A Schoolwide Approach to Developing Emotional Intelligence

Summer 2018

By Christina Kim, J. B. Whittenburg

Independent schools have long recognized emotional intelligence as a positive force in the development of children. Now, in our globally connected world, emotional intelligence—the ability to manage one’s own emotions and perceive the emotions of others—is revered as an essential skill for leadership, business, and everyday life, alongside critical thinking, drive, passion, and focus. “The case can be made scientifically,” writes Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. “Helping children improve their self-awareness and confidence, manage their disturbing emotions and impulses, and increase their empathy pays off not just in improved behavior but in measurable academic achievement.” Research and data have proven that it enhances academic and classroom performance, health, success, and conflict resolution—and leads to healthy, happy, successful individuals.

For more than two decades, The Willows Community School (CA) has remained firmly committed to the progressive tenet of whole-child education, where both emotional intelligence and academic excellence are valued as essential to the school’s definition of a “great mind.” While these efforts have helped maintain a supportive, caring community and school culture, we have noticed the same uptick in anxiety and emotional distress that independent and other schools—and society in general—have reported recently. Current studies have found approximately 10 percent of school-aged children suffer from some form of anxiety-related disorder.

To respond to this increased emotional turbulence, we started on a journey four years ago to find an approach that would codify and coordinate our schoolwide efforts to support the needs of our various community members. This journey began when Lisa Rosenstein, head of school, attended a California Association of Independent Schools conference workshop led by Marc Brackett, director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, about RULER, the Center’s evidence-based approach to integrating emotional intelligence in schools and curriculum. “When I discovered RULER, I immediately knew that this would be a perfect fit with Willows’ mission and philosophy,” Rosenstein says. “It was apparent that it would integrate well with our DK-8 curriculum and developmental goals for our children.”

The Approach

RULER is a school-based, social and emotional learning approach that is grounded in theory and evidence gathered over decades of research and implementation in schools across the country. RULER is an acronym:
  • Recognizing emotions in self and others
  • Understanding the causes and consequences of emotions
  • Labeling emotions accurately
  • Expressing emotions appropriately
  • Regulating emotions effectively
Implementing RULER in classrooms involves a toolkit of regulating strategies that are integrated into class routines and activities. For example, students are taught to use four anchor tools such as the “Mood Meter” to help them accurately label and understand their current emotional state. Later, students engage with the “Feeling Words Curriculum” that teachers and students use to develop a more precise and nuanced vocabulary surrounding emotions.

While there are specific tools that need to be explicitly taught, RULER is not a separate curriculum, but rather an approach to be integrated into what schools are already doing. This approach appealed to Willows school leaders because it offers a flexible framework and versatile tools for faculty, staff, administrators, parents, and students to use and adapt in daily life. It offers our school community a unified, sophisticated language and method to identify emotions in ourselves and others, to appropriately manage and communicate feelings, and to build respect and stronger connections.

Initial Implementation

As we initially engaged with the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, we soon discovered another compatible element: its approach to professional development (PD). Over the past decade, we have developed a PD model at Willows that seeks to provide a balance of visiting speakers sharing outside expertise and workshops led by Willows teachers instructing their fellow faculty members. The Yale Center employs a similar strategy with its Train-the-Trainer model for implementing RULER, first training teams of educators on site at Yale who then implement what they’ve learned in their respective schools.

In the summer of 2015, Rosenstein and a group of five administrators and teachers attended a two-day “Anchors of Emotional Intelligence” institute at Yale, and then conducted their own RULER training with Willows faculty during our first in-service day of the new school year. From this point on, our RULER team, guided by an implementation coach from Yale, began to integrate the approach into classrooms and bring elements of RULER into the interdisciplinary curriculum throughout the day.

Although the process seemed daunting at first, the classroom teachers soon realized it wasn’t another new program that they had to find a place for in their schedules, but instead a supplement that fostered deeper connections and conversations. The teachers’ confidence grew in their roles as RULER trainers, and they were able to extend support to other teachers based on their experiences. Each RULER trainer was assigned to work closely with two or three grade levels and supported teachers through classroom observations, modeling lesson plans, and sharing ideas and resources. The RULER team continues to support teachers as they implement RULER in classrooms and by working with students (individually or in small groups).

Integration in the School Community

Schools often become enamored with a new, exciting trend (such as grit or growth mindset) and seek out a program or additional curriculum to hand to teachers and ask them to incorporate it into their classrooms. This is not the case, however, with RULER.

One of the first activities our RULER team led faculty through was the creation of a faculty charter. The charter is a collaborative document intended to establish a supportive and productive environment for learning in schools. In creating this document, according to the RULER website, community members outline “how they want to feel at school, the behaviors that foster those feelings, and guidelines for preventing and managing unwanted feelings and conflict.” Our collaborative faculty charter writing began at the ideal time for integrating this kind of work: the beginning of the school year, before the students arrived, when our minds were fresh and ready to focus on what we aspire to be as a school community. Once teachers created a faculty charter, they could then take it into their own classrooms and use it as a jumping-off point to create class charters with their students as part of the work of establishing a positive, collaborative environment that naturally takes place during the first weeks of school.

Helping students with conflict resolution was another natural RULER integration point. Recently, a fourth-grade student was upset about a conflict with a friend in class. The student said she usually felt “left out and sad” and felt like she had no best friend. Using a tool called the Blueprint (see right), we helped her map out her feelings, exploring what led to the conflict, how she felt, what she did to regulate and communicate her feelings, and also how the conflict might appear from the other person’s perspective.

This really helped the student step back and unpack the situation. She realized that when she got into a situation with other students, her first response was to cry or get upset and go to a teacher. We discussed some other strategies she could use prior to going to the teacher. Together, we decided on strategies for managing conflict such as calming down by finding a friend or going for a quick walk, taking a break to drink water, and using an “I statement” to express how she felt about what happened, rather than blaming or thinking, “Why is she always so mean to me?”

We followed up with the student’s classroom teachers so they could reinforce this plan. After a few weeks, the student told the teachers that her calming-down strategies before re-engaging her friends worked, and that she was feeling happier and more positive about her relationship with her friends.

We’ve also seamlessly integrated other aspects of the RULER approach into classroom activities throughout the school. For example, the “Feeling Words” curriculum, a series of developmentally appropriate lessons designed to help students and teachers discuss the full range of human emotions, connected perfectly with Willows’ language arts instruction. Students develop empathy and critical-thinking skills through discussions and writing assignments describing the emotions and motivations driving characters throughout the literature they engage with daily. One recent middle school assignment asked students to choose a feeling word sophisticated enough for seventh grade for a short writing piece analyzing different characters in the novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. One teacher remarked that using RULER with both fiction and nonfiction texts has made the people they read about “no longer just characters in a novel, textbook, or newspaper article, but also human beings who, just like a seventh-grader, make both good and bad decisions that often come from an emotional place.”

We see myriad interdisciplinary connections schoolwide as well. Art displays reflecting the colors and emotions of the Mood Meter appear in various hallways, and this year, at our annual poetry night event, upper elementary students presented an original work comprised of poetry, instrumental music, dance, and movement entitled, The Window of Emotions. And as we work with students in our makerLabs and designLab to incorporate design-thinking principles into their cross-curricular projects, we emphasize the importance of understanding the needs and feelings of the people for whom they are designing. For example, middle school students recently undertook a project to design and build new multiuse furniture for DK-2 students, and they interviewed 4-, 5- and 6-year-olds about what kind of designs would work best for them.

From the beginning of our RULER implementation, we’ve been focused on sharing with parents what we’ve learned about the importance of emotional intelligence. Each school year we hold parent workshops for families, sometimes specifically on the various anchor tools related to RULER and other times on similar topics such as emotional regulation and executive functioning. Members of our RULER team have helped lead parent events, often in partnership with faculty members at UCLA and Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. This school year, we brought Marc Brackett back to Willows to lead our very first family workshop, where parents and children came together to create a family charter aimed at creating a positive emotional climate at home similar to what we strive for at school.

The Impact

According to Yale’s research on RULER’s impact, schools that adopt the approach have more positive climates, including a 10 to 15 percent difference in:
  • Emotional climate: greater levels of student engagement, enthusiasm and independence; fewer conduct and behavior problems; more respectful, caring, and positive interactions among teachers and students
  • Instructional support: deeper levels of critical thinking, more constructive feedback
  • Classroom organization: more highly developed lessons and disciplinary practices that keep the classroom predictable, efficient, and goal oriented
At Willows, we are working on a survey of parents, students, and faculty about the effectiveness of RULER, but anecdotally we have noticed greater empathy, inclusivity, and communication among all members of our community. Our faculty speaks most often about how important it is for us to have the common language RULER provides to help us support our students and each other as we develop better emotional intelligence.

In addition to affecting students’ emotional development, this schoolwide approach has also had a positive impact on our teachers. As most of us well know, teaching is an emotional labor, and developing emotional intelligence ultimately helps teachers understand how to regulate their own workday and find ways to regulate emotions so they are able to take care of themselves as well as their students. One teacher recently spoke about how he feels more equipped to build a solid rapport with his students, and that RULER has given him better tools for how to respond to students when they share with him how they’re feeling, both inside and outside class.

The road, however, was not always smooth and easy. Although RULER is designed to be integrated into current curriculum, the approach may not necessarily seem natural or organic at first, especially as teachers get accustomed to new tools and terminology. As with anything new that schools take on, it takes time for the true impact to be felt. For one particular kindergarten teacher who was not fully on board at first, he began to see the value of RULER in action once he put the tools to work both in his classroom and at home.

“Kindergarten is a very ‘I’ and ‘me’ age, so RULER offers students daily help with reading other people, gaining empathy, and gives them strategies to help out other friends, as opposed to just focusing on themselves,” he says. “When my wife and I brought RULER into our home it also allowed my boys to open up, and we had much more of a dialogue. It took them out of the situation and enabled them to talk about tantrums and screaming matches, to pinpoint how they are feeling—not just sad, but more descriptive words like nervous or worried.”

Because of the impact this teacher has seen in his classroom and his family, he recently decided to join the RULER team and help support fellow teachers with their integration going forward.

The impact of RULER on parents and families has been most heartening; we have heard feedback from many parents who feel they are developing an even stronger partnership with the school and their children’s teachers. At parent-teacher conferences, parents appreciate hearing not only social-emotional challenges and goals but also specific RULER-based strategies that can be used to help their children both at school and at home. Parents have also called out family assignments connected to the Feeling Words curriculum, saying that they appreciated the opportunity to have a meaningful conversation with their kids about a specific feeling along with a story they may not have thought to share otherwise.

Emotions profoundly influence everyday life, and as we continue to develop emotional intelligence as a community at Willows, we’ve been sharing our experience in social-emotional workshops at various conferences as well as reaching out to other schools to invite interested faculty and administration to visit our campus to see RULER in action. We love sharing how this valuable work leads to healthy, happy, successful students and a productive school community. ▪

Read More
For additional insight and perspective on emotional intelligence and social-emotional learning, check out these Independent Ideas blog posts:
It’s Time to Listen” by Marc Brackett
Emotional Intelligence Needs a Moral Rudder” by Vicki Zakrzewski
Digital Citizenship and Social-Emotional Skills Are Inseparable” by Devorah Heitner
Christina Kim

Christina Kim is director of student life and leader of the RULER team at The Willows Community School in Culver City, California.

J. B. Whittenburg

J.B. Whittenburg is dean of interdisciplinary studies at The Willows Community School in Culver City, California.