telling me that a student’s Blueprint revealed a long-standing bullying problem, and she was able to get him the support he needed. That kind of thing happens pretty often — the tools end up surfacing urgent issues that otherwise might get overlooked. Also, a lot of people tell us that using the Mood Meter has helped them have greater home/work balance. For example, a teacher recently told me that she checks in on the Mood Meter before going home at the end of the day, and it helps her shift her feelings so she can be the best possible mom to her own children.
Creating emotionally healthy schools
KAPPAN: How important is it that everybody in a school buys into this process? If some people are resistant or don’t want to participate, does that throw a wrench into the larger effort?
BRACKETT: This is why we make it a priority to get school leaders — especially principals — on board early and why we give them a lot of training up front. There will always be some teachers and staff who don’t take RULER seriously. But we find that principals tend to have a lot of power to build commitment to the work. Again, that’s why the first year of implementation focuses mainly on adult development rather than starting in right away with efforts to reach students.
I’m reminded of a principal in Connecticut who was part of a districtwide rollout of RULER. On Day One of the training, he seemed pretty disengaged. When I approached him at lunch, he said he just couldn’t imagine the successful integration of emotional intelligence in his school. But at the end of the second day, when I checked in with him again, he told me, “I realize now that I just didn’t know what I didn’t know.” I asked him to stand and share one takeaway with the group. He looked around the room at his colleagues — about a hundred in all — teared up and said, “Thank you for giving me the permission to feel.”
KAPPAN: Does RULER get much resistance from educators or parents who have cultural or religious objections to your approach? For example, has anybody rejected your assistance because they believe that boys should be taught to be assertive and stoic or that girls should learn to be passive and obedient?
BRACKETT: We haven’t faced that kind of wholesale rejection of emotional intelligence, but we do struggle to ensure that RULER is being implemented in culturally responsive ways. In our training for educators, we try to make sure they understand the need to be careful in how they interpret emotional cues — if a student tends to gaze off into space, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re sad or distracted or disrespectful; perhaps, for example, they’ve been raised in a culture where it’s considered appropriate to avert one’s gaze when talking with authority figures. People are always tempted to make assumptions about each other’s motives, but at least we can encourage them to think of themselves as emotional scientists — doing their best to observe and understand — rather than rush to judgment about people’s emotions.
Planning for the long term
KAPPAN: How long does it take to implement RULER fully? Do you expect to work with a school for six months or closer to six years?
BRACKETT: It varies. At some schools, people are ready immediately to start thinking about ways to improve their emotional intelligence and climate, and at other schools it will take a while for people to become comfortable talking about emotional issues at all. That’s why part of the training that we offer is designed to help school teams figure out an implementation plan that will work best for their needs.
KAPPAN: How do you sustain your work in schools that have a lot of teacher and administrator turnover or in schools where the student population is constantly shifting, due to absences and student mobility?
BRACKETT: It’s not easy. But we’ve found that it helps to be able to provide resources through the online portal that we built. When a new teacher or principal comes on board, they can access the RULER community, do a crash course on emotional intelligence, and catch up to their colleagues. It also helps that we require each school to have at least three RULER trainers on hand, people who’ve completed our summer institutes at Yale. That ensures some continuity at least.
KAPPAN: What do you think the coming years will hold for the SEL movement in general, for RULER in particular?
BRACKETT: Right now, educational practice is still catching up to the emotional science. But more and more people are coming to recognize that unless kids feel emotionally safe and unless they have the skills and language they need to manage their emotions, they will struggle in and out of school.
I expect this to continue. More people will come to see that students need emotional skills to scaffold other kinds of learning. Further, it looks to me that teacher preparation programs are beginning to infuse more of the research on child development and emotional intelligence into their work. So I’m optimistic that our work will continue to expand. Even from the corporate sector, we’re getting more and more requests for training. Increasingly, employers are recognizing that workers need more than content knowledge and skills. A lot of people are smart enough to succeed at work, but they fall apart when they get tough feedback, when someone disagrees with them, or when they have to run a team and someone challenges them. None of these skills were included in our schools’ traditional emphasis on readin’, ‘ritin’ and ‘rithmetic. But it’s becoming clear to most people that we need to integrate emotional skills into the curriculum in order for youth to reach their full potential.
RAFAEL HELLER (firstname.lastname@example.org) is managing editor/content of Phi Delta Kappan magazine.